By: James Montesano, Nyack Public Schools, with Sara Stoutland, Independent Consultant
The Nyack Public Schools have been working to close achievement gaps for years. We are a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse district, located about 30 miles north of New York City. As a community, we are proud of our diversity, and we are also deeply troubled by persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. We have disproportionate outcomes by race/ethnicity and socio-economic status in AP classes, suspensions, and special education identification.
In the past, we addressed these gaps by establishing targeted programs aimed at students who were not performing up to their potential— students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Through these efforts, we saw some improvement in graduation rates and Regents examination scores— but the changes were incremental.
We needed a new strategy. We had to turn away from the “fix the kid” mentality and turn toward fixing the system and addressing institutional racism. We stopped asking why these students were barely afloat in the river, and instead looked upstream to see what caused these students to enter the river in the first place. In particular, we wanted to know more about the roles adults might be playing in creating, fostering, and codifying these circumstances.
To begin, we sought more information from our students, to learn more about their own views, to find the seeds of the solution. We wanted to learn how they perceived circumstances in their schools. How did students of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic status (SES), gender, sexuality, and religious backgrounds experience everyday life at school and their schools’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion? How were these different experiences influencing their social, emotional, and academic learning?
In fall 2018, we partnered with Tripod Education Partners to better understand existing conditions in our schools and identify high-leverage opportunities for change. We administered Tripod’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) survey to all our sixth through twelfth grade students. The survey includes the full range of critical issues:
- School Commitment to DEI. Sample item: How true is the following statement. At this school, everyone tries hard to make all types of people feel included.
- School Climate Overall. Sample item: For the pair of adjectives, select the option that best describes your school this year: safe vs unsafe.
- School Climate for DEI. Sample item: For each pair of adjectives, select the option that best describes your school this year: Most fair to white students vs equally fair to students of all racial/ethnic backgrounds?
- Classroom Teaching Supporting DEI. Sample item: This year at school, how many of your teachers assigned materials or readings about people from different backgrounds or places.?
- Co-Curricular Activities Supporting DEI. Sample item: This year at school, how frequently have you attended a school-sponsored event related to diversity, fairness, or including (for example, a cultural celebration, diversity fair, or art performance)?
- Everyday Discrimination by Students and by Teachers. Sample items: This year at school, how often have students treated you with less courtesy than other students? This year at school, how often have teachers treated you with less courtesy than other students?
- Meaningful Interactions Across Difference. Sample item: This year at school, how often have you shared personal feelings or had an honest discussion outside of class with students whose race (skin color) is different than your own?
Accessing our results through online dashboards, we quickly learned more about our students’ identities. For example, we learned that approximately four percent of our sixth through twelfth graders identify their gender as non-binary, and nearly twenty percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).
As my team and I dug deeper, the dashboard allowed us to look at the data in so many ways. At times, the information was overwhelming, but we now understood that students’ experiences at our schools often differed by identity. We focused on results that provided insights into the role of staff in shaping students’ experiences. For example, we learned the following:
- Black students and students from low SES backgrounds rated their school’s overall climate, as well as climate for DEI, as less positive than did white students or students from moderate or high SES backgrounds.
- Transgender students reported that their teachers more often treated them less courteously than non-transgender students.
- Students from low-SES backgrounds reported significantly more everyday discrimination from students than their schoolmates from moderate to high SES backgrounds.
- LGBTQ students were less likely to believe that classroom teaching supported DEI and were less likely to participate in co-curricular activities supporting DEI than heterosexual students.
These findings were troubling because results from these measures have been shown to be associated with important student outcomes such as belonging, conduct, attendance, and school satisfaction. Yet we were hopeful, because, now that we knew more about students’ perceptions, district staff could take action to change these outcomes.
Survey data in hand, and with qualitative data from focus groups, we were now in a better position to address inequities throughout the system. We chose to turn the mirror inward – away from seeing the students as the problem – and look at implicit biases in our staff’s everyday interactions and district practices.
This spring, we had a full day “Equity Visioning” session for all staff, where we presented the survey and focus group findings to provide a deep and accurate picture of current conditions in our schools. Through brainstorming and discussion, we asked participants to consider, “What do our schools need to look like? What does the staff want the schools to be?” There was also a community forum with a similar format, to capture feedback from parents and other key stakeholders.
These Equity Visioning sessions, along with related work, helped us to justify a budget for a district Equity office and school-based E(quity)-Teams. We developed a four-pillar structure for the district’s equity work:
- Culturally-Responsive Workforce: Provide professional development on how to be culturally responsive and aware of implicit bias to all staff from the superintendent to cafeteria workers and custodians.
- Teaching and Learning: Ensure Black and Hispanic students, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ, see themselves in the curriculum.
- Family and Community Engagement: Work to engage more parents, especially families of color and low-income families who have not been historically active or engaged.
- District Policy: Review district and school policies for potential bias.
The Tripod DEI survey results have allowed us to push these plans forward by providing reliable and valid data. The data do not blame anyone. Rather, the data provide accurate information on existing conditions from the students’ point of view. That is the place to start—the place from which to move deeper into the system to fix the system. I look forward to continuing to monitor our progress and know that, working together to combat inequity, we will help all our students succeed.
Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Borowski, T. (2018). Equity & social and emotional learning: A cultural analysis Frameworks Brief. Chicago, IL: Collaborative on Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.