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When planning for reopening, schools should keep issues of race and equity in focus

June 24, 2020
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As schools prepare to reopen this fall, educators have a unique opportunity to center issues of race and equity that have long plagued school systems around the country. The pandemic further exposed those inequities but also disrupted the education system in a way that makes it ripe for change.

“Now is the time to question our fundamental assumptions about schooling and how schools either support or hinder racial justice,” says Candice Bocala, Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer and director of the Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools Project (RIDES), which recently hosted a webinar about how educators can focus on race and equity in the pandemic. “Rather than ‘go back to normal,’ we must dramatically reimagine how schools can better support all students to achieve strong academics, a sense of belonging, a commitment to dismantling racism, and an appreciation of diversity. To do this, educators must keep a focus on equity, which requires having conversations about race in our schools.”

It’s a pivotal moment to address longstanding issues of racism and inequity in school systems. RIDES, an initiative at HGSE that investigates and identifies a common vision for developing equitable, diverse, and truly integrated schools, outlined ways in which educators can continue to move forward on such efforts without losing momentum as new structures begin to take shape for fall.

Recognize the effect of existing systemic racism and inequity at hand. If educators are unable to identify racism and inequities as part of a great systemic issue, then it becomes difficult to challenge and dismantle it. That’s why the first step is seeing and naming it, says Darnisa Amante-Jackson, president and cofounder of Disruptive Equity Education Project. “An individual or team or school system that cannot call a system by its name ends up externalizing [blame] to people,” she says. “We blame the people for the thing the system has manifested.”

Invest in your self-growth. The more work you do on yourself, the more equity will manifest itself. While everyone has bias, you have the power to address the bias in yourself. “If all you ever do in this whole lifetime is dismantle yourself, then you have fully dismantled a whole system and can model the changes we are asking other leaders and teachers to do,” Amante-Jackson says.

Reflect on your organization. Ask yourself what you want to hold onto from before coronavirus, and what you want to change within your organization in order to become more effective at truly being equitable. “Change and improvement is made by individuals but is sustained when supported by organizations,” says Lee Teitel, founder of and senior consultant for RIDES.

Keep equity and race at the center of conversations and decision making. Mary Antón, a former principal who now coaches educators in issues of race and equity, stresses that race and equity work is a mindset shift for educators — that we need to be thinking of “equity” as the thread that weaves through absolutely everything we do. “Sometimes, we are very aware of it and foster it. Other times inequity takes over the thread … . And inequity can be there, because we don’t see it, don’t name it, and don’t unravel it,” she says. “Every individual has a capacity to thread equity through the ‘little e’ decisions in everyday life to make a difference and make change.”  

Questions to be considered for your school may include: How will you social distance in the classrooms? How are you grouping children? Who is privileged in the room? Whose comfort are we looking out for? Which families are we supporting? What voices are at the table making decisions? Ultimately, Antón says, there are two important questions to ask: “What are you doing to commit as you go forward? What are the resources you need?”

Practice being “inquiry-based” in interactions. Ask questions instead of reacting if someone makes a suggestion that seems dubious. Try to respond from a sense of wonder. For example, "I wonder if I should ask for an explanation about what they really mean."

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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 School Leadership