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Leaders struggle between equality and equity in Edgecombe schools

In their continued effort to seek community input, Edgecombe County Public Schools held a forum last week focused on educational equity.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Educational Equity, made up of local board of education members, students, educators, parents, policymakers, and faith-based leaders, is beginning work that will inform the district’s new strategic plan. The general public was asked to get involved early on in the process.

“We are here tonight to work towards creating a shared vision for educational equity,” Erin Swanson, director of innovation at ECPS, said to a crowd of about 70 attendees in North Edgecombe High’s cafeteria. “Essentially, what that means is that every child in our school system gets what he or she needs to thrive. And we feel, and I know you all feel, that we have a moral imperative as a school system and as a community to ensure that that happens.”

James Ford, a former Charlotte teacher, the state’s 2014-15 Teacher of the Year, and a current program director at the Public School Forum, opened up the night by introducing and defining the concept of equity.

Ford explained that his background is a driving force behind the work he now does. As an African-American student in the schools of Rockford, Illinois, Ford was part of the integration experiment in the 1980s.

“I watched how the river that separates sides of town didn’t just separate sides of town,” Ford said. “It separated access to resources and opportunity. It separated racial groups and classes.”

Ford said he learned from a young age that division is unhealthy not just for the most disadvantaged groups, but for a city’s entire population. Rockford now holds some unflattering titles. It is among the nation’s most dangerous, most racially unequal, and most uneducated areas.

“Unfortunately, my city is reaping the fruits of those very bad decisions and not responding to those (issues),” Ford said.

Ford’s role at the Public School Forum focuses on the topics he faced early in his life and continued to talk about on a statewide level as Teacher of the Year. Educational equity, he said, can be looked at through some main indicators: race, class, English language learners, special education, and LGBTQ issues.

Ford said past movements have focused on treating everyone equally despite differences.

“Usually, when we talk about creating an even playing field for everybody, we use the term ‘equality,'” Ford said. “On its face, that sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

But when different students have diverse sets of needs — some of them more severe than others — Ford said equal treatment results in unequal realities for children.

“Equity takes a more nuanced look at what the diverse needs of our children are,” Ford said. “Equity is a certain kind of equality. It’s an equality of opportunity. And that’s something different.”

Throughout the night, as panelists took questions from the audience on how educators can work towards equity, that same idea kept emerging — the difference between equality and equity.

The panel consisted of Ford; Representative Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Chapel Hill; director of The Franklinton Center at Bricks Vivian Lucas, and North Edgecombe principal Donnell Cannon.

In addition to serving in the legislature, Meyer runs an education-oriented organization called The Equity Collaborative. Meyer gave a three-fold definition of equity. Firstly, he said, equity means that student achievement across the board is rising. Secondly, the lowest-performing students’ achievement is accelerating at the quickest rate, Meyer said. Thirdly, he said equity means “eliminating the predictability of achievement based on race.”

“The key to that third piece is, when I walk into a classroom, I shouldn’t be able to predict whether it is special education or gifted depending on the complexion of the kids’ skin in the classroom,” Meyer said.

Cannon talked about how different children arrive at school with different challenges. He said those challenges shouldn’t limit their futures.

“Students’ futures shouldn’t be defined by their zip codes,” Cannon said.

Larger societal issues, like access to health care, food insecurity, and poverty, Cannon said, affect students’ lives and learning.

“Our students are dealing with stress … which, again, finds its way to seep into our kids’ cognitive operating and ability to show up in classrooms and perform,” Cannon said.

Cannon said these kinds of external stressors can affect students’ impulse control, emotional regulation, attention management, ability to prioritize tasks, and working memory.

“I think these are things that again, we have to address,” he said, adding that just as important is turning around students’ mindsets, eliminating a “sense of learned helplessness,” and helping students believe in their potential.

Lucas brought a historical perspective to the conversation. The Franklinton Center at Bricks, a former slave plantation turned school in Whitakers, was one of the first accredited educational institutions for African Americans in the country in 1895. Lucas said many of the country’s systems, including education, still do not create opportunities for those who are disadvantaged.

“The truth of the matter is that the systems, the infrastructures, in place are behind when it comes to understanding where people come out of, what people value,” Lucas said.

She said rural students, especially students of color, need exposure and resources, and that those who are not in a minority group often have difficulty understanding the lack of privilege that African Americans still face.

Meyer asked a related question: “How do well-intentioned people create inequitable results?”

He said it is obvious that individuals do not want to harm children when they enter the teaching profession, and most people want what’s best for kids. But, Meyer said, there are two main causes of perpetuating systems that keep disadvantaged students at the bottom.

The first, he said, has to do with “cultural schema,” or the belief systems and communication patterns of a certain group of people.

“In general, we expect the kids to meet the cultural schema of the school and the school system rather than the school system trying to meet the cultural schema of the kids,” Meyer said, “which is really what it takes to educate anyone.”

The second main hinderance in reaching equity in schools is the biases each person carries with them, specifically racial biases that Meyer said are built into society.

“Ultimately, in this society, what it comes down to, is we believe that white people are smarter than black people and everybody else falls somewhere in between,” Meyer said. “And when I say ‘we,’ I mean I know that I have internalized those things as a white person, but those things are internalized by every person of every color in this society. And when we’re in schools and we perpetuate a system that is built on that belief that one group of people are smarter and more deserving than all other groups of people, then that’s how you perpetuate a system, even unintentionally.”

Meyer said it’s critical to recognize and stop those biases on an individual and broader level.

“So what do you have to do to interrupt your own bias, the collective bias in school, the systemic bias of the school system, the political bias that exists at my level, all of those things,” he said. “And it ain’t easy.”

Shelley Armour, an agriculture teacher at Southwest Edgecombe High and Edgecombe’s current Teacher of the Year, said she struggles with talking about issues of race and equity. She said she admits that, as a white person, it’s hard to escape from the “treat everyone equally” mindset. Armour said she’s hesitant to give more attention to some students than others for fear of seeming unfair.

“We were taught for so long about equality that maybe we missed equity,” Armour said. “Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

Armour said she knows the solution is going to take looking at the whole child, whole parent, and whole teacher. She said knowing each student’s individual needs — through building trusting relationships with students — is something she prioritizes.

“They aren’t little characters,” Armour said. “They are people with different backgrounds.”

Tuesday was the first of three town hall meetings the commission is holding in Edgecombe schools over the next few months. The other two will tackle the topics of talent/human capital and educating the whole child.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.