As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, SISD kicked off a five-year equity initiative last summer, which included the creation of an Equity Action Plan Committee and the commissioning of an equity audit on the school district by an outside consulting firm to provide data and analysis, among other key tenets. On May 11, Chris Finn, a senior education specialist with Cambridge Education, and Carron Staple, an educational consultant with Cambridge Education, presented the preliminary findings of their equity study to the SISD board of trustees.
Throughout the four-month data collection process, which took place from January through April, Cambridge Education interviewed 26 SISD leaders, met with 21 diverse focus groups, conducted eight virtual school visits, collected more than 100 data sheets and documents, and deployed more than 45,000 surveys to district parents, staff and students in grades 6-12.
A more detailed report will be delivered to district officials by the end of the month.
According to the report, SISD has several practices already in place that support overall equity. Some of these highlights include high expectations at schools of choice; the district's partnership with The Holdsworth Center for leadership training; educational programs and partnerships as well as grants that support academic and social-emotional needs of all students; the Family Engagement Office's multi-media district communications; and district outreach efforts to connect families with food, technology and other wraparound services.
Additionally, the report showed that a majority of students feel safe and respected by their peers and teachers, and that most parents and students feel respected by adults at the school and district levels.
"We have found that all of the people that we spoke to at the district level, they're very committed to equity, they're very committed to the social-emotional and academic needs of students and are doing everything they can to hold themselves accountable for ensuring that all students are receiving equitable outcomes," Staple said.
Areas in need of improvement
However, the study also identified several areas in need of improvement to achieve equity in SISD. Some of these factors include the district's constantly changing curriculum; inconsistent and limited professional learning opportunities on issues of equity, implicit bias, racism, discrimination, disproportionality and the needs of English language learners; and limited professional development opportunities at the school level to address achievement for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities.
Additionally, the report found that social-emotional teaching and learning is not provided consistently across every school and that guidance counselors are often assigned non-counseling duties limiting their abilities to address the needs beyond a student's academic counseling needs.
"Students would never share that they cannot find a counselor or that the counselors are not there; what they shared was that counselors are often required to do more academic counseling ... and they had less time to address [students'] social-emotional issues," Finn said. "And then when speaking with guidance counselors, they spoke to how often they were asked to do things outside of the traditional realm [of counseling] to support the school and to support students, but it would decrease their ability to handle students who were suffering from trauma or experiencing trauma throughout the school day."
Additionally, the study found that some schools exhibit low expectations for English language learners and that there is a disproportionate number of exclusionary disciplinary referrals for Black males and Black males in special education, as well as a disproportionate number of Black students being referred to special education.
Finn said this overrepresentation also affects academics as only 4.3% of Black SISD students are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses this year and only 5.7% participate in the Gifted and Talented program, despite accounting for nearly 40% of SISD's total student population.
"The overrepresentation of [Black] students in special ed and the overrepresentation of [Black] students receiving suspensions or [being] excluded from school can lead to these other things happening consistently in the district," Finn said.
Recommendations to district officials
In addition to these findings, Cambridge Education officials also made several recommendations to district officials. Some of these recommendations include funding at least one at-risk counselor for each campus to work specifically address mental health needs and provide emotional support; providing mandatory district-wide training on implicit bias and culturally-responsive teaching and learning for all employees; reviewing the district's process for referring students to special education; and implementing restorative justice practices into district discipline policies.
"As tough as this conversation is and as hard as some of this is to hear, none of it is news to me," said Justine Durant, Position 3 trustee and board assistant secretary. "I think we have a lot of work to do but I think we're all capable because I think in all of our hearts we want what's best for the kids. ... I'm not discouraged; I'm encouraged and motivated."
SISD Superintendent Rodney Watson said after the final report is received, district officials will work with Cambridge Education officials and the Equity Action Plan Committee to develop a plan to implement the recommendations.
"It takes a lot of boldness for us as a community to get an equity study and to look at ourselves and be transparent with ourselves," Watson said. "I mean, typically, most people don't want to even know this information, let alone see it in an open meeting. I've said since I've been here that I will continue to be transparent because we can't do it alone. We have to work together and that means having conversations transparently [and] understanding what we have to do as district leaders for our community and most importantly, our students. It was hard to hear, but it's us looking in the mirror."