Commentary: As Education Leaders Plan for Fall, They Must Look Beyond COVID Toward Making Dramatic Changes to Protect Students of Color

Nancy Gutiérrez and Mary Rice-Boothe

As we read return-to-school plans from states and school districts across the country, we see guidance on social distancing, on hallway traffic patterns, on maximizing indoor and outdoor spaces and taking temperature checks.

Of course, all of this is important for safeguarding students and staff against COVID-19. But as leaders prepare for a new school year that already requires dramatic changes, what long-needed steps are they taking to protect the Black students, Indigenous students and students of color whom our systems have disproportionately failed for generations?

Whether you are a teacher, a principal, a superintendent or a school board member, consider what you will say to students who say life was better in the spring, when they were not in school. What will you tell students who were relieved to have a break from constant reprimands from in-school police and out-of-school punishments from teachers or principals who did not take the time to get to know them? What will be different for students who were glad for the time to read or write what interests them, rather than sit in a classroom counting the seconds until the bell rang, because they could not relate to and were not challenged by the material being taught? Who will wonder why all the great literature they are reading was written by white people, and why the inventors, scientists and mathematicians they learn about are all white?

How will you protect each of your students from the deeply embedded racist practices that have prevented so many Black and Indigenous students and students of color from getting access to the education they need and deserve? How will we move away from, as Abolitionist Teaching Network founder Bettina Love says, “managing inequality” with reforms that measure students against the barriers that have been in their way for so long, and instead abolish systems and conditions that do not work for Black, Indigenous and people of color?

The two forces that have overtaken our nation – COVID-19 and the long-needed outcries against systemic racism – demand a new way of leading schools. These forces have laid bare and exacerbated the inequities and disparities that have lived in the bones of our school systems for generations.

We need a new kind of education system — an equitable, anti-racist system

At the NYC Leadership Academy, we have defined “equity” as ensuring that every child and adult in a school community has what they need within an environment intentionally built for them to achieve academic, social and emotional success, regardless of race, ethnicity, language or other characteristics of their identity. Achieving this, being anti-racist, requires flipping current systems and structures on their heads. Consider what this could look like:

Rather than staff police in schools, increase counselor teams and other supports to meet students’ needs, as districts such as Denver, Milwaukee, Oakland and Portland have done.

Rather than use a stock curriculum, devise one that is more student-directed, as Baltimore has done through an extensive community process.

Rather than track students, determine how they can work at their own pace, whether they are in school or learning remotely, as Walla Walla High School in Washington has done.

Rather than rely on standardized tests, give students assignments that create opportunities to develop and showcase the skills they need after high school, like critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving, as this consortium of high schools in New York state does and as the Abolitionist Teaching Network calls for.

Rather than follow the farmers’ calendar, consider schedules that better align with family work schedules and students’ social and emotional needs, as this district in British Columbia plans to do with quads this year.

Rather than rely on school boundaries that promote segregation, create policies that desegregate schools, such as by redrawing district lines or separating students’ school assignments from their neighborhoods.

Rather than use school board elections that favor candidates with resources, reimagine how board members are selected to ensure that they reflect the demographics of the students they are serving.

We need a new kind of education leader — a culturally responsive leader

Making these kinds of systemic changes requires leaders who recognize the impact of institutionalized racism and embrace their role in mitigating, disrupting and dismantling systemic oppression. Leaders like this must first work on themselves by reflecting on their biases and beliefs. Only then can they move to publicly modeling belief systems grounded in equity; being responsive to, and inclusive of, student and staff cultural identities when making decisions; confronting and changing institutional biases that marginalize students; and finally, creating systems and structures that promote equity, particularly for traditionally marginalized students. These steps make up the NYC Leadership Academy’s equity dispositions, which we have woven throughout our newly revised leadership actions that we use to guide development of aspiring principals, principals, principal supervisors and superintendents. To reach equity, to have a culturally responsive school and district, these expectations must be aligned and consistent at every level of leadership.

We recently added a sixth equity disposition that is essential for doing this work: purposefully building the capacity of others to identify and disrupt inequities. Disrupting and dismantling systems of oppression requires a team — it cannot rest on one leader. Culturally responsive work must permeate classrooms, grade-level teams, content teams, school buildings and school systems. If some adults in a school continue to do daily harm to students because they are unaware of their biases, of their microaggressions, the system’s failures will continue.

Consider the dramatic and much-needed changes a culturally responsive leader and team could facilitate: Rather than limit decision-making to the superintendent’s cabinet or principal’s leadership team, create space for students, families and community members to have shared voice and influence. Des Moines recently did this by hosting virtual town hall meetings at which leaders asked students and families, “What questions should we be asking to address racism in our system?”

Rather than base grading policies on attendance and tests, grade on effort and mastery of skills and standards.

Rather than place teachers in classes based on seniority, assign teachers based on which students need the most support.

Rather than hire educators who are Black, Indigenous and people of color to be disciplinarians and culture experts, hire them to be instructional leaders.

Rather than have adults lead the learning, enable students to lead their own learning.

The changes schools need this fall are not just about protecting students and staff from COVID-19. This is a critical moment to create the school experience that Black students, Indigenous students and students of color have been denied for far too long.

Nancy Gutiérrez is president & CEO of NYC Leadership Academy. Mary Rice-Boothe is chief access & equity officer of NYC Leadership Academy.

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