Equity work

Rainey Briggs, director of elementary education for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, walks by and listens to members of the DeForest Area School Board consider the impact of two of their school policies on equity at the second session of the Dane County Equity Consortium. The event was held Wednesday, Jan. 15, at Windsor Elementary School.

School districts in Dane County are recognizing how crucial equity is in education.

A second session of the Dane County Equity Consortium was held Wednesday, Jan. 15, at Windsor Elementary School. DeForest Area School Board President Jan Berg got a lot out of it.

“My takeaways … (are) that equity is an important and urgent topic; that it is time for systemic, sustainable change to occur; that the DASD and the other Dane County school districts are committed to addressing inequities; that workshops such as these help us learn, to learn from each other, to share information, to move forward together, and support each other’s efforts; and that this is hard work that requires time and thought,” said Berg.

Area school board members and officials met to go over equity issues in schools and work to even the playing field for minority students. They focused on studying some of their own policies to see if they were falling short as far as equity is concerned.

Members of the DeForest Area School Board attended the event and brought two policies for review: one regarding district-sponsored clubs and the other targeting suspensions and expulsions. The consortium is expected to continue its equity work with more such sessions.

“We looked at the suspensions and expulsions policy and used it as a jumping off point to talk about having a policy on equity or equitable treatment of students, staff, parents and the community,” said Berg. “If we had such a policy we talked about what kind of evidence there might be that the equitable practices were occurring. Some of the student results we currently monitor on student achievement have some evidence.”They also talked about creating an equity statement, an idea proposed by Percy Brown and Rainey Briggs, both of whom ran the Jan. 15 program. Berg said some of those ideas were included in a statement the district adopted fairly recently that it uses to welcome people into the district.

Additionally, Berg said board members thought about how to “bring the equity lens” to its own monitoring reports and information about the district.

A sheet was provided to attendees at the Jan. 15 session that detailed equitable criteria for decision-making. Berg said they thought it would be a good idea to have that sheet in front of board members at each meeting.

“If an equity statement is developed it was opined that that should be recited at the beginning of each board meeting along with the vision and mission statements,” said Berg.

Officials from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards were also at the Jan. 15 event. Executive Director John H. Ashley found it interesting.

“It’s a little unusual to tackle something like this in such a communal fashion,” said Ashley.

Ashley said he could think of only one other similar arrangement in the state. School districts in suburban Milwaukee have gotten together to address achievement gaps.

The equity issue is an important one, said Ashley.

“What’s important for different sized districts is that what works well for a rural district may not work for an affluent suburban district, but it’s important that we realize we have many more similarities than differences,” said Ashley.

Brown, the director of equity and student achievement for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District and a resident of DeForest, stressed that collaboration between different groups of people is necessary to solve equity problems.“If we do not work together, I don’t see these things changing,” said Brown.

Brown took attendees on a journey through the history of race relations in America, including the assassinations of black leaders, the effects of policies like redlining and legislation such as 1790’s The Naturalization Act and 1862’s Homestead Act, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution added in 1965 that abolished slavery, and landmark Supreme Court rulings, such as Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Brown also talked about Wisconsin’s “inconvenient truth,” noting that in Dane County there is an average household income gap of $60,000 per year between black and white households of four. He also spoke on recent reports suggesting that Wisconsin is the most segregated state in America, and that the history of Dane County includes the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s in Madison, redlining in Madison in the 1930s that produced segregated housing and the prevalence of “sundown towns” throughout the county and the state, where blacks were not welcome after dark.

The consequences of implicit bias – defined as the attitudes and stereotypes that unconsciously affect understanding, actions and decisions – against people of color were also outlined, as Brown explained how it leads to low expectations for minorities, how it negatively affects the culture and climate in schools and influences hiring practices.

Brown also said he believes that “education is the new civil rights movement” and that transformational change can happen in Dane County. He and Briggs, the director of elementary education for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, talked about the differences between equity and anti-discrimination policies. What equity should mean, they said, is that every student should get what they need to reach their full potential.

“There are many things students and educators need,” said Briggs. “If they’re not getting it, maybe our schools are not functioning the way we want them to.”

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