The Waunakee school district’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee reviewed last week the results of an equity audit that suggest several opportunity gaps exist within its schools.

DEI committee members have spent the past nine months conducting the National Education Association (NEA) Opportunity Audit, a comprehensive needs-assessment tool that has been used by districts across the country to identify inequities in their schools and determine the areas in which they should consider devoting a greater amount of attention and resources.

The audit was created after U.S. lawmakers passed the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a measure stipulating that any plans for achieving student success be based on needs assessment, and asks stakeholders to evaluate their school using seven NEA Great Public Schools criteria: school readiness; standards and curriculum; conditions of teaching and learning; workforce quality; accountability and assessments; family and community engagement; and school funding.

A subcommittee of school professionals recommended the NEA Opportunity Audit late last year, as DEI committee members sought a data-driven approach to their work and research suggested that the audit would be most appropriate for what the committee wished to achieve.

“The NEA tool really doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses,” subcommittee member and elementary school psychologist Melanie Meister said. “The only thing we saw was that it could get lengthy.”

Meister’s prediction held true, with the assessment taking nearly a year to complete.

School officials, educators, parents, students and other stakeholders on the committee were asked to consider various elements within each criterion and assign their school a corresponding “score” along the opportunity-audit continuum. Scores ranged from Not Applicable to Flourishing, with a range of scoring options in-between.

WCSD Director of Secondary Curriculum & Instruction Tim Schell, an administrative rep on the committee, presented the results of the audit to DEI members at their Aug. 5 and 16 meetings.

Schell noted that several areas stood out in the assessment.

School readiness

A plurality of committee members identified access to high-quality early learning programs as an emerging area for the Waunakee school district, and one that it should prioritize in years ahead.

The 4K program has been administered at off-site daycare facilities since it began approximately a decade ago.

“Based on our notes, I think more information is required to fully understand if our diverse community is accessing and aware of our 4K programs as well as various wrap-around care options,” one committee member said. “If not, how do we improve access?”

Another member suggested that the district consider ways to improve its communication policies, particularly for families that move to the area during the course of a given school year.

Standards and curriculum

The majority of committee members identified curriculum that addresses the needs of students from diverse backgrounds and abilities as an area that is still emerging as well, and something that the district should prioritize in the near future.

“Looking at our curriculum from the perspective of diverse backgrounds and abilities is a top priority,” one committee member stated. “I believe a deeper dive and evaluation is needed. It may be helpful to access evaluation or perspectives outside our own district to accurately gauge our progress/needs. We may not have the lenses that can be fully inclusive simply due to our own internal bias and/or pressures to be influenced.”

Other committee members suggested that the district update its social-studies curriculum, and that the curriculum be more representative of racial and ethnic minorities.

“I think, in general, there’s not a concern about the ostensible rigor of what our universal curriculum here is in the district,” Schell said. “The question is: Is it accessible and well-presented for students, regardless of background, or is it only accessible and well-presented for students that fit a majority profile?”

Conditions of teaching and learning

Two-thirds of committee members identified their school’s policy for addressing student safety issues – such as bullying, bias-related incidents, and violence against marginalized persons and groups – as an area needing improvement. Several students have reported being subjected to racial slurs at the high school, with little follow-through from staff members notified of those incidents.

The committee has recommended an online reporting tool where users can notify school officials of events involving bias or bigotry as a device that would be helpful.

“This has been sitting out there for a while,” Schell said. “From an administrative standpoint, we were going to introduce a reporting tool this year regardless. It’s not typically the kind of thing we would seek board approval for. However… we’ve also talked about the value of potentially having a third party who was not a member of district administration, or district student services, that might get the report if the reporter decided that they wanted to include this third party. And that enhancement is the type of thing that would probably involve some feedback from the board.”

Workforce quality

Nearly two-thirds of committee members also stated that work with area higher-ed programs to identify and recruit aspiring educators from underrepresented populations was not apparent.

The committee agreed that increasing diversity among district staff should be a priority.

“It has been brought up that we do need to review our hiring policies so we can hire qualified staff that better represents our diverse student body,” one committee member stated.

Accountability and Assessments

The majority of committee members identified college prep and career readiness as an emerging area that the district should prioritize as well. Preparation for standardized college-admission tests such as the ACT and SAT could be better, the committee found.

“Many colleges are saying they are test optional,” one committee member responded. “But until all are, huge inequities will continue to exist between those students who can score higher on the ACT/SAT than others. There (are) many tips and tricks that can help students boost scores and I think all students need to have the opportunity to learn them.”

Suggestions for improvement included providing free ACT prep during normal school hours, and offering scholarships to students who wish to retake the test but cannot afford the fee.

Family and community engagement

The committee noted that a full-time community liaison does not exist, while members were split on the level to which educators and administrators are required to participate in professional development (PD) focused on family and community engagement.

“Teacher/staff training is paramount as that is where it is most likely routine communication and relationship building would form,” one committee member replied. “It would be best to have a liaison who could not only be supportive to the community, but also serve to provide the professional development and coaching to staff.”

Committee members discussed the possibility of incorporating those duties into an existing role, such as that of the current communications director, if an entirely new position were not approved.

School funding

Several committee members identified educators and school administrators having the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the development of multi-year budgets as an area in need of improvement.

One committee member noted that board of education (BOE) members themselves have limited say in the budget process.

“There is little evidence that BOE members even have the ability to participate in meaningful aspects related to budgeting,” the committee member stated. “In short, administration controls budgeting, the BOE approves it. If the BOE does not have a meaningful impact on budget, it is doubtful that staff truly does either.”

The committee was scheduled to meet again on Aug. 23, and will present its recommendations for improvement to the school board in September.

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