District brings forward equity plan
A finding that Rochester Public Schools disproportionately disciplines students of color, sparked strong community reaction last fall.
Early this year, district officials met with community member to talk about what the findings meant for students and to gather feedback from the community. Now community members and the district are partnering to create solutions that don't just focus on discipline — the team set aggressive goals to get more students of color into advanced placement and honors courses, include culturally relevant information in the curriculum and address staff bias.
The goals are paced throughout the next three years, some beginning this fall, and others the district hopes to implement by fall 2017 and 2018.
The district entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Officer for Civil Rights in September, following a five-year compliance review that revealed black and Hispanic students are disproportionately disciplined in the district — black students are disciplined at a rate almost three times their population. OCR will monitor the district for the next three years as it implements some changes that OCR requires like data tracking that the district was not previously doing.
After a couple community input sessions, the district put together a 35-member "community focus team," with a goal of bringing forward some concrete ways the district can address the problems that looking beyond just the discipline piece. The team is facilitated by RPS Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis and Project Legacy co-founder John Edmonds.
Lewis said the community input plays an "essential role" in the feedback the district receives and in getting students the support they need.
Lewis said some of the work is ongoing and some of it hasn't been started, but added that the team will be meeting once a quarter to review progress and recommendations. The district is also planning another community input meeting for October.
"If we do this right, we will all reap the benefits in the long run," said School Board Chairman Gary Smith.
The team came up with short- and long-term action steps, dividing goals into three main areas:
• Get more students of color into AP and honors classes: The community team said that means ongoing gifted and talented programming evaluations, rather than in just grades 2 and 5. Part of that, the team said, is to make staff aware of any biases they might have that would influence the identification of gifted students. As part of the effort the team wants to shift how AP and honors classes are marketed, and is hoping to promote classes at venues like football games and track meets, rather than at registration and in school. They also suggested recognizing student athletes participating in these courses at athletic events.
• Take a look at the curriculum: By this fall, the district hopes to "provide an ongoing dialogue" with teachers on culturally relevant curriculum, and to address things like structural racism. By fall 2017: including more diversity of authors, perspectives and artists in the curriculum; create a committee to review to address curriculum, which should include differences, discrimination, prejudice and racism; the district hopes to address things that may be barriers for families to participate in extracurricular activities, like transportation or cost. By fall 2018, the district plans to pilot research-based multicultural curriculum and programming.
• Recognize historical trauma and address staff bias: The district will address and train staff on historical trauma, how it impacts families today and how to recognize it in students. Edmonds said "historical trauma" refers to the experiences and treatment of groups of people over periods of time, like oppression and genocide, that is carried with them — the main victims are Native American and descendants of slaves, African Americans. He said it can be especially damaging because it becomes a part of people's world view, and today, often translates to feelings of hopelessness, depression and substance abuse — which is why it's important to educate staff on it.