Diversity and inclusion have long been recognized as critical in higher education, and within the past 10 years, many K-12 schools have also increased their focus on these areas, realizing the significant role they play in students’ lives. Many secondary schools are now emphasizing the importance of equity to young students, as well as educating faculty and staff on ways to foster an inclusive educational environment. Here are a few examples:
[Above: A Portland Public Schools teacher helps a group of students in a library.]
Guilford County Schools
Guilford County Schools (GCS) in North Carolina is composed of nearly 72,000 students in 127 PK-12 schools. The district created a diversity office in 2006 after several community and school board members urged it to attend to some of the challenges faced by minorities in the community, says Monica Walker, the diversity officer for GCS.
“The growing number of students of color necessitated that an office be created to address issues that come with the growth of that population,” she says. Enrollment data show that GCS’s PK-12 student population has become majority-minority, with 65 percent from minority groups.
To ensure equity in the school system, GCS analyzed student data and found that achievement outcome gaps were most profoundly noted around race and class. It also discovered that implicit biases existed that led to lower expectations for students from underrepresented groups. In an effort to reduce these biases, the district began encouraging conversations about social justice, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, in the classroom.
However, much of the school system’s focus, and that of its diversity office, is on providing professional development support to teachers, principals, and administrators.
“So few of our incoming teachers of all races are trained to deal with many of the complex issues that accompany students of color, and coupled with [these students’] racial identity [is] … being economically disadvantaged,” Walker says. “With the history of racism in this country, we must help our teachers understand what has framed our thinking.”
GCS works to increase teachers’ awareness of issues around race, ethnicity, and class through a series of workshops called Equity Wednesdays “Lunch and Learns.” These sessions, which are led by state and local change-makers in higher education and business, provide attendees with a framework for understanding the racial and cultural inequities that exist in public systems and emphasize the need for collaboration to address them.
With an increased enrollment of students who identify as transgender, GCS’s diversity office also works to understand the challenges unique to LGBTQ individuals and provide them services and safe spaces. In addition, the school district participates in an annual conference that teaches counselors, social workers, support staff, and teachers best practices for understanding and respecting sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and expression.
Furthermore, the Guilford County Board of Education has made its support for transgender students known by publicly opposing North Carolina’s House Bill 2, legislation passed earlier this year that prevents transgender individuals from using public restrooms other than those that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificate.
“We are still observing the national policy that allows students to use the restroom for their identified gender,” Walker says. “Many families and students have been vocal in their appreciation and [are relieved] to know they’re in a school system that is inclusive. Our priority has always been to be supportive and welcoming and to ensure the safety of all of our students.”
Portland Public Schools
Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon has 49,000 students in 78 PK-12 schools. Tasked with analyzing the impact of race on achievement outcomes by the state board of education, PPS created an Office of Equity in 2011. According to Jeanine Fukuda, the senior director of the office, the district found that students from underrepresented groups are often overlooked in the school system, which often leads to lower academic outcomes.
Through the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative — an offshoot of the national My Brother’s Keeper program that helps young African American men reach their full potential — PPS works to remedy this issue by providing better academic and social support for underrepresented students. In the program, male students are paired with a mentor with whom they meet three times per week during the school year. Mentors serve as motivators, problem solvers, and advocates for their mentees.
The initiative is aimed at helping these young people form supportive relationships with educators, as well as identify and celebrate their strengths. Other goals include improving attendance rates and connecting students with the necessary support to stay on track.
In addition to mentoring, Fukuda believes the curriculum should be a mirror for students so that they see themselves in it, as well as a window so they see the opportunities available to them. “As our world becomes more diverse, it’s important for students to understand there are multiple perspectives in life, which enriches their learning and prepares them for when they will have to work with people from different backgrounds,” she says.
The school system also places great emphasis on having a faculty that reflects the student body. In 2013, to help achieve this objective, the district adopted a policy that encourages participating schools to make a concerted effort to recruit and retain employees from minority populations. As a result, over the past three years, the number of teachers and administrators from these groups has increased by 25.6 and 29.8 percent, respectively, Fukuda says.
Most of the system’s diversity and inclusion education efforts focus on teaching faculty and staff how to create an inclusive climate for all students. These efforts, Fukuda says, vary by school based on the demographics of the surrounding community.
“At the district level,” she says, “our goal is to engage in courageous conversations about race with each staff member in our organization, understanding their own racial identity and the impact it has on their decision-making.”
To increase awareness of how teachers’ own identities may affect their students, the district created a racial equity lens tool. A simple bookmark, it contains five questions to help teachers and administrators think about the impact decisions and policies may have on underrepresented groups. Questions ask teachers what racial and ethnic groups are affected by policies, programs, and decisions; whether those actions and initiatives ultimately worsen existing disparities or have unintended consequences; whether teachers have involved other stakeholders and in what ways; what barriers exist to equitable outcomes; and how they will address those barriers and mitigate any negative effects.
“Often, we intentionally don’t think about race because, as a society, we’ve been taught to not think about it — but we should,” Fukuda says. “Part of finding missing perspectives is reaching out to the communities that will be most affected by decisions. We often hear from the loudest voices, which typically come from the more privileged, majority communities. However, one group cannot speak for the entire community.”
The district is also beginning to focus some of its inclusion efforts on transgender students.
Cedar Rapids Community School District
Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) has nearly 16,000 students in 34 schools in Iowa. Although the district doesn’t have an office dedicated specifically to diversity and inclusion, it emphasizes these values via equitable practices and initiatives. In addition, CRCSD requires that each principal develop goals in these areas as part of his or her school’s improvement plan.
To analyze the impact of multiculturalism on the teaching and learning process, the district holds a semi-annual Equity Summit that provides an opportunity for the principals to share their goals and best practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Simply having diverse students doesn’t do anything to shape their learning environment and instruction,” says Kenneth Morris Jr., the manager of student equity in the Office of Learning and Leadership at CRCSD. “What’s important is the community learning to interact with a multicultural mindset.”
While there are similarities between diversity efforts at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, according to Morris, who worked in higher education for 15 years prior to entering K-12, there are also notable differences. He says younger students’ diversity education centers around memorization, while higher education focuses more on interpretation.
“We have standards and tests in K-12, but in higher education, professors and students have rich discussions about what they read and learn. Their perspectives go beyond just reciting or sharing what is required from the reading,” he says, adding that students who are older have the space and resources to self-explore. “College students are more likely to step outside the box and get involved in activities and programs that challenge them. Outside the comfort zone is a place of growth.”
Although the number of K-12 schools that have implemented diversity initiatives is only a drop in the bucket, more and more institutions are recognizing the importance of educating younger students on these important topics to better prepare them both academically and socially for life in and after college.●
Lauren Healey is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.