July 18, 2018

Schools’ Equity Audit Reveals Positive Start, Much Work to Be Done

By Donald Gilpin

An equity audit of Princeton Public Schools (PPS) has cited significant strengths along with a range of issues and disparities that the district needs to address.

Initiated by PPS “in response to known and suspected educational inequities and gaps between the district’s mission and students’ day-to-day school experiences,” the audit noted continuing “racially-predictable disparities in achievement data, a perception of disparities in discipline and academic expectations, a difference between various identities’ sense of welcoming and belonging, challenges in addressing incidents of oppression and bias, and a strong sense of academic pressure and competition.”

The audit, conducted by Due East Educational Equity Collaborative and led by consultant Marceline Du Boise, who presented the results at last night’s Board of Education meeting, highlighted “the main observations that the district’s stated commitment to equity, strong academic outcomes, and a budding commitment to culturally responsive curriculum and instruction serve as a base on which more effort around educational equity should take place.”

The Educational Equity Culture and Curriculum Audit included reviews of district policies and analysis of academic and discipline data. It connected with more than 2,800 PPS community members through focus groups and surveys that heard from nearly 50 percent of all households, all high school students, and a majority of PPS faculty and staff.

Viewing the audit as another “important step in an ongoing process to help us achieve our equity goals,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane claimed that the audit report “will inform our continuing efforts to diversify our curriculum, diversify our staff, overcome bias, and foster inclusion.”

He cited positive steps taken in recent years in hiring — educators of color constituted 44 percent of educators hired last year — and in curriculum reform to “transform the dialogue, to present not just the dominant narrative, but also the non-dominant narrative.”

Cochrane noted, “For me, equity is fundamentally about relationships. With more educators of color the shift really begins to happen in helping to dispel implicit biases. Students need to be able to see themselves in their teachers and in the curriculum. The audit report inspires us to continue to take those steps.”

Cochrane also pointed out progress made in responding to incidents of oppression and bias. “We have to be more proactive to make sure these incidents occur less often,” he said. PPS is planning a two-day training session at the end of August for administrators and teachers, who will be building equity teams to enhance their capacity for effective responses in the schools.

In her response to the audit report, Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder expressed no surprise, but considerable concern. “These are well-founded concerns,” she said. “They are not new concerns. They come from decades of racism in our public schools. The question is: What are we going to do about it?”

She continued, “A proposal to form study groups is not sufficient. I’m frustrated. I don’t have the answers to this problem, but I’m looking for the intent and the will to introduce changes that will address these inequities.”

Cochrane shared some thoughts on the next steps for PPS. “What’s not in the report is what to do next,” he said, “not just posting the report online and filing it away. I’m most excited about taking the next steps, addressing the real issues and looking for real solutions.”

PPS will be working this summer with the Princeton Civil Rights Commission, chaired by Tommy Parker, to form a study circle of community leaders, educators, and students to review the equity report in depth at a series of meetings and to develop action steps for the district to implement.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to the community in the fall with specific recommendations,” Cochrane added.

The report acknowledged that many of the issues highlighted in the report are consistent with challenges that most districts across the country are struggling with, but noted that “some of the findings are unique to Princeton or heightened by Princeton’s position as a top-tier school district.” Princeton, the report noted, is “an ideal environment to strive for both equity and excellence.”

The report concluded, “Given the right resources and guidance, along with authentic action steps by the district, this community is poised to make shifts that can remedy and reverse the equity challenges present in PPS.”