December 11, 2019

Schools Aspire to Achieve Equity, Staff Listens to Students’ Voices

PROMOTING EQUITY: In one of the district’s equity workshops Monday afternoon, featured guest speaker Fatema Sumrein urged John Witherspoon Middle School teachers to make sure to really “see” all of their students.  (Photo courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

By Donald Gilpin

Two years ago the Princeton Public Schools undertook an equity audit conducted by an outside expert. The results of that study continue to drive many of the district’s ongoing efforts in the quest for equity, most recently in a series of in-service training workshops that took place during a half-day professional day on Monday at all the schools.

“It’s not a theme of the year. It’s not an add-on to the work we are doing. It is the work,” said Superintendent Steve Cochrane at last week’s PPS Board of Education meeting.

Describing the PPS as “an ideal environment in which ”to strive for both equity and excellence,” the audit report cited the PPS “stated commitment to equity, strong academic outcomes, and a budding commitment to culturally responsive curriculum and instruction” as “a base on which more effort around educational equity should take place.”

The audit went on to report “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.”

Equity teams  of students, faculty, and staff in each building planned an array of activities for Monday based on the stories of the students. “This professional development focuses on the voices of our kids talking to teachers,” Cochrane said. “Equity involves knowing our kids completely and bending our curriculum to support them where they are. This is not just theory. It’s actually hearing from our kids.”

“The teachers have embraced the idea of getting to know students and their families,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Annie Kosek. “The buy-in this year has been much greater than in the past.”

Cochrane described how Monday’s workshops took participants beyond theory, bridging the “mind-heart gap” that PHS graduates Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo referred to in a 2018 TED Talk on racial literacy.

“We went beyond an intellectual understanding of implicit bias or an objective analysis of the data showing disparities in achievement by race or economic status,” he wrote in an email. “Instead, we listened to the stories of our students.”

He continued, “Through panel presentations, videos, surveys, and focus groups, we heard, building by building, the unique struggles and triumphs of our kids. We heard what we are doing well to support them and make them feel cared for. And we heard the steps we might take to create a climate and curriculum in which all voices are valued.”

PHS tackled the question “How can we contribute to a more equitable and inclusive school for our PHS community?” in four different sessions ”which encouraged us as educators to confront our own biases and stereotypes in order to think more deeply and eventually eliminate them through seeking to learn about others in a curious, nonjudgmental way,” said PHS Principal Jessica Baxter.

Workshop activities at PHS included Windows and Mirrors, a video, a student panel, and a review of case studies of students’ experiences in and outside the classroom.

John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) focused on authentic student voices and data collected from surveying the JWMS staff. “It brought the conversation closer to all of us as a whole and emphasized the need to develop a stronger fabric of communication and focus toward our goals of becoming a more culturally competent school,” said JWMS Principal Jason Burr.

Featured guest speaker at JWMS was Fatema Sumrein, a middle school English teacher, who spoke about her youth as a Palestinian student in both Palestine and the United States. “She spoke about two occasions when caring educators helped to make her feel ‘seen’ when she felt like no one really understood or cared,” Burr wrote in an email. “Ms. Sumrein reminded us to make sure that we ‘see’ all of our students.”

At Johnson Park (JP) Elementary School, staff members used the results of a pupil survey, a set of relevant scenarios, and a school-wide reading of Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid to consider how JP can enhance support of its diverse student population.

“Collegial groups responded to our children’s voices, exploring aspects of cultural responsiveness, sensitivity to issues related to micro-aggressions and code-switching, and considering how to make aspects of school life more welcoming and inclusive,” said JP Principal Robert Ginsberg.

The Littlebrook Elementary program featured six different sessions, including Equity in the Classroom, Pathways to Conversation, Braids for Identity, Conversations to Reach Students (We’ve Got This!), Courageous Conversations, and The Teaching Tolerance Curriculum.

Community Park’s equity leadership team conducted small-group discussions using case studies and the data from previous student surveys, while Riverside Elementary teachers and staff participated in a variety of equity-related activities involving community-building, analysis of survey data collected from students and parents, and discussion of equity and internal bias.

“It is in caring fiercely for every one of our kids that we collectively gain the will to change ourselves and our practices to become the schools in which all children will truly thrive,” Cochrane noted in summing up the schools’ quest for equity. “I was moved by the compassion I felt among our staff on Monday, and I was moved by the candor and excitement our students showed when given the opportunity to be a part of the process by which we transform our schools together.”