What do we mean by equity? Consider the COVID-19 experience

Many in our school community have heard the school district use the term “equity” in recent years. It’s a word that was rarely used in education a generation ago, but in recent years has increasingly made its way into the public discourse. But what do we mean by it? The COVID-19 experience provides a valuable reference point for this conversation.

We define equity as our commitment to ensuring that all students are able to fully access educational experiences and services in our schools – and eliminating barriers to this. Equity is doing everything it takes to ensure that all students feel valued, safe, and welcome, and building the authentic relationships with students and families that this requires.

All of this takes on a new meaning in a time when our homes have become workspaces, when learning is almost exclusively digital and we are not together at school.

While some district initiatives do need to be on hold due to current circumstances, that can’t be the case when it comes to equity. That’s because equity is not an initiative. Equity is a philosophy, a guiding principle, a framework for all that we do. It’s our promise to each student, and we owe it to them. After all, making sure that students have what they need to be successful and cultivate their unique gifts, skills and interests is what school is all about. That’s why we’re having this conversation.

Equity is About Cultural Responsiveness — and So Much More

Many associate equity with race, diversity, and culture and it’s true that our equity work does involve those areas. As a community, diversity is an incredible asset that we all benefit from. All students grow when we value, celebrate and learn from our differences. We are preparing all students to be part of a diverse world.

Niskayuna is among the districts across the country that are at the forefront of having an equity coordinator or chief equity officer position. This was partially the result of listening closely to students and families of color in recent years, but not entirely. The feedback we heard from students indicated that we needed to be more responsive to and supportive of the needs of students and families from all walks of life, faith traditions, socioeconomic background, gender identities and more.

So, we have been focused on better understanding each students’ experience and what they need to feel safe and supported so they can thrive academically and grow as a person. It’s one thing to do this when we are all together at school. But, when you consider a situation in which schools are closed for weeks or months and our students are having 4,250 individual experiences, the work takes on a new context and greater urgency.

Recognizing and Meeting Needs

One of the situations that we sought to immediately address when school closed was providing Chromebooks to students who didn’t have access to a device for their school work. In fact, we are re-prioritizing some spending in our budget planning to have a school Chromebook for every student in at least grades 3-12. We are committed to ensuring that the lack of a device is not a reason for a student to miss out on learning.

Our schools and community have come together to support students and families in many other ways, distributing food each Monday that school has been closed and working with schools in the region to share information about childcare resources, especially for essential workers. This experience has been another reminder that there are very really needs in communities across the state, including our own.

A Variety of Learning Approaches & Resources

Under regular circumstances, we strive to understand how students learn best, the support they need, and how to build on their strengths and talents to support academic progress. That is still our focus in current circumstances. Because we know that students and families are facing many varied situations and challenges during this closure, we have chosen to provide for continuity of learning in a variety of formats and to be as flexible as we can.

We know that simply transitioning instruction to real-time, live instruction via videoconference would not have worked well for many. We have students whose parents are essential workers, limiting the guidance and support that they can provide during the day. In fact, we have students who are essential workers, serving our community in grocery stores, preparing and delivering restaurant takeout orders and more.

As an example: Real-time live instruction works really well for students and families who can fit it into their schedules, have dedicated devices for school work, and strong Internet connectivity. A posted video with instruction is not the same thing, but it allows students to access it on their own time. E-mail and/or videoconference office hours can be used for follow-up questions.

Without a doubt, this is a work in progress. We know that there are likely to be learning gaps when students return. What we have been focused on is providing continuity of instruction without contributing to the further widening of those gaps. When choosing between a system that works really well for a percentage of students or a system that can work for all, public schools must choose the latter.

Returning to School

While there are many questions about returning to school, it’s important to note that one of our areas of focus will need to be on assessing individual student learning and how to provide targeted support. We know that how we re-enter school and the steps we take will be critical to students’ academic progress. We will keep you informed about our plans in this regard.

So, what’s next?

The journey continues. Truly meeting each child where they are, building stronger relationships with all families, and approaching every aspect of the organization with an equity mindset is not something that happens overnight. More specifically, here is some of what we are or will be working on:

  • Developing a Niskayuna Strategic Plan for Equity with a team of stakeholders.
  • Ensuring that equity is a guiding principle of our re-entry to school.
  • Refining our recruitment and retention efforts with the goal of a workforce that better reflects the diversity of our students.
  • Resuming the Generation Ready cultural proficiency training based on when school reopens.
  • Continuing the conversation with all stakeholders in multiple venues, including the Strategic Plan for Equity team, staff development, affinity groups and student forums.

Want to Learn More?

Here is some further reading on topics referenced in this update:

Feel free to reach out to Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra, Jr. (ctangorra@niskyschools.org) or Chief Equity Officer Latisha J. Barnett (lbarnett@niskyschools.org). Find us on Twitter: @NiskyEquity.