Issaquah’s Racial Equity Journey: An Interview with Ron Thiele, Superintendent
I need to lead by acknowledging my white privilege and leveraging my position for good. – Ron Thiele
District Leadership Collaborative
Ron Thiele, Issaquah (WA) Superintendent, recently shared his district’s racial equity journey with eight school districts in the District Leadership Collaborative. Here is that story – how they reduced disproportionate disciplinary exclusions – and much more.
Where did you begin?
Several years ago, we began learning about cultural competency. That training caused us to explore our white privilege. That was an aha for me. Although I came from humble beginnings, I came to see that I still had privilege in terms of expectations and access to education. Talking about white privilege raised some level of discomfort. We had lots of support from administrators and a few concerns. Most picked up the work and leaned into it.
We set out to hire more teachers of color and recruited nationwide. Soon, however, we found that costs of housing and lack of community diversity were significant barriers to bringing in new staff from outside the area. Even when we were able to attract teachers, we often could not retain them.
So, what did you do next?
A new statewide discipline law gave impetus to our work. While our district averages looked great, we found that Blacks were nearly four times more likely to be suspended or excluded from school. We put money behind our commitment to reducing disproportionate suspensions. We invested in PBIS and SEL and combined the two. And we saw some progress. Although we still have a long way to go, we have seen Black suspensions reduced by half. We are hopeful that three years of data signals a trend that will continue. Blacks are still twice as likely to be suspended as whites, so there is still work to be done.
What role has the board played?
Our board heard about our professional development and asked to participate. Over the next 18 months, we worked with our community to develop a racial equity policy. And, as a policy-governance district, the board asked me to develop an equity goal for my performance.
How have you expanded the work?
We hired an Executive Director for Equity to help expand this work to our 2700 educators. The Executive Director sits on the cabinet, reports to me, and checks in with me weekly. I don’t want them to be siloed. This work belongs to all of us.
We invested heavily in PD for everyone—teachers, paras, classified. That gave us a common vocabulary. We started with our data and put a spotlight on our disaggregated results. Our ask was, What can we do about this? Our teacher training expanded to include video clips so we could “see” what micro-aggressions look like and learn better approaches. We examined our curriculum adoptions and found them to be very limited in portraying people of color. Our curriculum adoptions today look very different and far more diverse.
What have you learned along the way?
Community support for this work is needed. Partners are needed. This work is far broader than our 20,000 students. We still have some high-profile racial incidents. NAACP, BLM, and local churches have engaged with us. We have been able to point to work underway and learn more about what needs to be done. Leveraging student voice also helped, which ups our responsibility to act on what we hear! Our BIPOC students are now calling out racism and calling on us to take action.
This work is never finished. We are:
- Hiring more counselors and mental health expertise
- Revising our SEL lessons with a specific equity lens
- Looking for better SEL curriculum at the HS
- Making schedules more flexible to reduce barriers to advanced classes
How has this affected you personally?
This has been a personally rewarding journey for me. The conversations have started to change who I am. Gradually I am learning to become anti-racist.
I need to lead, acknowledge my white privilege and leverage my position for good. We are on the path but still have a long way to go. It is a journey that takes time. Once you put on the equity lens, you can’t take it off. It is a slow process that takes time to change hearts and minds. You don’t see results right away. We gradually moved from cultural competence to equity to social justice.
Many thanks to Ron Thiele for sharing the Issaquah journey. Issaquah’s web site shares a wealth of racial equity commitments and resources.
Our superintendent collaborative used a tuning protocol to debrief the Issaquah Story. Here are a few of our observations:
- How we talk about racial equity depends on our community. We start where the community is now and move forward. Issaquah moved from cultural competence to educational justice.
- Partner with communities of color.
- Leverage student voice.
- Use levers of power and superintendent voice to point the way. It can’t just be outside speakers of color; we need to add our leadership voices.
- Seeing examples is so important.
Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.
– Ruth Bader Ginsburg