Extending the Equity Table … from the school board to the community:
Creating a culture where all stakeholders have a seat, a voice and a responsibility for change.
By Dr. Wade Smith, Superintendent; and Dr. Julie Perrón, Director of Equity and Dual Programs
How do we engage our community in positive ways to talk about race and equity?
Walla Walla School District (WA) has done just that – making marked progress over the past five years. Superintendent Dr. Wade Smith, equity director Julie Perrón and the school board have:
- Created a We All Belong Here campaign
- Removed barriers to after school activities, sports and other experiences
- Introduced socially just curricula and diverse voices at each grade level
- Increased teacher and staff diversity with a Grow Our Own program
- And engaged staff, students and community in many additional ways
Here in the words of Dr’s Smith and Perrón is a small portion of the Walla Walla equity journey.
Our Equity Vision
Walla Walla (WA) serves approximately 6000 students: 42% are Hispanic/Latino. Sixty percent qualify for F&R lunch. One in six are English Language Learners. We began our work in 2016 with a year-long stakeholder engagement process. Our deep listening and data analysis revealed sobering trends. That process led us to coalesce around core ideas:
- Diversity is a strength;
- A safe and engaging environment; and
- A foundation of equity for all.
Our definition for equity is …
Fair justice and inclusive educational access, and experience for all students
That means that we identify and address barriers and unhealthy cultures so that student belonging, participation and achievement are maximized. We wanted far more than mere … Check-quity.
Being the Table
Our metaphor is … ‘being the table’ … inviting everyone to have a seat, a voice and a responsibility for change. We invite each of our stakeholders into courageous conversations as we hold the creative tension between our vision and our hard truths.
Exploring the hard truths in our data was humbling and transformational. Our Latino-Hispanic students were greatly under-represented in high level performance in our state exams and greatly over-represented in levels below standard. As we continued to unpack the data, we determined that the gap between white and Hispanic students was about race, not poverty.
What was even more humbling and heart wrenching was hearing the voices of our students.
- I was labeled as the black kid and felt talked down to.
- None of my teachers ever brought up race.
- Race wasn’t a topic to be discussed we were discouraged to talk about it at all
This was an epiphany about how important our work in equity was and how far we had to go for our students and our community.
Seven Equity Commitments and Core Strategies
Over the past five years our equity work has come to include seven elements that work together to reinforce each other in a “balancing loop” or positive energy “flywheel.”
Culture and Climate building
Our work began with our “We All Belong Here” campaign. We leveraged our firm belief that diversity was a strength. We used simple but powerful statements that literally branded our beliefs. If you visited our campuses you would see signs in English and Spanish saying:
- Rise above intolerance
- Our differences drive our greatness
Encouraging all of us to stand up to injustice by creating school environments that are inclusive, respectful and tolerant.
Our board took the lead in removing barriers that inhibit student belonging and participation. They eliminated all ASB and student athletic participation fees. Then went a step further with our Adopt a Blue Devil Scholarship campaign. We raised tens of thousands of dollars annually to guarantee to every kid … we got ya … whether the cost of an AP test fee, a dual credit fee, an industry certification, bus passes, or sponsoring college campus visits. Participation grew by 20%.
Socially Just Curricula
College students from Whitman College teach respect and acceptance through a socially just learning curricula for our students K-12. As two Whitman students say:
- The hope is that we can inform young students about the civil rights movement … and allow students to mull over what it means to be a person of color … with a different identity.
- Students learn about who they are and who they are going to be. Teaching them about these social issues helps them to form their person and how they are going to see other people.
Voices of Diversity
Our #DiversifyOurVoice initiative engages students of color in selecting socially just book studies that reflect diverse voices and perspectives. Our goal is at least one book study in every English lit and comprehension class (6-12) to be by a person of color and about a person of color’s experience. We meet in small breakout sessions where students and staff give input on which books should be selected and why. It is so impressive to see how much insight, care and clarity the students bring. Anyone in the community can read a book and give input. But the students are the driving force behind it. Their voices are what’s making the difference.
Our Equitably Engaging Strategies for Everyone (EESE) task force brings staff to the table from every school to ensure equitable practices in the classroom. They help us develop an anti-racist, culturally competent instructional environment. Our focus is to be solution based and really mindful of the different situations that are happening on every campus. We use Paul Gorski’s book, Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education. and our equity lens to make sure we are meeting the needs of every one of our staff. We provide voice and choice and a seat at the table to avoid “check-quity.”
Our Equity and Access committee includes community as well as board, staff and students. This is our commitment to ensure that ‘all stakeholders have a seat, a voice and a responsibility for change.’ We meet quarterly for conversations about current engagement strategies with families, a focus on outreach, and updates from our student groups. Guest speakers and book studies add to our learning.
Dr. Smith is currently leading the book study on, So you want to talk about race. To hear high school students weigh in on the parts that resonate with them is super powerful and very humbling.
Growing Our Own
Our Growing Our Own strategies build continuity and long term sustainability for our diverse faculty. We provide scholarships to three types of bilingual candidates: a) students who will return to Walla Walla to teach; b) classified staff that want to become teachers; d) teachers who want to become administrators. We are reaching out to invite more people to the table through these opportunities. When we see potential interest or ability we reach out saying … I really think you should consider this. There is nothing better for our kids of color than having a staff person of color in front of them.
When the Table Turns …
In 2019 we made the headlines and not in a good way. Our spirit rock at the HS proudly announced Cinco de Mayo. On Monday morning the rock was covered over with graffiti saying “Illegals Out”. That hit us hard. We thought we were making so much progress with our We All Belong Here campaign. Then just a few hours later, our kids skipped class, found supplies, and painted on top of that rock … We All Belong. This is when you truly know that you are making a difference when students – of their own volution – respond is such a positive way.
Be the Table …
We receive our share of hateful letters, emails, calls to our hotline and social media. That creative tension can be difficult and challenging. We reach out to ‘be the table’ for each and every one of the people who have written these troubling and discouraging letters. By extending the table, by listening and trying to engage, we don’t always agree, but we have made progress in moving the work forward. We have helped the community understand what we are trying to accomplish in our schools.
Equity is our journey. It is not check-equity. We are moving forward. We are going to be the table for you. We are seeing the fruits of our labor start to pay off. This is ongoing work. This is a marathon. 85% of our students of color now feel that we address issues of diversity in a timely and effective manner.
Join us in this journey to be the table. – Dr. Wade Smith and Dr. Julie Perrón
I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.
– Angela Davis
Sincere thanks to Dr. Smith and Dr. Perrón for sharing their Walla Walla equity journey.