Advancing Equity in Times of COVID

Doing the Right Thing

The time is always right to do what is right. – MLK Jr

Just too crazy

Yes, we are over the top with COVID right now and racial equity is a hot topic.  AND those two together remind us that our students of color have lost the most over our two years of COVID protocols.  So what can we do?

Now is the Right Time

  • First, some ideas on HOW to get started/keep going.
  • Then, some ideas on WHERE to start.
  • Finally, thoughts about TRANSFORMATION.

HOW to move forward with equity

I have the great privilege of working monthly with a few dozen superintendents on racial equity.  We began our work with a survey of stairsteps on the road to equity.  Here is the roadmap that seems to be emerging from our work:

  • Thinking and Planning

Building awareness.  Equity begins with a personal commitment.  Two of our members encouraged us to carve out personal space to learn firsthand from students, colleagues, and parents of color about their stories.

  • Learning Circles

Expanding our knowledge about racism, how it works, and why our work is critical.  DEI understanding.  Book groups.  Professional development.  Building awareness in an ever-widening circle.  Using leadership voice to signal and showcase WHY racial equity is so important.

  • Guiding Coalition

Enlisting a diverse group to help think and plan together.  Diverse in terms of equity.  Diverse in terms of role: leaders, teachers, community, parents, students.  Dr. Tammy Campbell urges us to define what we mean by racial equity starting with data, student voice, and belonging.

  • Setting direction

Expanding the circle. More two-way interaction with staff and community, especially students and parents whose voices have been marginalized in the past.  Lake Washington School District did this with an in-depth listening tour that met with 15 focus groups.  Eventually – with greater awareness and a growing circle of support – districts adopt an equity lens, resolutions, and policies.

  • Action

The goal is action:  taking positive steps to undo the harm caused by biased structures.  Belonging is one critical place to begin.  It fits the data on student voice and aligns with our mission.  Students who feel unwelcome and stressed don’t learn well.  Typically, this work may begin with pilots or those most ready to begin the work.

  • Structures

We often say learning should not depend on your zip code or the size of your wallet.  “Every student every day” means we need solid systems in place district-wide and in every school.  This is where we work to undo biased systems and press ahead to make important changes district-wide.

WHERE to Start  

There are technical challenges where we know the solution.  And there are adaptive challenges where we have to figure it out collaboratively.  Undoing biased structures to achieve racial equity is definitely an adaptive challenge.

So, just a few thoughts on the technical side before saying more about adaptive side:

  • Do NOT

Start with policy, resolutions and other promises you cannot keep.  That may anger many on both sides, both because you seem to be going too fast and because you are likely not yet going fast enough to deliver on the promises.

  • Do NOT

Launch a program district-wide that you haven’t thought through in terms of readiness, support, and resources.  Yet another program that crashes will not advance the cause.

  • DO

Grow your knowledge and understanding by meeting with students and parents of color, digging into the data, growing a coalition of interested parties, and finding strategic areas that matter and can be supported.

  • DO

Develop your leadership voice and that of your leadership team.  Share the urgency of this work.  Our students deserve it, and our future as a nation depends on supporting the success of each and every student.


Equity is not a technical problem to be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution imposed from the district level.  Nor is it something that can be delegated to your equity officer.  It is an adaptive problem that will take many hands, many ideas, and district-wide transformation.  In other words, the constant attention and support of the superintendent.

  • Grow your impact

Dr. Tammy Campbell talks about her work in Federal Way.  She listened widely.  She used her leadership voice to advocate for “scholars” and the success of every student.  And she grew her administrative team, growing their understanding of equity and developing a shared definition of equity.  During that time she unpacked data and listened to student voices.  Then she vetted the definition more broadly and set up student advisories district-wide.  District policy and other actions came later.  Federal Way was recognized for, among other things, a long and steady improvement in graduation rates for every ethnic group.

  • Action plans

Once that foundation is in place, equity work is well positioned to advance.  As superintendent in Seattle, I made sure district leaders were engaged in equity and leadership development.  Each was asked to set a stretch goal for equity – by definition, something we did not already know how to do.  We met collaboratively to learn and grow.  Coaching was provided.  Over time, major gains were made in equity PD, racial equity teams, interviewing, evaluation, SEL, disproportional discipline, graduation, and more.

Start now. We can’t wait.

It is always the right time to do the right thing.  Now is the time to be planting and incubating seeds for the future.  Our kids deserve it.  Our future depends on it.



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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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