One District’s Equity Journey

Puyallup’s Equity Journey 

An interview with Dr. John Polm, Superintendent of Puyallup (WA) Schools.

The Journey Begins

Over the last decade Puyallup’s demographic has shifted.  From 18% Free and Reduced Lunch to 40%.  From 20% diversity to 47%.  Equity work began in 2017, mostly in curriculum and professional development.

Professional Learning Timeline

Looking back, Puyallup’s PD for staff has included:

  • Listening to marginalized communities
  • Addressing stereotypes
  • Validating identity for each and every student
  • Confronting privilege, and
  • Assessing outcomes

Leading Indicators

Puyallup was able to build on the “leading Indicator” learning targets that were already in place.

  • Kindergarten readiness
  • 3rd grade literacy
  • 8th grade HS readiness
  • Graduation rates
  • College readiness

Leading indicators are measurements which tend to forecast future results.  For example students not reading by third grade are far more likely to drop out before graduating.

Sharing with the Board

Staff provided an equity update at a board study session in March 2021.  That update included the work done so far, disproportionate data showing limited progress, and a video of student BOPOC experiences.  This five minute student video brought home how students experienced and felt about issues of racism in the school culture. That, along with an equity and equality graphic … students on different sized boxes reaching for success … sparked board discussion.


Then they began to dig into the data to see what they could do next.  ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) required a disaggregated look at how students in different racial and program groups were progressing.  They did a data dive into disaggregated data with four guiding questions.

  • What is the data telling us?
  • What is the data not telling us?
  • What trends do we notice in the data?
  • What questions or themes are emerging from the data?

Whole Child Data

They also began looking at belonging outcomes.  Maslow’s work showed how belonging comes before achievement.  A graphic from Cobb and Krownapple makes a strong visual impact – showing perilous belonging gaps that can stand in the way of student success.

Belonging became the theme for the 21-22 year.  Lack of belonging was at the root cause of so many SEL and academic needs.  Puyallup defined ‘belonging’ in the classroom, to mean “ensuring that all students feel welcomed, comfortable and part of the school family.”

Equity Performance Outcomes

Based on this work, Puyallup expanded its dashboard to include several other indictors of success.  They labeled these as their new ABCs:

  1. Academic gaps
  2. Belongingness
  3. Commitment to dismantling racism and oppression
  4. Diversity of thought and people

Academic outcomes, they determined, would come from equity performance outcomes and “Belonging for ALL.”

Professional Learning

Professional development served as the bridge between academic outcomes, equity outcomes, and a sense of belonging. Puyallup committed to build the knowledge, skill, awareness, and advocacy needed to diminish the marginalization of undocumented students and students of color. Educators were encouraged to use Culturally Responsive Pedagogy that provides opportunities for students to draw on their own cultural fluencies to reach the goals for successful learning (Nieto, 1999, 2002).

Action Steps

Knowing that a sense of belonging is crucial part of student’s success, Puyallup created classes and professional publications to reinforce the ideologies of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. A three part series offered support in:  Positive Behavior Supports, Restorative Practices, and Social Emotional Learning.

Elementary and secondary schedules provide dedicated time for morning meeting/community circles and home room to teach second steps and character strong (SEL curriculum). Priority is given to building connections, checking-in, and creating a safe space to learn. They hope educators will infuse these practices of belonging into their daily classroom routines. Community circles engaging students to start each day, build a strong sense of community, and set students up for success socially and academically.

Mentoring Support

Mentoring support is seen as an essential professional learning opportunity for teachers to address academic learning gaps. Each new teacher is assigned a full time released mentor who provides institutional and instructional support … for their first three years. The mentoring team also facilitates fifteen-hours of professional learning that focus on content, instructional practices, and social justice. The mentor’s primary purpose is to ensure equity through quality instruction.  They do so by providing direct support to teachers through mentoring, curriculum implementation, facilitating professional learning, and planning instruction.

Whole System Health

That led to an exploration of who could best help them measure and diagnose whole system health.  They engaged in a review of options that would engage the best measures that could help inform their progress.  That led them to Panorama Education and a diagnostic measurement tool being used by a dozen or more Washington districts.

They now have a three-year contract with Panorama and plan to use that data for continuous improvement.  Panorama also provides data dashboard reports at district, school, and classroom levels along with professional learning for staff. This will provide data for PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycles so Puyallup can continue to improve.

Puyallup will use measurable data to create courses and series to meet SEL needs as well academic needs of students and staff.  Professional Learning in partnership with content directors and assessment and accountability will create a sense of belonging through mentoring, coaching, and course design.

Reimagining Excellence

A joint staff, student, and community CARE committee was convened to help shape this work of Re-imagining Excellence.  CARE stands for Committee Aligned for Reimagining Excellence in Puyallup Schools.  Convening such a committee took a lot of careful thought, discussion and follow through.  There were concerns about bias on the part of both conservatives and progressives.  Parents and community members were asked to apply.  Two board members participated in the selection process along with two district administrators and the local EA President.  Criteria were identified and candidates were interviewed before going to the board for approval.  The 20 member committee was recruited for diversity, including students. Their purpose is to guide the data-based continuous improvement of Puyallup stakeholders for the coming year.


Based on the above, Puyallup is working toward some draft targets to help guide their work:

  • A decline of academic outcome gaps between students who are White/Asian/Two races or more to that of historically underserved and marginalized student groups between 2021-2024 as measured by district and state academic data.
  • Increased percent of students’, families’, and staff’s feeling of belongingness as measured against baseline data through surveys (Panorama) and self-reported narratives between 2021-2024.
  • Policies, instructional practices, hiring practices, resource allocation, and family & community engagement that are centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion as measured by surveys and system equity audits between 2021-2024.
  • Increased perception of students, families, and staff that their voices influence district initiatives as measured by surveys and self-reported narratives between 2021-2024.

This draft of targets has been reviewed by the Board. The CARE Committee and district administrators will be presenting target recommendations after reviewing the Panorama survey data. In addition, the committee work will be part of the strategic planning work in 2022.

Moving forward 

Puyallup sees equity as an ongoing journey … learning their way forward.  They plan to balance a teaching and learning focus with climate, culture, and well-being. Their horizon is what can be done over the coming two-three years.  Panorama survey data will inform their progress and their professional learning.  The CARE committee will be engaged in helping shape guiding principles, strategic directions and priority initiatives.  They will continue to address controversies as they arise.  Additional work study sessions are scheduled to apprise the board of progress and adjustments. All of this work will inform the upcoming strategic planning process.

Lessons Learned

Society is polarized along ideological lines. This polarization reveals itself within school district improvement efforts. Focusing on academic disparities among racial groups and demographic characteristics can be divisive.

  • Puyallup focuses on the data and the narratives of the students, families, and staff members. This helps to move the needle in the right direction.
  • Change is incremental. Trying to move too quickly can derail much of the progress made. Many staff members are culturally competent and responsive while some are not there yet. There is more work to do.
  • Equality and equity are often confused.  Some fear that putting resources into underserved or historically marginalized student groups means something is being taken away from other students. Equity is still an elusive construct.
  • Leadership calls us to advance the moral and ethical priorities associated with equity in access and equity in support for our students.

This work is never finished. Continuous improvement is the goal.







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