Wenatchee’s Equity Story

Equity:  a Plan and Promise for Future-Ready Students

An Interview with Dr. Paul Gordon, (outgoing) Superintendent, Wenatchee WA – May 3, 2022

For the last three years, Wenatchee has been on an equity journey initiated by Superintendent, Dr. Paul Gordon

We Promise … is at the heart of our Strategic Plan

Our strategic plan was built around student voice, equity and the idea of future-ready students.

Dr. Gordon thought the language around vision and mission would take a few weeks.  Instead it took months.  Initially the adults wanted to soften the DEI language but students pushed back.  Racial equity, they said, addresses the quality of life, opportunity and outcomes.  No, it could not be softened.

Data Transparency … removing obstacles

It was painfully apparent that we were not achieving equity in Wenatchee.  Achievement gaps between white and Latino students were 30 points and according to trends the gaps were growing grade by grade.  Wenatchee shared our current reality, the brutal truth as Jim Collins calls it, with transparency.  And we unpacked the data to find root causes.  One of those root causes – students were not reading at grade level by third grade.  We set about removing obstacles.

Listening and Learning

In a survey with 1300 responses, parents gave the district a “C” grade.  The board took that information to heart and made commitments.  They set three guiding values:  Excellence; Equity; and Accountability.  The district set out to insure that every student learned to read by 3rd grade.  As superintendent, we just had to ensure reading on level by third grade in order to reach for their promise to be future ready.

Clarity of Focus

Wenatchee is sharply divided … 50-50 … on many issues. Conversations about racial equity made staff feel super uncomfortable.  Many feared that Wenatchee was doing CRT. They were frustrated, anxious, and said they were not ready. On the advice of Dr. Tammy Campbell, district consultant, Wenatchee began to define the equity work.  We either needed to define our terms or let others define them for us.  As superintendent, I went everywhere and anywhere – radio, TV, newspaper – to talk about and define the equity work in Wenatchee.  This is our story, our narrative.  We have to be the voice of what we are trying to do.

Student Voice … Never overlook the power of student voice

We brought students into the conversation early. Creating open safe spaces where students can talk openly took time and trust.  The student stories of their lived experiences were gut wrenching.  They told us about long hours of packing fruit. A Latina student told us she had dropped out of Advanced Placement because she was the only non-White student in the class.  Later, as a Junior, she enrolled again because she had a teacher who believed in her.  Many students echoed that theme, telling us they wanted adults to believe in them.

When we began work on an equity ‘vision,’ students, along with many of our Latino parents, told us they didn’t know what that meant.  They wanted to see and hear DEI in action, not just words.  Students said we had to name equity as the goal. It needed to be said. In the end, students insisted on the idea of “Promise.”  As adults we actually discussed what might happen if we were sued for not fulfilling our “Promise!”

DEI in practical terms

Students wanted concrete, down to earth definitions, and worked with us to define DEI:

Diversity = I am seen. 

  • I can bring my whole authentic self to the school/classroom.
  • Students took us back to why we are here. What we will do to support our students.

Equity = I will thrive

  • Each student will get what they need
  • We redefined all to mean each.

Inclusion = I belong.

  • Students pushed us and lifted us up with their insights.
  • Do we not want every student to belong? To have their SEL needs met?

Building the Plan

Intense staff discussions

  • There was lots of discussion and some pushback as we addressed fears and anxieties.
  • In the end we agreed we were not okay with marginalizing, not seeing, some of our students.

Data Disparities:

  • Advanced Placement: 78% of our AP students were white, with friends and champions in their corner. We were saying no to Latino students in so many ways. Not listening to their stories. Looking past barriers. Registration for certain courses was confusing, exclusionary, and segregated. Since then we have increased Latino AP enrollments a great deal but we still have a long way to go.
  • Our remedial classes were flipped – filled with Latino students and few white students.

Seeing Disparities:

We made it a priority to be intentional, to see our students, every one of them.  Engaging with young people allowed us to hear their honest experiences, their hopes and dreams.  We committed to open opportunities to each and every student.

Serving parents: Many of our Latino families have a limited education and some have limited English language skills.  When they come to school they confront barriers. We ask them to be buzzed in past security, to talk behind Plexiglas, and speak English.  Parents are trusting that we will put their kids on the right path and we are letting them down.

Our Strategic Plan

Equity means we are opening doors of opportunity for each student.  We committed that everything we do will be done in English and Spanish.  And we came to use the word Foundations intentionally.  We literally had to start over if we were to fulfill our Promise to our students.

Our Big Six Promises … Leading indicators that predict high school graduation

  1. High Quality instruction – On grade level priority standards
    50% of our students were not receiving on level instruction
  2. Belonging … measured by climate survey
    Far too many students say they do not belong, are not welcomed, valued or seen.
  3. Reading on grade level by 3rd grade.
    We are using brain science to address 3rd grade reading
  4. Ready for algebra
  5. On track to graduate
  6. Engaged in culturally relevant curriculum

Our Progress

PLCs have taken off

We got expert help in simplifying our priority standards. And then engaged our educators in selecting those priority standards. Now we focus on exposing each and every student to on grade level priority standards … that is our promise. Principals now lead this effort.  We have formative assessments to keep us on track. Before we had pockets that were working but now all are involved.

The power of teaching at the school level is transformational. We have made incredible progress … in spite of COVID.

Diversity in Action … providing support

Equity is everyone’s job.  The superintendent must be in schools seeing, listening, carrying the message.  Each cabinet member picks two equity goals and reports on progress monthly.  HR increased teacher diversity by 7%. As we started to hire more Latino staff, parent participation went up.  We added assistant principals and full time instructional coaches at every elementary school. And keep auditing our work to make sure we are delivering on our promises.

Our biggest learnings?

The superintendent must lead the diversity work. Staff confidence grows as we build background knowledge and provide supports.  CRT push back diminished as we got clearer in defining our work.

Doing our own Strat Plan was key.  Don’t abdicate important work to others.  Step back, shut up, and listen to students. Create space/place for students to be heard. Let students speak out their lived experiences

Work on the entire system.  High schools often get the blame, but we need to make sure the early grades are strong. We have to get better as an entire system.

Thank you

Much appreciation and thanks to Dr. Paul Gordon for sharing the Wenatchee journey.

To Learn More:  See the Wenatchee Plan and Promise for Future-Ready Students.

PS:  This is one of a dozen district stories posted on this website to help grow our capacity as learners and leaders.  See other stories at Puyallup and Walla Walla.


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