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A test for equity: Duluth school district building a way to ensure its schools consider equity in decision-making

William Howes, coordinator of the Duluth school district’s education equity office, speaks while facilitating a discussion for the district's equity plan. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
Dr. Sabah Alwan, a professor at the College of St. Scholastica, gestures while speaking during a discussion about the Duluth school district's equity plan. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Stephan Witherspoon (center) gestures while speaking during a discussion about the Duluth school district's equity plan. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Disparities between the Duluth school district's eastern and western schools have been a concern for years, but in recent months complaints have grown louder.

The demographic effects of the district's large-scale building and consolidation plan that eliminated some central Duluth schools continue to play out, declining enrollment in certain schools has left their students — many with great needs — with less opportunity, and a fight has erupted over funding those schools.

To deal with those localized issues and the much broader and ongoing issue of inequity as it relates to marginalized groups, Duluth's school administration has begun building a way to test its decisions for equity, for everything from spending, staffing and hiring to athletics, clubs and classroom projects.

"Nearly all the decisions in the district are based on equality," said William Howes, coordinator of the district's education equity office. "I think that education, our district, has struggled with the concept of equity and the need for equity as a part of providing a quality education for all students."

Loosely, educational equity is an assurance that those who come from less get more to catch up to others. It's based on the idea that not everyone starts at a level playing field, because some students have more barriers than others. That could apply to LGBTQ, black, Native American, and poor students and those who speak English as a second language or have a disability.

"If you stop the average person on the street and ask them to tell you the difference between equity and equality, they would probably really struggle, and figure equality is good enough," said Kathy Hermes, a program coordinator with Lutheran Social Services who is working with the district on its effort.

"It's a beautiful time to do this, considering the sociopolitical tenor of the day," she said.

'An important step'

Howes, who is leading the effort, said the work is not new, and is advanced by what began decades ago within the district. This fall he worked with a core group to develop a plan, and has expanded that to include more people from a variety of backgrounds, including students, the City of Duluth Indigenous Commission and parents from special education and Title I groups. In the coming weeks, community meetings will be held to gather more input. In March or April, an equity proposal that includes a definition, a testing tool, a "resolution of commitment" and recommendations for rolling out the concept and ensuring accountability will go to the School Board for approval.

It could work like this: If the district wants to buy a new social studies curriculum for its elementary schools, it would consider equity in its decision-making. The questions asked to do that — which stem from the Minnesota Department of Education — would likely include: What groups are impacted by the decision and how? Have representatives from these groups been consulted? How will the decision advance equity, address structural barriers and reduce or eliminate disparities?

The Minneapolis school district has had an equity policy since 2013, but it's taken several years to embed, said Eric Moore, chief of accountability, innovation and research for that district.

"It's becoming second nature," he said, describing the many people involved in overseeing the concept and holding staff accountable for its use. It's been used for the district's literacy curriculum adoption and to examine athletics and the recruitment and retention of staff of color.

"We have a responsibility to remove any barriers that may impact a student being their best selves," Moore said. "This work is fundamental to who we should be as a school district."

Duluth superintendent Bill Gronseth acknowledged that systemic change takes time, and that training will come with it.

"It's an important step for the district to take," he said.

What is equitable?

Kevin Skwira-Brown has led the community group whose chief concern has centered on the distribution of compensatory education funding, or state money, that is allocated to schools based on their percentages of students who receive free or reduced price lunch.

Skwira-Brown's group and some School Board members want to see schools receive most or all of what's been allocated to them, since it's meant to help low-income students. This year, Denfeld High School received about 80 percent of its allocation while East High School was given nearly 400 percent of its allocation. (East has at least 500 more students than Denfeld.)

Legally, the district can use up to half of all elementary, middle and high school compensatory education funding for other things, and it has done so to lower class sizes in all schools. Skwira-Brown and others see that as inequitable, while district administration has pointed to other sources of funding that together provide more money per pupil at low-income schools than those that are not.

The idea of a measure that will assess programs, policies and practices surrounding equity is a good one, Skwira-Brown said, noting members of the community group have been involved in crafting it. He hopes the measure will be used, and that the development of it won't be seen as a "reason to delay rectifying inequities we are already aware of."

"I have a lot of trust that William Howes is doing this to make real change for the district," he said.

While many people concerned about equity have focused on Denfeld having fewer advanced course options in a day than East, Howes said access is only a piece of providing an equitable education.

Are marginalized groups participating in that class? Are they doing well? Is curriculum culturally relevant and are there proportionate numbers of teachers of color in the school? Those are all important factors, Howes said, noting that schools need more than money to make them more equitable, and need it to be spent in the right ways.

"I come from a place that had extremely high levels of unemployment, poverty and alcoholism," Howes said, citing the Fond du Lac Reservation. "We now have access to a lot more resources, but we still have disproportionate trauma, use of drugs and violence. ... More money, jobs, do not fix everything. As equally important, is how things are done."

That said, he doesn't think how compensatory education funding is distributed by the district is fully equitable because it's not entirely being used for its designated purpose.

'We aren't in competition'

NAACP president Stephan Witherspoon, who is part of the planning effort, said the idea of an equity policy is "long overdue."

"This is not rocket science ... we have a population where we have lower middle class people who work hard hours, single parents. There are disparities and barriers within that," he said, and it's important to make sure the "system works for everyone."

"We just want our kids to succeed," he said. "We aren't in competition."

Sabah Alwan, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the College of St. Scholastica, is also part of the organizing group. If the equity effort results in more teachers of color and has solid staff buy-in, it could be successful, he said.

"You can change a kid's outcome through equity," he said. "It really could make this city a different looking city."

The district's proposed definition of educational equity:

The condition of justice, fairness, inclusion and cultural responsiveness in our systems of education so that all students have access to the opportunities to learn and develop to their fullest potentials. The pursuit of education equity recognizes the historical conditions and barriers that have prevented opportunity and success in learning for students based on their races, ethnicities, incomes and other social conditions. Eliminating those structural and institutional barriers to educational opportunity requires systemic change that allows for distribution of resources, information, and other support depending on the student's situation to ensure an equitable outcome.

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