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Leveraging research to promote equitable learning opportunities for students of color

Leveraging research to promote equity

By Maggi Ibis
October 28, 2020

On the path to academic success, Black students experience more racial barriers and opportunity gaps than their peers. Staff at Janesville Public Schools in southern Wisconsin are leveraging research-based resources developed by Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to address racial disparities and ensure that Black students have equitable opportunities to reach their full academic potential.

Partnering with REL Midwest

Located in a city of 60,000, Janesville Public Schools is Wisconsin’s 10th-largest school district, comprising 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, and five charter schools. Because the district’s student population is predominantly White, district staff recognize the need to ensure that students of color receive equitable learning opportunities and do not experience racial disparities, discrimination, or other barriers to achievement.

To support district efforts to promote equity, Allison DeGraaf, Janesville director of learning and innovation, and Angela Lynch, district equity coordinator, both participate in the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance (MAGRA). This partnership, which REL Midwest facilitates, brings together researchers and a diverse set of stakeholders to examine unequal access to learning opportunities for Black students, with a focus on Wisconsin.

MAGRA has created a space for collaboration between research and practice for DeGraaf, who finds that the work of the alliance and the resources it has developed direct her toward high-quality, evidence-based strategies. “Coming back to these resources,” she says, “has helped to keep me grounded and use resources that really promote and guide the right work.”

Using MAGRA resources to promote equitable opportunities for all students

Both DeGraaf and Lynch are using several MAGRA resources to support their district’s equity efforts. For example, REL Midwest researchers in the alliance produced a systematic review of research that identifies policies, practices, and programs that may improve Black students’ academic achievement and high school graduation rates. A companion infographic highlights 20 promising practices to increase the academic success of Black students [348 KB PDF icon ] at various education levels. The research in these resources has helped inform the district’s process for analyzing data for evidence of Black students’ growth in test scores and decreases in discipline referrals.

MAGRA resources also have bolstered rich discussions in a professional development community of Janesville educators as well as with a committee of middle and high school students who meet with district leaders. For example, a MAGRA documentary on evidence-based strategies to support students of color in the transition to college has helped guide challenging conversations with Janesville students regarding race and inequity in education.

In addition, DeGraaf has shared MAGRA resources, such as a video and viewing guide on strategies to support Black students’ excellence, with principals and other school staff to enrich discussions on practical and effective strategies for closing opportunity and achievement gaps. District leaders are using MAGRA resources as well to supplement the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Promoting Excellence for All framework, which provides information and strategies for improving achievement for students of color.

“One area where we have improved,” says DeGraaf, “is closing the gap for some of our Black and Hispanic students. The more we’re aware of it, the more we have the opportunity to see an increase in outcomes.”

As part of MAGRA, both DeGraaf and Lynch also participated in a team that helped develop training materials for school board members and district administrators on opportunity gaps that Black students in Wisconsin experience. The materials include strategies and resources that education policymakers and leaders can use to foster educational equity and opportunity.

“[The partnership] has helped me continue to grow and reflect in my own role,” says DeGraaf. “The more opportunities I have to collaborate with others, the more opportunities I have to learn about new resources, the better prepared it helps me, as a leader in the district, be able to support other leaders.”

DeGraaf and Lynch are committed to pushing boundaries on how and where Janesville district leaders and school staff can evolve their approach for closing opportunity gaps and promoting equitable learning environments. The research and resources that the MAGRA partnership has developed help challenge their thinking by drawing on lessons learned in other districts to understand the diverse perspectives and experiences of other leaders across the region.

“We want to move the needle—that’s our goal,” says Lynch. “For our students’ sake and for each other … it is some of the most challenging work I’ve done, and I think it’s the most important as well. We have a responsibility to our students to provide a safe and equitable environment for all of them.”

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Author information

Maggi Ibis Staff Picture

Maggi Ibis

Research Associate | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

Teacher Recruitment (2)

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