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Special Feature: From the Inside Out

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How Equity Has Helped Close the Graduation Gap for Latino Students in One Oregon District

By Bracken Reed | September 1, 2018

MILWAUKIE, OREGON—In 2018, the Oregon education system received some much-needed good news: The state posted its highest graduation rate since the federal government started using the current rating system in 2010.

graphic showing 63 percent English and 23 percent Spanish speakers in Oregon schools

While the state's 77 percent graduation rate was still well below the national average, it represented a 2 percent increase from the previous year. Most notably, the increase was driven by improvements for traditionally underserved student groups, particularly Latino students, the largest minority population in Oregon. This was something to celebrate, given that just six years earlier nearly 40 percent of the state's Latino students were failing to graduate on time, and there was a double-digit gap between the graduation rates of white students and students of color.

Among the high schools that showed the greatest improvement for Latino students, Rex Putnam High School stood out. Located just southwest of Portland, in the North Clackamas School District, the school posted an overall graduation rate of 89 percent, with 93 percent of its Latino students graduating on time. Districtwide, North Clackamas has raised its graduation rate by 18 percent in the last five years and has completely closed the graduation gap between white students and Latino students.

The district's success has drawn a lot of attention, both from the media and from other districts in the state that have struggled to serve Latino students effectively. What has driven the improvement at North Clackamas?

graphic showing graduation rates in Oregon

As with any improvement effort, the answer is not simple. The district's strategic plan is focused on improving graduation rates and includes six key indicators that range from assessing students' kindergarten readiness to tracking how many students are enrolled in postsecondary institutions 16 months after graduating from high school. In addition, Putnam High School has made changes to its curriculum, increased its use of data to provide more timely and targeted interventions for students who fall off track, and put new policies in place to raise attendance rates.

According to District Superintendent Matt Utterback, however, "The biggest factor that is getting the results in improving our graduation rates is a laser-like focus on equity."

Putting Equity First

Utterback, the 2017 AASA National Superintendent of the Year, has served in the North Clackamas School District for 29 years, starting as a teacher and then moving into building administration before taking over as superintendent in fall 2011.

Two years later, when the district had the opportunity to create a new strategic plan, the superintendent, departmental executive directors, and school board were all in agreement: The district needed to do a better job with traditionally underserved students, and especially with its Latino students, who represent more than a quarter of the student population in the district. While the plan's main goal would focus on raising graduation rates, equity had to come first.

The first step was to create a districtwide equity policy—one of the first of its kind in the state. According to Shelly Reggiani, executive director of equity and instructional services at North Clackamas, the equity policy was a chance to make a public statement to the community, the staff, and especially to students. "Every component of a person's identity should be honored in the school experience," she says. "When a child sees that they are fully embraced for who they are, then they have the ability to thrive. That is the foundational core of our equity belief in North Clackamas."

Next, the district crafted an "equity lens" that could be used to guide all major decisions at both the district and school levels. The reflective questions in the equity lens (see sidebar) provide an opportunity to "check assumptions, biases, and barriers in order to eliminate practices that lead to perpetuating disproportionate education results and injustices."

In practice, says Reggiani, the equity lens is about removing barriers to student achievement, particularly those that may otherwise go undetected due to cultural differences or hidden biases.

"One of the things that creates for us is a humility," says Reggiani. "It's a cultural humility: 'Wow, we didn't recognize that this practice—whether it's a policy or any component of our education system—that this could actually be a barrier for some students.'"

What is Equity

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The concept of equity has been notoriously difficult for educators and researchers to define. How does it differ from equality, inclusion, diversity, and fairness? (See, for example, "What the Heck Does Equity Mean?").

The National Equity Project, based in Oakland, California, is one of the leaders in the field of educational equity and provides training and technical assistance throughout the United States. Its website provides the following definition:

"Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential."

Working toward equity involves:

  • Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents, and interests that every human possesses

Taking the Equity Journey

The school board and district leadership team knew that to put equity into practice at the school and classroom levels would require a significant professional development effort. In fall 2014 the district began asking every employee in the district to attend a two-day, race-based equity training called Taking It Up, which is provided by the Oregon Center for Educational Equity. In addition, all district and school administrators go through a five-day version of the training. The professional development effort is ongoing. Currently, more than 2,000 district staff members have participated in the training, representing more than half of the staff. Among other benefits, this has created a common language throughout the district for talking about equity.

"This is about asking our staff members to take that equity journey," says Utterback. "Who am I? What's my equity story? What's my equity perspective? What's my equity lens? What do I bring to the interactions I have with students or parents or colleagues on a daily basis?"

For Ryan Richardson, an assistant principal who will take over the principalship at Putnam High School next year, the most powerful thing about the professional development has been the way it works from the inside out.

"I think that's missing in a lot of equity training," he says. "We can talk about the inequities of the world, but until you really feel it you may not react. I think our district has done an amazing job of making sure that the learning is very personal and very real."

Making Equity Part of the Culture

graphic comparing graduation figures Oregon vs Rex Putnam HS

The challenge with any professional development effort, of course, is how to carry it forward into daily practice. How do you ensure, for example, that a two-day or five-day training doesn't end up being just a "one and done"?

North Clackamas addressed this in several ways. First, it asked each school to create its own equity plan. Second, it asked each school to create its own equity lens and to use it to make all major decisions, from choosing curriculum to creating master schedules to planning school events. Third, it asked each school to incorporate equity into its ongoing staff development.

This approach has worked. Walk into any classroom or office in Putnam High School, for example, and you are likely to find a copy of the equity lens posted on a wall. This is not for appearances. The equity lens—and particularly the reflection questions—have become part of the culture of the district.

"Part of seeing the equity lens normalized in practice is frequency," says Reggiani, "Frequency of use by the individual practitioner, the teacher in the classroom, the school administration, the department leadership, and the district office. It becomes part of our narrative about who we are and what we believe. If it's practiced on a regular basis, then our community knows, our teachers know, our kids know: This is how we make decisions."

Jill Colasuonno, a veteran English language arts teacher at Putnam High School, says the school has also carried the professional development forward. "Our site council and our administration has built much of our staff development around some of those same issues: How do we address the achievement gap? What kinds of activities can we bring into our classrooms? What kind of conversations can we have with students, and how do we muster up the courage to have those conversations?"

graphic showing magnifying glass

The North Clackamas Equity Lens

Each school in the North Clackamas School District has created its own equity lens, modified to fit its unique context. These are based on the districtwide equity lens, which includes six reflection questions to guide decision making:

  • Does this decision align with the district mission/vision?
  • Who does this decision affect, either positively or negatively?
  • Does the decision being made ignore or worsen existing disparities or produce other unintended consequences?
  • Are those being affected by the decision included in the process?
  • What other possibilities were explored?
  • Is the decision/outcome sustainable?

Honoring Each Student

It's been five years since the North Clackamas School District made the commitment to creating a districtwide culture of equity. The graduation rates from 2016-17 are clear evidence that the effort is paying off, but the real impact is subtle and more difficult to quantify.

Colasuonno, who has taught in the district for 25 years, sees it playing out in simple, everyday ways. "For example, we'd never done this before: At the beginning of this school year, as a school, we got our class lists and we took time to go through every single student's name to figure out how to pronounce it. It seems so simple, but it all starts with things like that—knowing how to pronounce someone's name."

Other changes have been more structural, such as establishing a Latino Club and other affinity groups, actively recruiting more teachers of color, and providing staff development in culturally relevant teaching practices.

For Reggiani, the impact of the equity work goes far beyond graduation rates—as important as they are—and beyond any single group of students.

"What we're really talking about is honoring the identity of each student," she says. "The success we're seeing is not because we've targeted one specific population but because we've created school environments in which all students feel honored and valued. They know that there are people here who care deeply about them and who believe in them for who they are. What we've found is that by focusing on equity, we've really been able to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all our students."