In early March 2023, the art room at Ellet Community Learning Center (Ellet CLC) in Akron, Ohio, buzzed with conversation. Although it was a teacher professional development day and an off-day for students, a group of teachers, administrators, students, and parents were engaged in a full-day event to discuss equity in their school. As part of the Making Equitable Schools Audit (MESA) partnership, REL Midwest staff led the group in examining their school community's level of safety and support for students.
Students learn best when they feel physically and emotionally safe, connected to school, challenged academically, and respected by adults.1 To develop a safe and supportive school environment, all members of a school community play a role. Teachers and staff shape a supportive school environment by building positive relationships with students and addressing their social-emotional needs.2 Likewise, the involvement of families and community members in schools can help students overcome academic and behavioral challenges.3
A school-level equity audit engages representatives from across a school community in reviewing data that highlight inequities in opportunities and outcomes among students. This multistage process involves convening school staff, students, parents, and members of the community to consider data that indicate disparities, facilitate open discussions on the root causes of the disparities, and create action plans to move toward positive change.4,5
Informed by this research base, REL Midwest is working in partnership with Akron Public Schools to ensure that all members of the school community—including students, teachers, and staff—experience a safe and supportive school environment. To achieve this goal, the MESA partnership is supporting district high schools in conducting equity audits focused on students' sense of belonging, the school climate and culture, the use of exclusionary discipline, and student outcomes.
This MESA approach brings together leadership and diverse representatives from across a school community to look at data, identify common themes, and prioritize findings for action and ongoing leadership coaching. The approach is designed to identify and support the implementation of policies, programs, and practices that can boost student sense of belonging, reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, and improve the overall school environment.
Over the past year, REL Midwest implemented the MESA approach in partnership with Ellet CLC in Akron, Ohio. This urban high school serves 948 students in grades 9–12, including 36 percent students of color and 22 percent students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
In advance of conducting the equity audit, REL Midwest worked with Ellet CLC school leaders to refine the MESA approach, develop guiding questions, and recruit participants. This codevelopment ensured that the audit would be tailored to the needs of the Ellet CLC community. REL Midwest staff also used this development time to prepare data reports on student achievement, climate, discipline, and enrollment at Ellet CLC.
REL Midwest and Ellet CLC then conducted the equity audit across three sessions in February and March 2023. The audit engaged 19 school community members, including students, teachers, staff, administrators, and parents. The initial session, held virtually, introduced participants to the MESA approach and reviewed skills for working with and making meaning from data.
The second session, "Making Sense of Data," was an all-day, in-person event that brought together the full group to dive into the data and consider student experiences across race/ethnicity, economic background, and special education status. To lead this process, REL Midwest facilitators split the participants into groups focused on student achievement, climate, discipline, and enrollment data. Over the course of the day, each group discussed its assigned data, identified findings about student experiences, and made connections across data types and sources.
This process resulted in 10 key findings related to the equity audit's three guiding topics: belonging, discipline, and high-quality instruction. At the end of the session, each participant voted for the three key findings they thought should be prioritized. REL Midwest staff then compiled the key findings into an equity audit report for Ellet CLC leaders and highlighted the findings that had received the most votes. During the final equity audit session, participants met virtually to review the report, suggest edits, and begin a conversation about potential underlying causes of the findings.
Connie Smith-Clemens, Ellet CLC librarian, called the equity audit collaboration with REL Midwest a "milestone" of the year. The MESA partnership and its focus on equity, she explained, became "part of my development in keeping me going in the educational field, inspiring me, reminding me of where I'm at, how I got here, and why I want to stay."
Over the next six months, REL Midwest will continue to work with Ellet CLC to build on and draw from the equity audit. With leadership coaching support, Ellet CLC school leaders will consider the root causes of the audit findings, identify evidence-based actions and policy changes to address the key findings, monitor implementation of these efforts, and assess effects on the school environment. This MESA approach is intended to ensure that equity audit findings do not become just another report for the school, but rather a launching point for action.
Jessie Kerr-Vanderslice, a REL Midwest senior technical assistance consultant, shared the next steps for the MESA partnership and its successful collaboration with Ellet CLC. "We are very lucky to have Ellet CLC as our learning partner for MESA's pilot year," Kerr-Vanderslice said, explaining that she and her colleagues have "already learned so much" from the Ellet CLC community and that the "REL Midwest team is looking forward to working with the Ellet CLC leadership team to identify action steps to address the key findings."
In fall 2023, the MESA partnership will expand the implementation of its equity audit approach with two other high schools in Akron Public Schools. With this next cohort, the team will continue to develop the MESA approach and support local efforts to build safe, supportive, and thriving school communities.
For more information about the MESA partnership and student sense of belonging, see the following REL Midwest resources:
1 Chang, H. N., Osher, D., Schanfield, M., Sundius, J., & Bauer, L. (2019). Using chronic absence data to improve conditions for learning. Attendance Works and American Institutes for Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED602448
3 LaRocque, M., Kleiman, I., & Darling, S. M. (2011). Parental involvement: The missing link in school achievement. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 55(3), 115–122. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ923234
4 Skrla, L., McKenzie, K. B., & Scheurich, J. J. (2009). Using equity audits to create equitable and excellent schools. Corwin Press.
5 Green, T. L. (2017). Community-based equity audits: A practical approach for educational leaders to support equitable community-school improvements. Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(1), 3–39. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1124194
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