In 2020, when we issued our first statement on advancing racial equity, we viewed it as an ongoing journey. Two years later, we now recognize that the work to advance racial equity isn’t a journey with clear start and end points. Instead, we’re thinking of it as an active practice. We seek to make advancing racial equity our custom, our habit—a central organizing principle that becomes part of every EdSystems internal practice and every project in our portfolio. We seek to model action-orientated equity, pushing on high-quality execution while building in intentional time to reflect and ensure our work aligns with our values.
The core of that first statement still guides our work today. Our year one review describes our first twelve months of putting the statement into action and how it has shaped our individual and team mindsets and processes. With this year two review, we are sharing racial equity learnings that have emerged from our deep work with a set of community partners and the changes in practices that continue to take root in our organization.
Looking Back: Advancing Racial Equity in 2021–22
This past year, we deeply engaged with a select set of communities to learn together how we can identify and address racial equity barriers facing high school students in college and career pathway programs. In our year-end reflection, the communities shared with us some of what they’ve learned this past year:
Student Voices Are Essential
Engaging students through empathy interviews, focus groups, and surveys helped communities understand how existing policies and practices are not implemented equitably for all students, resulting in differences in participation in opportunities such as dual credit. These learnings would not have been possible by only examining quantitative data and documented policies. Participants expressed the need to engage students more frequently, setting aside dedicated time to do so to ensure connectedness and help them reflect on practices and biases.
Racial Equity Work Requires Collaboration
Cross-organizational processes and relationships have been strengthened through participation in the Learning Collaborative, which allows for honest conversations around racial equity concerns, shared goals, and probing or testing of possible solutions. For example, in one suburban area with a growing Latinx population, the after-school partner is now more deeply involved in the education and advisement of students in regards to early college coursework and career exploration, while the community college partner is using state-funding resources to subsidize early college coursework textbooks and materials at the high school levels. Another district and postsecondary partner in downstate Illinois is now discussing having a college faculty member teach AP Math classes at the high school to alleviate the teacher shortage challenge.
Data Can Reveal Inequities Even in Homogenous Student Populations
In one school district whose population is predominantly Black and low-income, administrators initially struggled to identify equity barriers. The use of disaggregated data and student interviews helped them to see that while the student population may appear homogeneous, not all students were given the same opportunities, and significant barriers exist for many student groups that are not always a focus of the district’s college and career readiness strategies.
In a district where about half of the students are a racial minority, internal data revealed deep inequities in early college access and completion among Black and Latinx students. This led to a series of focus groups and empathy interviews with Black and Latinx students whose GPA and academic standing qualified them for early college coursework but who did not actually enroll in those courses. The resulting conversations showed the significant role that freshman/sophomore teachers and counselors have opening the eyes of students regarding these opportunities and encouraging them to follow through on the experience despite setbacks and challenges.
Participating in the learning collaborative also led to some key learnings for the EdSystems team:
Equity-Centered Work Takes More Time…And That’s Okay
Identifying and addressing racial equity challenges is complex and iterative work. We must clearly communicate our expectations and the roles of our community team members up front (who should be at the table, who is the community-level leader, and how often are they meeting outside of formalized convenings) and spend time building trust within teams to ensure the work is sustainable beyond our EdSystems project scope.
We must adjust our project planning to incorporate time and space for complex racial equity work. We must create space to help the teams ask questions and probe for underlying causes. We must take time to co-design possible solutions and ensure our funders and supporters are allowing for the probing and testing of community-led approaches needed to build toward and sustain wide-scale change.
We must also continue holding space to reflect on and learn more about racial equity practices as a team. This includes meeting every other month to review how we are applying racial equity learnings across our portfolio, Lunch and Learns centered on a racial equity topic, reviewing how we’ve utilized Liberatory Design Mindsets in our monthly staff meetings, setting annual individual racial equity challenges and goals, and conducting periodic, topical empathy interviews with students.
Quantitative Data Needs Context
To identify racial equity barriers, we cannot just look at quantitative data. It is important we contextualize these data through student and other stakeholder engagements that generate qualitative information to help communities understand the needs and barriers students experience firsthand, in and out of the classroom. This learning is impacting our future staffing plans for our data work, as we are seeking to add a position specifically dedicated to data engagement and qualitative data processes.
Members of the community design teams we engaged in addressing racial barriers in college and career pathways had varying degrees of regular student contact. Most had not previously sought out and evaluated student voices specific to the design of college and career pathways. One key learning is that we need to build upon existing community practices for engaging students by helping them think about their methodology and how they are gathering and sharing out what they’ve learned from students. As a result, we have begun to identify and share key resources and tools with our community partners that will enable them to engage their critical stakeholders in deep, targeted, and tactical ways to inform their work. In some cases, these tools will help communities collect and collate qualitative data from empathy interviews and other engagement processes. The goal is to shift from personal conversations that stay “in the room” to meaningful data that can be shared, analyzed, and used to inform policies and practices.
Communities Need Support Integrating Efforts
Districts are working with numerous external partners. There is value in helping our communities integrate efforts across these partners. For example, in one community, we are regularly meeting with both OneGoal and LiberatEd Way/AUSL, who are each serving as consultants to the district, to align our supports and services. This type of external partner coordination is rare and a practice we seek to emulate in other communities.
Looking Forward: Racial Equity Goals for 2022–23
The reflections on our learnings from this past year inform our goals for the coming year. Our equity focus for 2022–23 is organized around three areas:
1. Emphasizing Student Voice and Stakeholder Engagement
As we described in our year one review, we will continue to examine disaggregated quantitative data to highlight inequities and target our areas for focus. However, a key shift we will emphasize this year is to use data as a bridge for identifying where we need to capture student voices. Our data reviews should lead us—and our community partners—to seek to learn from those students and families reflected in the data analyses and tools we produce. This emphasis on qualitative data will help ensure our interpretation of quantitative data is not driven by our existing assumptions and biases.
Capturing student voices and using what we learn to inform action requires intentionality and deliberate processes. While many of our partners frequently engage with students and other key stakeholders, they are initially unclear on how to collate and analyze stakeholder voices. There’s a clear need for additional tools and guidance on gathering qualitative data—through empathy interviews, focus groups, well-constructed surveys, and more—to advance racial equity.
At the same time, we want to challenge ourselves and our partner communities to consider how we can elevate our stakeholder engagement strategies. How can we bring more student and stakeholder voices into the room to co-design solutions, shifting power dynamics to give our stakeholders more agency and space to innovate? How do we follow up with students so they understand the impact they had on an initiative and provide space for them to offer additional feedback if we didn’t get it quite right?
2. Leading for Equity
We are committed to building our team’s facilitative leadership competencies, promoting collaboration, distributing leadership, and strengthening a collective identity and purpose around our racial equity goals. This will be particularly important as we embark on implementing HB 3296, which will nudge communities to establish holistic systems for college and career readiness and pathways implementation. Our supports for communities must not only include helping them to develop these systems but also focus on how they advance racial equity for students furthest from opportunity.
3. Sharing What We’re Learning
We will continue documenting and sharing what we learn from communities and partners around equity challenges through blog reflections like this as well as new resources. We will focus on how we translate these learnings into actionable terms to support our stakeholders involved in the difficult work of systems implementation and racial equity within our schools.
Creating systemic change requires buy-in across all the stakeholders. To address racial equity gaps in our education and workforce systems, we need partners like you. We would love to hear more about your own racial equity practices and the impact you see through those efforts.