June 25, 2021 -- Achieving educational equity in schools is long, slow, challenging work. But it’s work that the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District is committed to doing. As the first district in Cuyahoga County to adopt an Equity Policy in 2016, CH-UH uses that policy as a lens through which to examine all its programming from family engagement to course enrollment to hiring practices.
“Equity is at the core of everything we do across all goal areas,” says Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby. “We don't look at any data point without asking how it impacts students of different races, genders, abilities, home language or even those who live in different neighborhoods.”
The Equity Policy serves as the bedrock for the district’s Strategic Plan and brings together many efforts that had been happening in silos for years. According to Equity Task Force member and Heights High AVID teacher Shawn Washington, “This is still in its infancy. But the policy lays a solid foundation.”
So what does equity work actually look like in a practical sense? One key piece, according to the district’s Family Engagement Specialist Lisa Hunt, a leading member of the Task Force and 1988 Heights grad, is focused on reducing the opportunity and achievement gaps between Black students and their White peers. Increasing access to early childhood education, which CH-UH now offers at Gearity, Noble and Oxford, is critical to this effort.
“Engaging families, identifying the barriers they face and connecting them to resources … that’s also equity work,” says Ms. Hunt. The district is planning to provide an array of wrap-around services to students, families and community members at Noble School, a proven way to improve academic and behavioral outcomes.
Increasing participation in Honors and Advanced Placement courses is another necessary piece, according to Ms. Washington who’s also an advisor for the Minority Student Achievement Network. AP enrollment has nearly doubled at Heights High in the past five years thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of staff to identify, encourage and support students to take the rigorous courses.
Looking at the explosive growth of MSAN in recent years, Ms. Washington says, “We used to round up members from the hallways. Now we have over 100 students and a waiting list.” Part of that success is thanks to increased outreach and connection between the middle and high schools’ MSAN groups. And it makes a difference. “Most of the African-American students in AP classes are either in MSAN, in AVID or both,” she says.
Of course, the foundation needed to succeed in AP courses is laid long before high school. A broader look at who qualifies for gifted education and enrichment programming and how those are administered in the early grades is another important piece of equity work.
Much of this intersects with teacher expectations which are undeniably impacted by implicit biases. The Equity Task Force has provided small group trainings for all district staff over the past four years. “There were definitely people who felt like being a good person with good intentions was enough,” says Ms. Hunt. “This process has shifted their understanding of implicit racial bias.”
Heights Schools Foundation Executive Director Julianna Johnson Senturia, class of 1987, is a trainer with the task force. “I learned how to have direct conversations about race as a student at Heights High,” she says. “Now, more than ever, students need us to have uncomfortable conversations, reveal our implicit bias, understand intention versus impact, and examine our structures for racialized impacts.”
The decisions around how the Foundation’s scholarship and teacher grant dollars are spent are all considered through an equity lens.
The district is also committed to hiring greater numbers of teachers of color in partnership with the National Alliance of Black School Educators and the Cleveland Area Minority Educators Recruitment Association.
All of this work has had a noticeable shift at the high school. MSAN member and AVID student Taylor Cody reports increased numbers of Black students in her Honors and AP classes. “We’ve done a great job recruiting them,” says the senior. “But now we have to provide the support so we can retain them. We got our foot in the door. Now we have to help students stay there and do well.”
So the work continues. Every time one goal is successfully met, another appears on the list. “This work is arduous,” says Ms. Hunt. But she remains positive and committed to making sure everyone involved in district policy and programming understands the need. “This is not – and cannot be -- an after-thought.”