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Transforming School Districts with the Equity by Design Framework

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(Photo: SDI Productions/iStock)

For school system leaders—particularly those serving students of historically marginalized identities, backgrounds and communities—pursuing more equitable outcomes for students can feel like trying to inoculate fish in polluted waters. While an effective short-term strategy may relieve immediate suffering, a successful long-term strategy requires investing in a healthier, more sustainable environment. It means cleaning the water.

At Schusterman Family Philanthropies, we see learning environments in school systems as the water students and staff swim in. With the right resources, supports and community, we have found that school system leaders are eager to embrace practices that eliminate inequity in schools. They are ready to “clean the water” and create learning environments that allow every student, inclusive of race, zip code and socioeconomic status, to have an education that affirms their innate agency, identity, purpose and possibility.

We approach embedding this type of learning environment in public school systems through a framework called Equity by Design. Equity by Design supports school system leaders of all backgrounds in assessing the factors that contribute to inequity in their districts and in working together as active architects of meaningful, equitable policies designed to stand the test of time.

To test the Equity by Design framework, our Education portfolio, with the guidance of facilitator Caroline Hill, gathered a Community of Practice—a group of practitioners who pursue individual goals, mutual objectives and solutions to shared concerns. Comprised of 27 superintendents from five school systems of differing geographies, sizes, school structures and student bodies, this group embraced vulnerability, honesty and humility as they worked to co-create more equitable policies and practices for their schools. 

When we started, I was optimistic that our Community of Practice would yield positive results for all five public and charter districts, and it has. But what has humbled me most is how impactful these committed leaders have been as a collective. After three in-person convenings, 19 virtual meetings, three rounds of comprehensive surveys, and a year and a half of invaluable learning opportunities, these leaders have harnessed their shared knowledge to design and implement equitable policies and practices aimed at closing opportunity gaps. In addition, they have forged strong partnerships with one another, opening the potential for future collaboration.

The success of our Community of Practice is captured in the report, Designing at the Margins: How Senior School District Leaders of Color Learn to Enact Equitable Policies and Practices. Below, I invite you to learn about three critical benefits of the Equity by Design framework we saw emerge:

1. Equity by Design embraces the power of proximity.

Despite the best efforts of administrators, the constraints of leadership often result in barriers between district leaders and the communities they serve. This can cause breakdowns in communication and fewer opportunities for those most affected by school practices to express concerns and share experiences. To tackle these barriers, the Equity by Design framework encourages school system leaders to engage closely with students, families and those most impacted in their school communities. This can lead to profound shifts in the way these leaders think about equity—shifts that can motivate systems change.

For example: In Massachusetts’ Mills Public School District, the Equity by Design framework inspired administrators to improve learning outcomes for their English Language Learners (ELL) population and intentionally include ELL students and their families in the planning process for their upcoming dual-immersion elementary curriculum. In St. Louis’ Arch Public School District, leaders brought together a diverse stakeholder coalition of parents and community members to help plan their school re-openings after COVID-19-induced closures. “We were really, really conscious about the makeup of the committee,” said the district’s superintendent. “And I believe a lot of that thinking came as a result of the prior training and a prior knowledge of how we needed to listen and hear other voices.”

2. Equity by Design grounds participants in historical context.

In our Community of Practice, activities were structured with each district’s unique history in mind. All participating leaders were assigned readings about the social and policy-based roots of inequality in their communities so that parallels could be drawn between these historical events and enduring present-day inequities. With this grounding, educators felt better equipped to challenge ineffective conventions and shift from the status quo—or, as one district-level administrator in Texas’ Longhorn School District put it, “keep race not at the table, but on the table.”

­For Example: After learning more about the history of desegregation in their community, administrators in St. Louis’ Arch Public School District began to view their practices and their own mindsets differently. Before the Community of Practice, all Arch administrators said they “articulated organization-wide norms of high expectations and rigor to vulnerable and historically underserved students.” After the program, 100% of these leaders responded that in fact, they had not communicated these expectations, but rather inadvertently perpetuated opportunity gaps.

3. Equity by Design builds a culture of continuous improvement.

Beyond its learning frameworks and strategies, the cornerstone of the Equity by Design approach is an expectation that Community of Practice members apply their learnings toward greater equity. In their work, each district pinpointed a policy propagating inequity and designed a test to address it—gathering and analyzing data, speaking to relevant stakeholders, addressing environmental factors that impact equity in their districts and piloting new practices. Empowered to conduct more of these tests, leaders use what they learn as an entry point to pursuing improved practices on a larger scale.

For Example: In the Longhorn School District, leaders tested the Equity by Design framework by reducing the district’s disproportionate rate of suspension among Black girls. After holding public forums and sharing the experiences of the Black girls affected by unequal suspensions, the district decided to hold its superintendent accountable for reducing these rates, tying this metric to his annual evaluation and cementing it as a top priority. Similarly, the No Excuses Charter Network in Atlanta piloted a more gender-inclusive school uniform policy, which is now permanent and will now serve as a model for the network’s schools in other cities.

Now equipped with the foundational knowledge to design more equitable policies, each of the five school systems in our Community of Practice expressed determination to build further on the principles of Equity by Design. COVID-19 proved to be a critical turning point for these leaders to accelerate their plans, providing unexpected time to rethink their districts’ approaches to equity and opportunities to implement changes as part of re-opening plans.

These incredible outcomes give me tremendous hope for the future, and not only because of the practical improvements made in each district. The profound human connections I witnessed these leaders make in real-time were humbling, and their enthusiasm to learn from one another and sustain these relationships in the long term indicates that more positive change is on the way in their communities.

As educators across the country prepare for students’ return to the classroom for the next school year, there are ample opportunities to start cleaning the “polluted waters” of our school systems. With the Equity by Design model at hand, school leaders can take bold steps to foster that transformative change and school systems that are truly equitable and inclusive to all.

Cheryl Thompson is a Director of Education Grantmaking at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.


Want to learn more about the Equity by Design Framework? Read: Designing at the Margins: How Senior School District Leaders of Color Learn to Enact Equitable Policies and Practices.