4 Insights for Shaping Equitable Classrooms that Help Students Thrive


The past year has made it clear that the U.S. public education system has a long way to go when it comes to ensuring all students have equal opportunities to graduate ready for college and career advancement.

This is especially true for students of color, who are often concentrated in schools with fewer resources that spend less per student than those in majority-white schools and often cannot provide adequate professional training or support for teachers. These gaps have only intensified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two years ago.

Our grantees in our Education portfolio are actively working to change this narrative and build a truly equitable education system in the U.S. Among these efforts, they have prioritized affirming the cultural and racial identities of students in a time of racial unrest, led plans to advance transformative diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across school systems, explored the benefits of high-quality instruction materials on student success, and found new approaches to meeting student needs in both in-person and virtual learning environments.

And our partners’ efforts can be replicated; throughout the year, they generously shared lessons from their work on the Schusterman blog. Below, you can find four of these key insights to help school leaders and educators in any school system build equitable classrooms that help students thrive.

1. Build culturally responsive and affirming classrooms.

(Photo: Courtesy of KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools)

Culturally responsive educators understand the history and effects of cultural constructs around race and gender in our society. They can continuously consider how these constructs shape interactions with students and, in turn, create affirming classrooms that affirm the lived experiences of students—instilling a positive sense of identity in every child.

The pandemic presented The Leadership Academy with a singular challenge: cultivate culturally responsive educational leaders who could give every student the tools for educational and emotional success and ensure that their needs were met during a traumatic, isolating time. Check out The Leadership Academy’s actionable steps that any educator can take to become a culturally responsive leader in their own classroom.  

To this end, building affirming classrooms isn’t just about affirming a child’s cultural or racial identity—it’s about helping them use their experiences and history to develop resilience and thrive. One organization leading this work is Black Teacher Collaborative (BTC) which developed a unique pedagogy called Shared Racial Identity Learning Environments (SRILE) for Black teachers that helps them to empower Black students with necessary strategies to productively process racial disparities. Learn more about how BTC helps Black teachers drive academic success, encourage positive socio-emotional development and build strong racial identity in Black students.

2. Engage teachers and administrators in conversations around racial equity, diversity and inclusion.

Michelle Molitor, Executive Director of the Equity Lab (Photo: JBCREATES)

The Capitol insurrection, the divisive 2020 election, months of mass racial justice protests and a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color have made it clear that American institutions must rethink how they approach racial equity, diversity and inclusion (REDI). For schools in particular, teachers and administrators must be skilled and involved in conversations about advancing racial equity in their educational environment.

It can be hard to know where to get started, though, and how to keep momentum going. That is where The Equity Lab steps in. Founded by longtime educator and school administrator Michelle Molitor, The Equity Lab uses a unique, three-phased approach to support its partners in building REDI journeys designed to advance racial equity within their organizations. Here, Michelle outlines the key steps any organization should take to advance racial equity authentically, effectively and sustainably.

Another way to implement an effective long-term strategy for advancing equity is by using 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 helps them serve as active architects of meaningful, equitable policies designed to stand the test of time. And the framework is proven to yield positive results. Cheryl Thompson, Director of Education Grantmaking, explains how 27 superintendents from five school systems across the U.S. used the Equity by Design framework to co-create more equitable policies and practices for their schools.

For another example of how to prioritize REDI work, look no further than KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools (KMAS). Even as they were forced to shift more than 5,000 students to remote learning amid the pandemic, KMAS still made major strides in their comprehensive five-year plan to advance racial equity across its schools. Learn how KMAS is working to achieve their racial equity goals by implementing comprehensive training for staff, affirming the rights to activism and civic engagement and centering joy and safety as fundamental to the educational experience.

3. Prioritize high-quality instructional materials that involve families as well as students themselves in the learning journey.

(Photo: bbernard/Shutterstock)

High-quality instructional materials are a critical factor in student success. But one key area that is often overlooked is the role of students’ families in their learning journey, something that became particularly apparent when the pandemic forced schools to shift to remote learning.

A study released in 2021 by the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) explored the important roles families and instructional materials played during virtual learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the findings will benefit students even as schools return to full-time in-person instruction. Judy Wurtzel, Senior Director of Education Grantmaking, explains four key lessons we saw emerge from the study—including how to create lasting systems for families, teachers, and students to design, monitor and improve on their learning experiences.

4. Ensure lessons and policies meet the needs of every student, regardless of race, background or ability—whether they’re in an online or in-person classroom environment.

(Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock)

Since the pandemic upended the daily lives of students, families, and teachers alike, school leaders nationwide have rethought traditional learning practices and implemented innovative approaches to meet student needs. Many educators have used this as an opportunity to improve how they accommodate students of every race, background and ability.

Four standout approaches surfaced through reporting from Mindshift, a project of KQED that follows the latest trends and conversations in education. From prioritizing opportunities for student-teacher bonding to exploring teaching methods focused on learner variability, don’t miss reading Mindshift’s findings on how to facilitate education that is responsive, affirming and effective.

While many schools have returned full-time to in-person instruction, virtual learning options may continue as an offering for some students who struggle with in-person classroom experiences. Lots of our partners found success for students of every neurotype and learning style through thoughtfully-designed, creative online programming, such as through engaging students in civil rights debates and hiring college-aged apprentice teachers to support Black students. Get an inside look at some of the methods our partners discovered for creating enriching, effective online school experiences.  

Explore our Education portfolio and learn more about our partners' efforts to ensure that every student has access to a high-quality, culturally relevant education.

(Top Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock)