We are thrilled to introduce the first of our occasional guest bloggers sharing expertise on leadership and equity from the field.
Intentionality. Without it, you’ll never make sure every child has access to the resources they need to learn and grow. It is what drives my position as Executive Director of Equity and Access for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York State. My team and I anchor equity in every department in the district, from curriculum and instruction to human resources to community engagement.
Like many small cities around the country, Newburgh has struggled to get boys of color, particularly black boys, to graduate at the same rate as their white peers. They are less likely to be found in advanced classes, more likely to be disciplined or suspended. We are robbing these young men of the chance to reach their full potential and robbing our country of the next generation of talent and innovators.
As part of a concerted effort to address these inequities, Newburgh Superintendent Roberto Padilla, with the support of the school board, created my position a little over a year ago. For years the leaders in the district had been talking about the disparities in how students were performing based on race, culture, and economic status. Creating the executive director of equity and access position was about putting those conversations into action. It was no longer enough to recycle the “equity lives in everything we do and doesn’t need to be called out” argument. District leaders knew systemic change was needed. My office provides the consistency that is needed to make systemic change. We model how to lead through the lens of equity.
It’s a complex role. My office makes sure all our students, regardless of difference, receive the supports necessary to be successful. I play a large role in suspensions and discipline; I’m in charge of culturally relevant pedagogy and the professional development needed to help educators create that; I supervise the social and emotional learning teams, behavioral specialists, and social workers, figuring out what they need to be successful and making sure they’re embedded within the district.
Take Advanced Placement courses. A director of those programs typically focuses on the variety and quality of classes offered. When my team goes in, we are looking at how different subgroups of students are enrolling in and completing those classes. If you put a brilliant student in an advanced class and there is no one else in there who looks like him or her, what supports are we giving him or her to make sure he feels comfortable and can relate to the material and stays engaged? What are we doing to make sure he or she doesn’t drop the class? How do we ensure the courses are taught through the lens of equity? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves.
We then work to create and provide instructors, principals, any staff who interact with students each day, with learning opportunities to build upon their professional practice, to help them better engage each student. This learning is rooted in what teachers need to support our diverse learners, to be able to offer culturally relevant pedagogy and run trauma-sensitive classrooms. If a teacher doesn’t understand the environments that some of our students are coming from, I don’t think it’s reasonable or practical to expect that teacher would understand how to really diffuse, deescalate, or engage with those students. It’s incumbent upon us as a district to support our teachers and our staff so that they can build their own capacity, so that they can go back in those classrooms and give their best to those students. We’re creating a district-wide professional development plan now that will give all staff a tiered menu of options based on their needs and the needs of the students.
To be sure all our work is targeted and intentional, we are constantly gathering and reflecting on data. Through surveys and conversations, we are regularly asking principals and teachers what they need and how their needs have changed. We’re holding focus groups with students, too, asking them to describe a school that would make them feel more engaged. When you have teachers saying, “We need this support” and they are excited to get it, and we have students saying, “I feel like my teacher doesn’t always get me,” we can triangulate that. When that is done seamlessly, you hopefully have a system where you’re continually pouring into your teachers so that they can pour into their students.
We’re also developing an equity report card to serve as our baseline for where our gaps are in the district, to highlight how student achievement intersects with race and poverty and to get clarity on how we as a district are serving our subpopulations. As we continue to move forward with our equity agenda, we can progress monitor our actions and initiatives.
With all that information, we are resource mapping and creating an equity funding formula, making sure support goes where the need is. We should not give a school five reading teachers just because that’s what they’ve always had. Maybe, as their student body has changed, they now need more math specialists. The funds will be attached to the children. When a child leaves a school, the funding will follow. As needs change, we can leverage, repurpose, redistribute, or acquire those services.
As we extend our equity lens into every aspect of the district’s work, we are starting to see a culture shift. Rather than my team continuing to do all the troubleshooting and identifying the needs and gaps, staff from other departments in the district are coming to me and saying, “We want you to do this” and “Where can equity come into our work?” Suspension referrals have dropped across the district. I’m getting positive feedback from teachers and administrators about the changes we are slowly making.
Every single district has inequities. They may look different, whether it’s with relation to gender or socioeconomics or students who are exceptional. But any district that takes the time to do an equity audit will find inequities. You just must be willing to look and know that addressing them will take hard work and time.
In Newburgh, we are proud to be creating a school system that can flex to meet the needs of the students in front of us. You can’t create a single system to do anything, and certainly not to serve a student population that is constantly changing. We can’t predict what the students coming in tomorrow will need, what new challenges and demands they will bring. When you don’t create flexibility, then you go back to equality. That regardless of the students we get, we’re going to continue to offer you these supports, which we think may support you. And the goal is not that, it’s in fact to always be very intentional about looking at what these students need, and what do we have to figure out to meet them where they are?
Learn more about Newburgh’s equity work in our short film on what it takes to lead for equity, which will be released next week.
Abbie Groff-Blaszak currently serves as a coach for The Leadership Academy. Abbie joined the organization in 2017 as the Director of the West Michigan Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, a role in which she directed a program of support for five districts in Greater Grand Rapids that focuses on professional learning networks and individualized coaching for principals, personalized district leadership support, and the collaborative development of local capacity to support and sustain a strong principal pipeline. Abbie is passionate about building and supporting a healthy and diverse educator workforce as the foundation for achieving equitable student outcomes. She has a rich background and expertise in programs and policy to support the development, retention, and growth of strong educators at the local, state, and national levels. Prior to joining The Leadership Academy, Abbie served in various roles at the Michigan Department of Education, including Manager of Curriculum and Instruction, Senior Policy Advisor, and most recently, Director of the Office of Educator Talent. In her time at the MDE, Abbie led a number of major initiatives, including Michigan’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the development and implementation of Michigan’s ESEA Flexibility and State Equity Plans, implementation of Michigan’s educator evaluation law, and development of Michigan’s ESSA plan focusing on educator effectiveness. Abbie began her career in education as a Teach for America corps member, teaching third and fourth grades in the Greenville Public Schools in Greenville, Mississippi. Following her two-year commitment, Abbie remained in Greenville for several more years, serving as a teacher leader, curriculum coach, and assistant principal before heading back to the Midwest as founding principal of a start-up public charter school in Indianapolis, IN. Abbie holds a BA in History and Political Science from Indiana University and a Ed.M. from Harvard University in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy.