We get these calls all the time: A superintendent sees the urgent need to address the fact that her district’s students of color are less likely than their white classmates to read at grade level or graduate in four years, but most of her school board members are afraid to name and discuss those inequities, and some community residents are resistant to any change that they believe will result in less access and privilege for their kids. Or, in a rapidly changing school district, the district and school level staff are not representative of the students and families walking through the school doors every day. The superintendent wants to fund staff development and recruitment for diverse staff but with a shrinking budget, it’s hard to convince the school board to provide resources for solutions that are not immediately apparent in classrooms.
Challenges like these represent deeply seated inequities that have been living and breathing in systems for years. The good news is that the number of principals and school system leaders who understand the collective urgency to create more equitable schools is on the rise. They understand, as we do at the NYC Leadership Academy, the critical role that leaders play in doing this work exponentially — not as one-off PD’s but as a growing and unstoppable movement.
Of course, with any movement comes the occasional setback. A few weeks ago, we were served such a setback when the Federal Commission on School Safety proposed to rescind guidelines developed in 2011 to address the extreme disparities, particularly racial disparities, in school discipline practices across the country. The Commission argues that the guidance has led to schools being too lenient on discipline and, in turn, endangering the safety of students and educators. In addition, the Commission proposal says, by focusing on race, the guidelines prioritize one group of students over others.
But the facts are indisputable: Students of color are more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, often for similar offenses, a disproportionality that is mirrored in our country’s criminal justice system.
As I have written before, you can’t change these disparities without exploring the root of these challenges, and you can’t do that without talking about institutional and structural racism. Taking a colorblind approach to addressing inequities really means you are working while blindfolded. It exacerbates disparities.
On top of that, alternative forms of discipline that make real efforts to support students and avoid pulling them from classrooms are showing some success. A recent study by the RAND research group found that during the first two years of a new restorative justice program, schools in Pittsburgh were able to reduce suspensions overall as well as the significant disparities in suspensions between black and white students and low-income and wealthier students. At the same time, teachers reported real improvements in their schools’ climate. Moreover, a survey of about 150 district leaders from across the country found that nearly half of the districts that have used the guidelines to try to improve discipline practices in their schools have seen some positive results. They have implemented restorative and trauma-sensitive practices, and supported teachers develop the skills to build strong relationships with their students.
While we call for these guidelines to remain on the books, we must continue to push this work forward. Our young people are counting on us. Together, our leadership has the potential to exponentially decrease the number of inequities facing our students.
For those of us already doing equity-focused work, let’s continue to lift and highlight the specifics about what that work looks like, the successes and challenges we are experiencing on the ground, and the impact it is having on our educators, students, and communities. We are with you in this journey and will continue sharing our stories on Twitter, at #HowILeadforEquity. We ask you to do this same. Let’s keep this momentum going.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) Board of Directors and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.