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  • Educational Equity Journey and Cultural Audits

“The Educational Equity Journey” Model illustrates the systemic change process developed by Bea Young Associates (BYA).

It is a powerful process that links organizational strategies to individual effort and measurable results.

This process supports the people within your organization by creating an awareness of the stages required to navigate the journey.

By involving all stakeholders in the process, it inspires commitment and accountability through building an understanding of the organizational, educational and cultural issues impacting sustainable organizational success.

Guiding Principles of the Educational Equity Journey
This model is developed for educational organizations and builds upon core OD practices – it is a circle of planning and actions beginning with Cultural Audit(s) followed by organizational feedback. It is a “Journey” since each action provides essential information for the next stage along the way, as well as discovering missteps that may have previously occurred. This model provides a path for stakeholders to create self-correcting alignments with the organization’s mission, internal structures, culture and supporting relationships. It provides a path for a ‘learning community’ to learn about itself continuously. One goal of the Journey is to turn organizational resistance to cultural change into motivation for change.
Core to the Journey is creating a culturally responsive learning environment focusing on the goal of success for ALL students. An organizational environment where everyone is included, valued and respected is considered a precondition for learning in today’s increasingly diverse communities and schools. The challenge for leaders, faculty, staff and students is to understand first; then value and utilize the resources of those who are different along the continuum of race, ethnicity, linguistic abilities, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability or other diversity dimensions which may be identified within each organization.
Cultural responsiveness is a process that embraces and leverages those differences. It offers policymakers and school leaders the opportunity to dissolve cultural divides so that connection and communication become easier and more effective. This leads to equity and student success which results in closing the gap thereby raising achievement levels of ALL groups.

A Description of the Stages of the Educational Equity Journey Model

● Leadership Commitment to Educational Equity — Though technically not a stage along the Journey, leadership commitment is the nucleus around which success revolves. Whether it’s one key person or a like-minded group within the organization, leadership that is engaged, determined and passionate about seeing ALL students thrive is the core element of the Educational Equity Journey. This commitment, ideally, is held in common by the Board of Education, administrative staff, teacher leaders and community leaders.

Leaders set the vision for the organization. They may endure personal and political risks and experience ‘tears and fears’ for the joy of seeing each student achieve his or her potential. Leaders must understand the difference between equality and equity in education. They must be willing to look inward to become aware of their own cultural lens and implicit biases while appreciating the diversity of their schools and communities. They have the difficult job of hearing and honoring all the voices among their stakeholders while—at the same time—making the hard choices about priorities, then holding people accountable to those priorities.

● Internal and External Cultural Audits— Once leadership has determined there is a need to take the Journey, it typically starts with a Cultural Audit to validate and honor organizational strengths and raise awareness of the need for cultural change within the district. The resulting feedback creates an understanding of the strengths and barriers impacting equity success. Therefore, the feedback data does the convincing of the need for cultural change.

The first step in the Internal Cultural Audit is conducting confidential and anonymous interviews with Board Members and district administrators.

For Board Members, district leaders and principals, the process typically results in refining or creating an Equity vision which guides the overall strategy linked to the mission of the school district.

The second Internal Cultural Audit step is conducting confidential, anonymous and homogeneous focus groups with school administrators, teachers, support staff and students.

In our increasingly diverse school systems, homogeneous focus groups are required. Similar race, ethnic, linguistic and religious groups can capture the diverse perceptions of the current culture and practices. Focus group facilitators, of a similar background as the group, utilize guided questions for each group. These questions follow the same line of inquiry asked of Board Members and school leaders. Approved in advance by the superintendent, the questions assess the effectiveness of existing initiatives, practices and strategies to see how they are, or can be, more effectively linked to cultural responsiveness and equity.

The Internal Audit, with teachers, support staff and students, reveals ‘connects and disconnects’ between stated values and how they are realized within the district’s policies, procedures and curriculum. Where there is a ‘connect,’ the cultural audit reveals an ‘Organizational Strength’ built on common ground. Where there is a ‘disconnect,’ the process reveals ‘Insights for Growth’. Regardless of whether the information gathered is a ‘connect’ or ‘disconnect,’ it becomes actionable. It either affirms the organization’s practices are effective, or it shows the cracks in the wall which need mending.

When engaging the communities within which the school district resides, the process is called an External Audit. It includes confidential individual interviews with community leaders and confidential, anonymous and homogenous focus groups with parents. The ‘connects’ frequently reveal innovative ways to access existing resources. ‘Disconnects’ reveal deficits either in the district or within the community; again, these are Insights for Growth.

The aim of the Cultural Audit is to gather actionable information.

● Audit Report of Anonymous Feedback including Proposed Ways Forward – Sharing the Audit data becomes a key process to clarify why cultural issues have arisen as well as what opportunities may exist within the district and community to change procedures, rules and, perhaps, norms. These Audit Insights for Growth must be presented systematically, as described below, because the up-front investment in gathering the data by itself isn’t enough to sustain the Journey.

The Audit Report of Anonymous Feedback along with Proposed Ways Forward is the vehicle which provides the identified major themes. Cultural Audit participants must be assured their comments will be held in confidence and anonymity to develop the needed openness and trust in the process. All stakeholders who participate in the Equity Audits provide suggestions for specific actions which may help bring the organization’s policies, procedures and structures into alignment with its diversity and equity.

The Feedback Report and Proposed Ways Forward are first presented to the Superintendent. Then a decision is made regarding how the learnings will be provided to others, including the Board of Education and all administrators. The Feedback Report is structured around both Strengths and Insights for Growth regarding each key theme. Following the top leadership review, it can be presented in a series of interactive workshops to communicate the report to as many stakeholders as possible.

● Integrate Learning with Systems — Cultural responsiveness is not a one-time workshop or institute day event but a long-term initiative that must be based on the district’s current culture aligned with a vision for its future. Following the Cultural Audit, the organization commits to establish and/or refine its diversity and/or equity goals. Then the work begins–timelines, action plans, budgets, curricula, structures, policy, procedures and responsibilities are all aligned to the organization’s refined goals.

This is where the Journey addresses the systemic issues within the organization. What is learned from the Cultural Audits is different in every organization. Consequently, there is no formula that can predict what needs to be changed or implemented. Because no two districts are alike, this model provides insight and direction into the unique needs and actions of each district.

Equity success requires a focus on cultural responsiveness at all levels. This includes a clearly defined and articulated curriculum aligned both vertically and horizontally, leadership commitment to the ways forward implemented and continually observing the impact of the changes that have been implemented.

Very often the themes from the Feedback Report are woven into the district’s multi-year plans to address the systemic changes needed. Further, these multi-year plans can lead to the establishment of measures for accountability. A peak experience in our story was collaborating with Dr. Harper to modify the entire Five-Year Strategic Plan to incorporate key learnings from the Cultural Audits at District 202.

Examples of differences abound in the Plainfield District 202 and Berwyn North 98 stories. At District 202, an early learning was how the Freshmen Academy marginalized young Black and Latino students creating disproportionate discipline practices. It was disbanded. Another learning was how the Curriculum Leadership Institute process could not, by itself, create a curriculum that was equitable. Resources to help Subject Area Committee members create culturally responsive curricula were developed internally and further supported by external expertise.

At Berwyn North District 98 the learnings were different. What was affirmed in the Internal Cultural Audit was the implicit bias existing toward English Learners and Special Education students. Significant changes were made to integrate these students into the mainstream. Additionally, Inclusive Behaviors training was provided to the Principals, Assistant Principals and District Directors who were certified to roll out the Inclusive Behaviors activities to the rest of the organization. The plan was to ultimately include these behaviors in the classrooms. The curriculum was years out of date. A concerted effort to update the curriculum was made by bringing in outside expertise.

What was similar between the two districts was building a Five-Year Plan, which addressed the systemic changes needed in the district. Further, the multi-year strategic plans led to the establishment of measurement and accountability.

● Cultural Responsiveness Education — This stage in the Journey is about building collaborative relationships. For cultural change to be effective, the superintendent must include others in the process. The professional relationship between a superintendent and a principal can be complicated. The superintendent is dependent upon principals to implement the district’s equity vision in each building. Principals experience pushback from teachers, students and parents alike in real-time. There’s a temptation to let classrooms go about their business as they have historically to maintain peace in the schools. However, when principals have a role in creating the Educational Equity Vision through the Cultural Audit and feedback process, they are more inclined to own the vision with their superintendent.

Similarly, if teachers have a role in creating the curriculum, they are invested in making it work. Our Educational Equity model works because it builds collaborative relationships.

Our experience demonstrates that inclusivity is imperative to the Educational Equity Journey. As happened at District 98, many other school districts have provided on-going “Inclusive Behaviors Professional Development”. Inclusive language is the key to actual behavior change. Behavior, unlike attitudes, is measurable.

● Implementation — Building equity, communication strategies and actions to sustain and maintain an inclusive learning environment throughout the organization is the next systemic stage.

Actionable commitment is created when all departments are included in the process. The following are a few examples which sometimes have been identified as Ways Forward:

– District-wide or School-wide Collaborative Equity Advisory Councils
– Aligning Curriculum with State Standards through a Cultural Competency Lens
– Diverse Teams focused on Recruitment and Retention
– Diverse Student Equity Action Groups

In this process, personnel from all levels as well as students become leaders of equity and cultural responsiveness initiatives. Thus, the organization models how shared leadership can be created.

● Measurement and Accountability — Systems to ensure that accountabilities are established, and progress is measured, must be incorporated throughout the Journey. For example, in many organizations, utilizing Inclusive Behaviors vs. Exclusive Behaviors becomes part of individual performance reviews. In many school systems, each Assistant Superintendent and Principal is held accountable for embedding, within their teams, actionable equity goals that are aligned with the district’s multi-year plan. It is through this stage that adjustments and celebrations are made. In fact, many districts engage in a follow-up cultural audit two to three years later to assess their progress.

Thus, the Educational Equity Journey is not a “quick fix” or program modeled on a “best practice”. To create systematic, systemic and sustainable cultural change, with appropriate policy, procedural, structural and curriculum alignments, a school district needs to keep a continual focus on the Journey.