New era of equity: District leader sees new way forward after school closures

Ithaca Superintendent Luvelle Brown says education leaders should resist a 'return to normal'
By: | June 3, 2020
Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown, shown here high-fiving a student before the pandemic, says reopening schools offers an opportunity to change policies that have marginalized students of color.Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown, shown here high-fiving a student before the pandemic, says reopening schools offers an opportunity to change policies that have marginalized students of color.
Luvelle Brown

Luvelle Brown

School closures and the challenges of online learning have brought new attention to inequities that underrepresented and underprivileged students face in public education, particularly when it comes to access to technology and high-speed internet.

Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown—who is examining the way forward in a series of Discovery Education equity webinars with education leaders—says the pandemic offers an opportunity for progress.

But that will require that education leaders resist the temptation to “go back to normal” when classrooms reopen and the coronavirus comes under control.

“I have a pretty unique lens for hearing the coded language that speaks to us retuning to normal and allowing for privileges that many have enjoyed to continue,” Brown says.

In a Q&A with District Administration this weekBrown talked about the new equity approaches district leaders can take as they and their teams re-envision K-12 education in preparation for fall 2020 and beyond.

Why should district leaders avoid “returning to normal” in focusing on equity?

I have been talking to folks all over the nation and one thing that has been surprising is that the default for many people has been to go back to what they were doing before the pandemic. The default has been to protect what has worked for many with privileges. I can’t tell you the number of times, I’ve heard “When we go back to school, we need some normalcy.”

People talk around equity. They want us to continue things such as assessments to determine where kids are, which is code for “let’s assess kids in fall and group them.”

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The kids who have been struggling will be over here while everybody else gets something different over there.

But folks coming at this from an equity lens see this pandemic as a perfect opportunity to address the inequities that have been highlighted.

What mistakes should educators avoid when bringing students back to classrooms? 

I’m hearing a lot of talk about credit recovery and interventions, which will probably be based on standardized assessments. Some kids will get the new and best resources, and other students may get far less stuff because they’re in credit recovery and intervention.

I want us to come up with different approaches to determine who has gaps, and what we’re using to determine if they have gaps.

We have to come up with different systems that do not allow students in credit recovery and intervention to be removed from the highest-level courses and innovations.

How do equity-minded leaders proceed in not returning to normal?

First, folks must reflect on oppressive and racist practices—such as suspensions and codes of conduct—that have happened in our buildings that may have been overlooked.

Leaders should also reflect on things that happened this year that spoke to oppression, and ask what did they do to disrupt them, to change that policy.

In my school district, I’m leading a reopening planning process that’s looking at everything. We’re talking about attendance and grading and how we’ve had to rethink both of those during the pandemic. We have policies on the books that have marginalized kids of color and poverty.

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Who can go back to school in fall and then have a policy that allows you to suspend students? I hope folks can start to hear the oddities in that kind of language.

What new equity approaches are emerging as school leaders plan to reopen? 

New models are allowing for collaboration and student voice. If you think about attendance, for example, I hope we are able to build capacity for instructional models that allow parents to choose: school all day, at home all day or a blended model.

And take grading, which exists to sort and select. The 100-point scale, by mere definition, is an arbitrary approach to giving young people a sense of whether they have competency in a subject area.

So how do we monitor progress? We are moving toward multiples measures, including portfolio-based measures. We have a school that graduates all students by exhibits and portfolios.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.