3 priorities propel Winston-Salem’s equity work

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools working to increase diversity in gifted and advanced classes
By: | June 2, 2021

Equity, driven by data and collaboration, is woven throughout all of the goals in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ strategic plan.

That data has shown great disproportionality in the access underrepresented students have to higher-level courses and college and career initiatives, says Effie McMillian, the North Carolina district’s executive director of equity.

“We’re looking for the barriers that exist that prevent children, particularly Black and brown children, from accessing quality education and being included in more rigorous courses and gifted programs,” McMillian says.

Here are the key areas the district leaders are tackling in their equity work:

Diversifying the curriculum

Winston-Salem/Forsyth administrators are shifting away from aptitude tests as the key entryway to gifted programs, Advanced Placement and other higher-level courses, Chief Academic Officer Nicolette Grant says.

Students have begun assembling portfolios to more thoroughly exhibit their knowledge, skills and ability to handle more rigorous work, Grant says.

The path toward gifted programs begins in the early grades. Teachers in kindergarten through 2nd grade are now exposing all students to higher-level thinking, problem solving and vocabulary.

Educators are also working harder to identify the potential of fifth- and sixth-graders of color because if students don’t get into advanced courses at those levels, their chances of doing so diminish throughout high school, Grant says.

District leaders are also working with teachers to diversify the curriculum, starting with ensuring students of color see themselves in the novels and other texts chosen by English language arts teachers.

The district is also determined to eliminate the disproportionality that has more students of color identified for special education services, Grant says.

“The mindset shift with teachers it to look for what’s good in kids so teachers accelerate and provide rigor, as opposed to a deficit model,” Grant says. “We’re trying to make sure the curriculum is lifting all kids.”

Overhauling discipline

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County leaders know what all educators know: if children are not in school, they’re not learning—and they’re also taking advanced courses.

In an overhaul of its code of conduct and discipline policies, administrators are particularly focused on substantially reducing on out-of-school suspensions, which has disproportionately impacted students of color, McMillian says.

“We’ve got to have kids in buildings and sitting in front of teachers if we’re going to disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline,” McMillian says.

Like many districts rethinking discipline, Winston-Salem/Forsyth’s educators have shifted to restorative practices, piloting the approach at a handful of schools. Teachers are receiving coaching and professional development in the approach.

To better support students who have repeated behavior problems, educators are working with community organizations to implement proactive, diversionary practices meant to keep students out of the justice system, she says.

Community engagement

The district has formed several community advisory committees to help steer the equity work. The district’s multicultural advisory committee, which comprises educators and community members, focused on diversifying the curriculum with African American and Native American history.

The district also has equity and gifted advisory boards, among other committees.

Overall, a key to equity is allowing data to inform decisions, as administrators and teachers delve into the experiences and outcomes of male and female students, and students of color, Grant says.

“The data should drive decisions and what would be the ideal outcomes and what gaps need to be filled,” Grant says. “There’s no reason to have huge disparities if we’re teaching high standards.”