PITTSBORO — Chatham County Schools recently began its two-year equity training efforts with a group called The Equity Collaborative, the district said at its April 19 Board of Education meeting.
The efforts will cost the school system $67,000 and include multiple levels of training for school staff as well as assistance in developing a new equity strategic plan. The training is a part of the Equity and Excellence for Everyone (E3) team’s work, which was formed five years ago. The team, which has representatives from each of the district’s 19 schools, works to support students by eliminating barriers for student groups as well as by using and providing culturally relevant resources across the system.
“We are now getting kind of this next phase of our work where we really need to roll up our sleeves and get to the real meat and the focus of equity work,” Amanda Hartness, CCS Assistant Supt. for Academic Services and Instructional Support, said during a presentation at the board’s April 19 meeting.
“Much of our prior work has been in setting vision structures, developing materials, sponsoring events. And all of those things are great, and they’re helpful, and they’re positive, but they don’t create systemic change,” she added. “They don’t close achievement gaps, and they don’t change the culture of our district to ensure success for all students. So our next phase really has to be very targeted with professional development, leadership coaching, regular development and community engagement.”
Along with race and income, Hartness previously told the News + Record that the district’s equity efforts also focus on sexual orientation, disability status, religion, gender and any other protected class.
The district first began the Request for Proposals (RFP) process in September 2020, selecting the Equity Collaborative as its vendor in January. Work with the group began in February.
Work by the E3 team in the last few years has led to the district revising various policies, such as dress code and discipline, making language on district forms more gender inclusive and adding more diverse texts and curriculum to classrooms. In addition to the equity training and assessment — which will involve talking to all levels of school community members and looking at schoolwide data — the team will expand opportunities for student focus groups, support and expand student racial affinity groups, host an equity conference in the fall and more.
All school administrators and equity team members received training from the Equity Collaborative in March and around 10-15 members of the team will take an Equity Certification Course through Western Carolina University this spring. The district also hosted “equity Twitter chats” using the hashtag #ccse3 to discuss various prompts such as resources, the importance of relationships and the biggest obstacles to achieving equity.
Every district school will also get an “equity professional library,” the district’s presentation said, starting with about 30 books for media centers as well as racial identity books for K-5 teachers.
Ness Shortley, Horton Middle School librarian, joined the equity team last year and helped with the collection development of library resources. Before joining the team, she said she was pretty vocal about increasing inclusion at Horton.
“I often focus on areas that maybe don’t get a lot of loudness. I feel like I’m constantly pushing equity for our disabled kids and equity for LGBTQ kids,” Shortley said. “And that’s not something I’ve seen a lot of progress on so far.”
Defining equity as broadly as possible — to also include race and ethnicity, language, economic status — is an important part of better serving as many students as possible, she said. In her job, increasing inclusivity for disabled and LGBTQ students could look like including books which positively represent both groups, or helping make sure the library is quiet or dark enough for students with sensory issues.
“We have disabled kids in our schools, obviously, we have queer kids in our schools, obviously,” Shortley said. “And doing nothing sends a message to those kids that those parts of them aren’t necessarily welcome.”
She emphasized too that looking at LGBTQ and disability status includes people of color, and can provide a more intersectional approach rather than an exclusionary one.
Hartness said having staff from every school and in various roles is an important part of working toward equity.
“We want to make sure that equity is not just happening on silos, that our school administrators are a part of the conversation,” Chris Poston, executive director for elementary and middle grades and an E3 founding member, said at the board’s meeting.
Hartness pointed to statistics that show Black students in Chatham are four times more likely than white students to receive a short-term suspension — a number previously reported on by the News + Record. She also pointed to achievement gaps, which show white students in Chatham consistently outperforming other groups of students.
“In Chatham you often hear us say, ‘all kids can,’” Hartness said. “What does that really mean? Is that just a slogan, or is it something that we truly believe? And we want to put action behind?”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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