By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
The state Department of Education today launched an “Equitable Practices Hub” that is aimed at getting school districts to perform a deep analysis of equity practices and make the changes needed to ensure that academics, discipline and extracurricular activities are available to all students on an equal basis.
“We’ve made it a one-stop shop for LEAs (Local Education Agencies) to find out where they are in the equity journey,” said Nikole Hollins-Sims, special advisor around equity to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
For some districts, using the hub will be a start, Hollins-Sims said. “Others may be halfway through and others further along in the journey. This hub is essentially a guidepost.”
The department’s goal for equity is that “every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need, when they need it, across race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, family background and/or family income,” according to a press release announcing its launch.
The hub holds resources such as best practices, models and guidance, but it first asks schools and districts to take a deep look into their data and practices and how they affect students, particularly those in marginalized communities or vulnerable groups including minorities, students with disabilities, English language learners and those living in poverty.
The education department asks each district or school to use the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium — Criteria for an Equitable School Tool before using the resources in the hub.
Hollins-Sims called it an ”equity audit.”
The tool asks educators to answer a number of questions about equity in their district, forcing them to take a hard look at some sensitive issues.
It starts by asking if a school system has a specific plan for educational equity but then moves on to questions about the distribution of highly qualified teachers throughout the system and whether there are policies to ensure that no students are excluded from extra or co-curricular activities because of race, language, gender, gender identity, socioeconomics, disability or transportation issues.
It questions if interpreters are available within a school system for all of the languages present in the school community
And, it asks districts to review enrollments of students in special education, gifted programs and advanced courses to ensure there is not a disproportionate representation of one racial or ethnic group, language or gender identity. Traditionally, minorities have had far lower enrollments in gifted programs and advanced courses.
It also asks if data is regularly collected, disaggregated and analyzed by such areas as standardized test scores, student discipline, bullying and harassment and participation in school activities and honors.
There is a school climate review as well which asks such questions as whether programs, speakers and curriculum in the school district represent the diversity that exists in the system, if bulletin board postings and other materials show students of diverse backgrounds
Educators are also asked to review discipline practices and data to determine if they are carried out equitably among the various populations of students.
In Allegheny County, Leanna Lawson, program director for training and consultation at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, is the point person for school districts who need help finding resources.
Lawson served on committees that helped to develop the hub, which was two and a half years in the making.
Lawson said in the coming weeks she will work to ensure that all school districts in the county know about the hub and its purpose. Following that she will encourage any educators who might need technical support or training, such as data analysis, to reach out to the AIU,
Both Lawson and Hollins-Sims noted there are no quick fixes to equity issues. “This work is literally paradigm-shifting,” Hollins-Sims said.
Lawon suggests districts start by focusing on pieces of their equity work and creating momentum and change rather than trying to fix an entire system.
The hub was launched at this time because all of its components were ready, Hollins-Sims said.
But it is timely given the racial discord in the nation and the COVID-19 pandemic which is creating equity issues in education as students are kept from their classrooms and many of the services they normally receive and as families live through the trauma of isolation, job loss and possible health issues related to the virus.
“Our populations who have been marginalized in the past are experiencing this pandemic at much higher rates of trauma,” said Dana Milakovic, mental health and alcohol and other drugs specialist for the department of education.
“There’s resources (in the hub) on how to engage with families. How to do check-ins with families. How to support families with the traumas that are existing,” she said.
The equity hub is an outgrowth of the Pennsylvania Equity and Inclusion Toolkit the department provided in April 2017 to help districts react to incidents of discrimination.
Hollins-Sims said the hope is that the equity hub will help prevent incidents of discrimination. “So the environment is such that we hopefully wouldn’t have this happen again,” she said.
She said the hub will become a “living breathing” resource and more strategies will be added as they are developed.