One School’s Commitment to Equity Using Student-Centered Learning

By Darius Green
January 14, 2021

We know that within the past year lower-income families have been relegated to remote learning with inconsistent or nonexistent internet service, improper removal from special education services, lack of suitable WIFI-enabled devices, insufficient or nonexistent childcare, food insecurity and innumerable other challenges. Comparatively, wealthier families have in-person classes, higher diversion rates to private schools, availability of homeschooling or pod schooling and nannies or au pairs for childcare.

Implementing student-centered learning practices amid these stark disparities has required a laser-like focus on systemic inequity and who is made most vulnerable when crises hit.

In 2016, our faculty and staff looked at our systems, practices and policies and recognized that we needed to change to better educate our most vulnerable populations. Ours is a large urban high school with a huge ELL population representing nearly eighteen different nationalities. We realized we needed to commit to achieving EQUITY in our community, so that’s what we did. To execute on that commitment, we prioritized four student-centered approaches:

  1. Beyond the Classroom Learning (a.k.a., “anytime/anywhere learning”): Exploring ways to extend learning beyond the walls and classrooms of the school (i.e., early college model, apprenticeship programs, internships and work study programs).
  2. Performance-Based Assessments (a.k.a., “competency-based assessments”): Developing a model of instruction and assessment that offers multiple pathways to mastery and graduation including Senior Capstones and embedded performance assessments from grades 9 to 11 across all disciplines.
  3. Personalization: Creating a system in which every student has an advisor to help them personalize their learning journey and graduation pathway and to formalize a process and platform for student advocacy.
  4. Strategic Scheduling: Reshaping the school schedule to support the student’s ability to develop their Habits of a Graduate and provide opportunities for students to demonstrate the extent to which they own their learning.

Reality (and Inequity) Hits Hard

While our school is designated urban, one-fourth of our city is essentially suburban and therefore carries all the privileges that go with it (i.e., higher socioeconomic status, two-parent homes, two parents with college or advanced degrees and political influence). The status differences across our student population translate into the marginalization of specific groups, namely ELL students who qualify for special education services, and Black and Brown males. It became clear to us that while white middle-class kids were thriving, not all groups were receiving an adequate education.

Once we recognized this, the barriers started to reveal themselves. On paper, and on average, we looked stunning, but a closer examination of each sub-group revealed we were failing our most marginalized students, families and communities. As we began to implement student-centered practices, we had to take a real long look at what we were doing wrong and what we were doing right. And in doing that, we confronted four main barriers in our work to infuse SCL and equity across our schools.

Four Barriers to Equity

I discerned four categories of barriers to equity: Economics, English, Literacy and Social-emotional wellness. Each one of these are so complex and comprehensive that they deserve a blog, if not a book, all to themselves. But I’ll supply here a brief overview of each in the hope that naming these factors will be helpful to other educators and leaders who are seeking equity in their community.

We create opportunity gaps when we make opportunities unaffordable

Economics drives all of our “isms”, (racism, classism, sexism and yes, capitalism) and other oppressive ideologies (explicit and implicit biases, stereotypes, ignorance and micro-aggressions). We noticed an opportunity gap in our school in which our ELL students and those in our career and technical education program (CTE) were not afforded equitable opportunities to advanced level classes (classes required to gain access to university or college, like AP, Dual Enrollment and IB). We noticed that our CTE program had significantly higher enrollment of students who receive special education services. We found that our ELL students could not access CTE programs because of the language barrier and lack of proper ELL services for those classes. The practices that kept students marginalized effectively produced wealth for some and withheld it from others. In essence, we had three separate schools within our school, and that separation was not equitable. 

We build language barriers that make access to knowledge and skills difficult

The next barrier is English; more specifically one’s access to a system that requires mastery of the English language to be successful. The English barrier refers to the lack of a bilingual education, the lack of multilingual staff, the lack of BIPOC diversity in staff, the lack of culturally responsive teaching and learning and most importantly, the lack of financial support to incorporate said strategies and to staff a truly multi-cultural school. By prioritizing these features, schools can better address the educational needs of our English learners and increase their ability to access the full curriculum. Many of our ELL students were required to take a minimum of two hours per day of English Language Acquisition classes which significantly reduced their access to enrichment opportunities offered in our catalog (i.e., AP courses, advanced classes, dual enrollment classes, etc.).

I read and reference the book Enrique's Journey because it provides a narrative of the trials and tribulations our ELLs go through to come to America and get an education.

We underappreciate the role literacy plays in promoting deeper learning opportunities

Literacy is probably the one barrier that cuts across them all. Targeted reading interventions end in the third grade. Students with specific reading disabilities will receive two more years of interventions, up to fifth grade. But there is no remediation for reading beyond the fifth grade. Because many students have still not mastered phonological awareness in upper grades, we are seeing numerous cohorts of students who are unable to read and write at grade level. If a student cannot read, they cannot understand or use new vocabulary; therefore, their writing will be severely hindered even as writing loads and expectations rise in subsequent years. When this situation persists unaddressed, it is extremely difficult for students to access the curriculum regardless of whether it is conveyed in a student-centered approach. For this reason, literacy is a primary barrier for students gaining access to student-centered learning.

We fail to address trauma, anxiety and unmet social/emotional needs

The barrier of social-emotional wellness concerns the trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and identity issues that prevent so many students from learning optimally. These are our students who often have severe attendance issues because they are not well enough to prioritize academics or to come to school. For others, attendance may be a less pressing issue than their grades as some come to school every day but may be failing every class. With already overwhelmed mental health services, students often cannot access the supports that would help them to be productive academic contributors.

The social-emotional well-being of students is further complicated as the global pandemic and political landscape has increased their social, health, academic, economic and environmental stressors to an all-time high. Remote learning environments prevent many students from effectively accessing counselors or school psychiatrists to address their mental health needs.

Recommendations for Overcoming Barriers to Equity

Commit to school-wide mandatory professional development

Our solution to the barriers identified above was to implement school-wide mandatory professional development on equity, biases, micro-aggressions, token minority-ism, restorative practices, weaponization of privilege, culturally responsive teaching/learning/curriculum and wellness. An important note: these topics consumed all of our professional development time which otherwise would have focused on developing and implementing student-centered learning practices across our school. The beauty of this pivot was that it was teacher-led.

For example, our Physical Education department, along with our School Counseling department, created means for staff and students to participate in school-wide wellness practices (yoga, meditation, standing desks, breathing exercises, removal of fluorescent lightbulbs, walk-in therapy, etc.). Soon after making these changes, there was a decrease in student anxiety (as measured by the number of students leaving class to see their clinical counselors for anxiety attacks), increased student engagement and attention, lower staff and student absent rates, decrease in staff or student conflicts and a significant decrease in the number of student hospitalizations for trauma and anxiety.

Bolster the number of reading specialists and implement formalized reading interventions

We bolstered the use of reading specialists and the implementation of a formalized reading intervention curriculum for our high school students into our budgeting and planning process. There are several parts to this program:

  • Universal screening for reading abilities combined with a RTI (response to intervention) policy for all students.
  • An established intervention grounded in direct instruction and reciprocal teaching of reading.
  • A comprehensive curriculum for reading that is vertically aligned from pre-K-12 (building upon the previous grade levels) and horizontally aligned across grade level (every class in each grade level implements reading and the curriculum in their class).

Implement a five-year cycle of scaffolded opportunities to learn and improve

We decided that a five-year cycle of scaffolded opportunities to learn, implement and improve would be how we would get the entire staff up to speed. In the first year, we focused on framing the problem and gathering data to generate sufficient buy-in. In the second year, there would be the rollout of trainings to half the staff each year. Over the course of year three, we would do the same as the second year but include any new staff. The fourth year would serve as an evaluation and reflection year to adjust to any deviations along with inducting any new staff. In the fifth year, we would incorporate student input via advisories or dedicated classroom time. Once the initial five- year cycle is completed with an onboarding process for all new staff, then our school, student, staff and community can begin to express our version of educational greatness and implement student-centered learning in ways that promote equity.

If you intend to implement a similar multi-year cycle in your school or district, your plan may take more or less time depending on how well-versed your staff is in at data gathering, data analysis and prioritizing equity. The creation of data teams, protected time for regular data inquiry cycles, and student feedback should be foundational in your school culture. I highly suggest a framework like “Data Wise”.

By implementing these practices along with ongoing professional development for staff we have been able to reduce achievement and opportunity gaps. We’re nowhere near being done, but we’re on our way.

Darius Green

Dr. Darius Green is a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative at KnowledgeWorks. He is an associate principal at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. Previously, he was an assistant principal at Somerville High School where he helped facilitate the growth of a new student-centered model of education focused on personalized learning and performance-based assessments.

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