Report: Work to Be Done on Race, Equity in Loudoun Schools

The release of the findings from a system-wide equity assessment of Loudoun County Public Schools jump-started the conversation at the School Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Equity meeting Thursday night.

And while members of the committee said the report identifies many of the inequality concerns at hand within the school system, they questioned how fast recommended changes could take place, and advocated having a permanent role within the framework of the School Board’s committee structure.

In April and May, the staff of the Equity Collaborative, a consulting firm hired by the School Board, completed a series of focus group sessions and interviews at 24 schools across the county. Numerous groups participated, including members of the Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee, principals, administrators, teachers, support staff, and African-American and Latinx parents and teachers, as well as youth focus groups, including new and Special Education students.

After assembling that information and anonymizing potentially controversial responses, the Equity Collaborative presented the report, “Systemic Equity Assessment: A Picture of Racial Equality Challenges and Opportunities,” to Superintendent Eric Williams.

In an opening letter, Williams said it “serves as a call for additional action.” According to the report, Williams wrote, school system staff members “indicate a low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy. People are unclear and fearful on how to participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially charged incidents.”

Included within the report are several anonymous accounts of incidents from students and parents who said they experienced insults, racial slurs, hostile learning environments and other types of discrimination. Regarding discipline, one student noted, “Some teachers don’t know the difference between discipline and disrespect.” Another stated: “One of my teachers told me to go back to my country. I was in shock. I was born here.” Another student shared a story of an in-class incident. “There was something in a book about Arabs and the teacher said ‘All Arabs are terrorists.’ I raised my hand and said ‘I am Arab and I am not a terrorist.’ She just stared at me.”

One parent said the school system’s follow-up leaves much to be desired. “I have personally submitted data, phone calls, meetings, about so many issues. They ‘listen’ to me just fine. Here we are again. We’re all frustrated, we all feel ignored,” the parent stated.

“We must address this,” Williams’ letter states. “We must make it clear throughout Loudoun County Public Schools that we reject this painful, racist language that encourages discrimination, hatred, and violence. Addressing these needs and others identified in the report will allow us to better fulfill our mission of empowering ALL students to make meaningful contributions to the world.”

Central to this effort is the creation of a comprehensive equity plan, which will include “a clear vision and specific strategies for systemic change,” he added.

Themes & Recommendations

Five clear themes emerged from the information collected in the report.

  • Racial Literacy: School staff, specifically principals and teachers, indicate a low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy.
  • Hiring: Focus groups of educators indicated a desire to recruit and hire diverse school staff that reflect student racial and language backgrounds.
  • Economic diversion: Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty.
  • Fair Punishment: Discipline policies and practices disproportionately negatively impact students of color, particularly Black/African-American students.
  • Racial Slurs/Bullying: Many English learners, black, Latinx, and Muslim students have experienced racial insults and slurs, or racially motivated violent actions.

The report recommends that the Equity Committee proceed in four ways to address the findings.

  • Statement of Condemnation: On the “Superintendent’s Message” page, LCPS should publish a new division-authored statement defining and condemning white supremacy, hate speech, hate crimes, and other racially motivated acts of violence. This action would also require individual schools to include this message on their websites and in communications to parents twice a year, and not only in response to an incident.
  • Policy on Racial Slurs: Review the current policy, and establish a clear policy with built-in accountability for addressing racially motivated acts and create proactive leadership measures to address the student use of racial insults. “Name that the N-word is not tolerated by anyone in LCPS,” the report states.
  • Training: LCPS should provide additional opportunities for educators to engage in professional learning about color consciousness and implicit bias, and further establish a culturally-responsive framework to inform curricular and instructional efforts.
  • Hiring: The report recommends revising the current action plan to address challenges related to hiring for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Equity Snapshot

The report notes that despite the school system’s reputation for academic excellence, “data and anecdotal reports show that there are academic performance and opportunity gaps between student groups, as well as groups of students who feel disconnected from the school environment.”

The report included figures based on poverty level, students with learning disabilities, English learners and race. It finds that students that are economically disadvantaged are graduating with an advanced degree only 42 percent of the time, compared to 72 percent for non-disadvantaged students. The gap is even larger for students with learning disabilities, at 28 percent achieving an advanced diploma. The rate of advanced diplomas for English learners, meaning students who are learning English as they attend school, is at 21 percent, vs. the 72 percent for all students.

There is also an opportunity gap when it comes to race. “While graduation rates are close, Black/African-American and Latinx students complete Advanced Diplomas at a significantly lower rate than white students,” the report states. At 98 percent, high school graduation rates for white students are only 1 percent higher than black students, but 14 percent higher than Latinx students. A larger gap exists with advanced diplomas, with 57 percent of Black students and 45 percent of Latinx students getting the designation vs. 80 percent of white students.

Test scores also show a disparity. White students scored around 90 percent in English Language Acquisition reading, writing and math proficiency, with Latinx and Black students ranging between 69 percent and 80 percent in those categories.

What’s the End Goal?

The 25 members of the committee got their first look at the report, released a few hours before Tuesday night’s meeting, and spent much of the time reading through its findings and speaking about it in small groups. Many of the small groups identified discipline disparities as a major issue, while others agreed with the emphasis on staff and teacher training. “Why can’t we have an equity teacher?” asked one committee member. “Those are the kinds of steps that our teachers are going to need if we’re going to make that sort of deep change.”

Several committee members said the report only represents a first step, while others challenged fellow members to keep the committee—and broad school system—focused on facilitating change.

A comment from School Board member Chris Croll (Catoctin) about making sure that the community knows the committee’s work is not just about racial issues drew a rebuttal from Kevin D. Tyson, principal of John Champe High School and one of the school staff representatives on the committee.

“This does need to focus on race,” he said. “If you want to address a lot of issues, that’s where it starts.” He also echoed others that next steps should occur quickly, as many of the report’s findings represent covered ground. “There’s nothing new in it. We’ve known these things for 50 years. What is the end goal from here?”

Others pointed to the need to get more students directly involved with the effort. “They’ve been asking us to hear them for years. Let’s listen to them. Let’s respond,” said one committee member, adding it’s time for action. “Let’s proceed to the implementation stage.” Another committee member asked how the information will be shared with the public. “What are the next actions for the superintendent? How are we going to address that?”

Committee member Robin Burke, who chairs the Education Committee for the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP, said that without action and progress, the effort is in danger of “turning into a placating exercise.” She advised turning the ad hoc committee into a standing committee within the School Board. Otherwise, she continued, “I’ll speak for myself—you’re wasting my time.”

Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run) agreed that “it does feel like placating” regarding race and “there hasn’t been any movement on this issue.” She said that moving forward is possible quickly for many of the items, without requiring board approvals or a drawn-out process. “A lot of these can be done by staff without the board at all.”

The next meeting of the Equity Committee takes place Thursday, Aug. 1. In the meantime, the report’s findings will be shared with the full School Board for review. “We are just getting started with our difficult conversations,” said committee chair and School Board Vice Chair Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), closing out Thursday’s meeting. Read the report on the LCPS eGovernance system at boarddocs.com/vsba/loudoun/Board.nsf. Find out more and email the committee directly at equityadhoc@lcps.org.

aparker@loudounnow.com

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