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CSBA Equity Network participants dive deep to take on key issues 

Board members gather in West Sacramento to discuss attitudes, approaches to help close gaps

School board members from across the state are using CSBA’s Equity Network to identify strategies that address inequities and help close opportunity and achievement gaps.

Fifteen board members gathered Oct. 26-27 at the CSBA offices in West Sacramento, where equity expert Nicole Anderson facilitated the network’s second set of in-person workshops and presentations – three virtual meetings are also part of the program. To build a framework for discussion, the first day included an exercise that helped board members craft their messages for various stakeholders on why equity is important in their districts — by way of 30-second “elevator pitch.” “We’ve got to convince people who don’t believe in the work,” Anderson said.

Participants also learned about the history and goals of the U.S. public education system, examining and discussing whether it can be reconfigured to resolve the inequities it creates. “We are working in a system that is not designed to serve all kids,” Anderson said, sparking feedback from board members on a variety of levels.

While it may sometimes seem like equity initiatives and programs come and go like Band-Aids, several attendees agreed that the key input in the education system – people, and their attitudes – has the greatest impact on the system’s outcomes. “We need to take a look at ourselves, and that’s the hardest thing to do,” said Lillian Tafoya, Bakersfield City School District board member.

Although he entered the workshop aware of the achievement gaps and inequities in his district, Jefferson Union High School District board President Andrew Lie said the Equity Network has allowed him to look at issues through a new lens. “It’s been incredibly helpful and deep,” he said, adding that self-reflection on his own upbringing and education — his parents immigrated from Indonesia — have allowed him to “reprogram” his point of view and approaches as a board member in the Bay Area district.

In addition to shaping viewpoints and breaking down barriers to understand the needs of underserved students, Nancy Chaires Espinoza, president of the Elk Grove Unified School District board, said the state simply doesn’t have enough funding for teachers, administrators, programs and facilities that do help close achievement gaps. “We don’t have enough of anything in the state of California compared to other states,” she said. Adjusted for cost of living, California ranks 41st in the country per-pupil funding, is 45th in the percentage of taxable income spent on education, 45th in student-teacher ratios, and 48th in staff per student.

Dr. Erick Witherspoon, director of Equality Services with Generation Ready, later presented on “Culturally Proficient Practice” and attendees worked through methods of understanding the diverse needs of students and other stakeholders (topics included English-learners, African-Americans as Social-Emotional Learners, diverse cultural identities of Asian students, students in poverty and LGBTQ students). Topics on the network’s second day included a presentation by Steven Joiner on core equity concepts, including stereotyping, implicit bias, microaggressions and structural racism.

The learning experiences for board members also go beyond a meeting setting, as members will get out into the field in February with an “equity walk” at an Elk Grove Unified School District site. The Equity Network was funded by planning and implementation grants from the Stuart Foundation totaling $190,000. Participants are from Bakersfield City ESD, San Diego USD, Monterey Peninsula USD, Salinas Union HSD, Elk Grove USD, Washington USD, Fairfield-Suisun USD, Manteca USD, Alhambra USD and Jefferson UHSD.

With the issues addressed being deep-rooted and sometimes difficult to take on, Jefferson UHSD board Vice President Kalimah Salahuddin said in group conversation that the existing educational structure is designed to stay that way and makes it very difficult to enact equitable change. But, she said, “I don’t give up hope. That’s why I’m here.”