Burlington School Board assesses disparities and progress on equity

Somali students protest at Burlington High School. Photo by Greg Guma

Somali students protest at Burlington High School in April. Photo by Greg Guma

A pilot report on equity and inclusion approved by the Burlington School Board on Tuesday initiates a new data-driven approach to policy and decision-making in the public school system. Using more than 30 sources of information, it is designed to be a tool for understanding and ultimately eliminating race, class, gender and other factors as predictors of academic success, discipline and participation.

As Dan Balon, the district’s director of Diversity Education and Engagement, explained during a presentation by an advisory council that has met since last spring, the fact that the pilot report details inequities is not an indictment but rather an inherited history. “The school district didn’t create these inequities but has a responsibility to recognize and overcome them,” he said.

The mood at the board meeting was decidedly more conciliatory than last spring, when dozens of parents, students and teachers packed the high school cafeteria and spoke for hours, many describing personal struggles and demanding immediate action to address unequal treatment and harassment.

The discontent reached a crescendo with the call to replace Superintendent Jeanne Collins. The board reaffirmed its support, however, and Collins responded by developing a more aggressive plan. Three months later, a revised version, as well as the data report, and a district policy on diversity, equity and inclusion have been adopted unanimously.

Collins’ strategic plan, “Diversity: Our Gift & Our Future,” was defended by Commissioner Paul Hochandel, who had opposed retaining her in June. He quoted from the document’s introduction to stress the new attitude: “Our mission recognizes that if we don’t actively promote inclusion and equity, we are passively accepting an environment where some students are excluded and others are not supported in the ways they need to succeed.”

Jeanne Collins, center, superintendent of the Burlington School District

Jeanne Collins, center, superintendent of the Burlington School District, last spring.

Burlington City Councilor Vince Brennan, who led an equity and diversity task force in 2011, was also encouraged with the board’s actions. But he has not forgotten a recent period when the local conversation had “eroded,” and “many people gave up on the possibility that real change was possible.” At the time he felt Collins inflamed the situation “by focusing on child-on-child racism when we all know that the issue is much deeper.”

On Tuesday few people of color were present “for the unveiling of this hard work,” Brennan noted, a contrast with the dozens who turned out to criticize five months ago. He concluded that “the level of trust will be regained when results of the plan, vision and mission are realized.”

Robert Appel, director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, commended the school board for moving forward in the face of challenges. In May, he defined the problem as more about communication than administration, and said, “People seem to be talking by each other instead of with each other.” Looking over the steps taken since then, Appel was impressed with the incorporation of time frames, action steps and accountability.

Even the BHS Resister, Burlington’s high school newspaper, took note of a change in atmosphere. An Oct. 5 editorial by editor-in-chief Lindsey Slack begins by recalling a time when “fingers were pointed, blame was taken and eventually the fire behind the whole diversity conflict seemed to simmer.” The issue hasn’t been “entirely resolved,” she writes, “but there is an air about the school that progress has been made.”

As a tribute to “the diversity that engulfs these hallways,” Slack added, each issue of the Register will feature a different language on the masthead or title space. The newspaper’s editorial team “thinks Burlington’s diversity is part of what makes Burlington, Burlington,” she writes. “This is our tribute to that.”

Identifying the disparities

The new district policy on diversity, equity and inclusion recognizes the need to “actively reject bias” and asserts that Burlington’s diverse student body requires a “multicultural mindset.” The school board assumes responsibility to establish a vision, monitor progress, engage the community, and develop its own capacity.

The policy adds that the Diversity and Equity Committee will review progress and make any needed modifications each year. “In addition, on an annual basis this committee shall propose Board strategies related to this vision, to be voted upon and adopted at the October full board meeting,” it states.

The Equity and Inclusion Data Report approved this week is supposed to establish a baseline that the entire community can accept as the framework for setting goals and assessing programs. The idea is to solicit feedback over the next few months, find out if anything has been missed, and begin releasing an annual report next February. “Think of it as a road map,” Balon advised.

Using data from 2010-2011, the pilot report evaluates outcomes by race, socio-economic background, ability and disability status, gender and ELL status. As Balon pointed out, the data reveals various disparities in academic achievement, climate and inclusion.

On New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests, for example, disparities carry through all grades. In high school 46 percent of white students are considered proficient in math, compared with 25 percent of Asians and 9 percent of black students. Racial disparities in reading scores, as well as differences in course grades, are less pronounced.

The indicators that are used to look at climate and inclusion include attendance rates, after-school participation, and suspensions. The report finds that blacks and Asians have higher attendance levels and that black students participate most in after-school programs. However, “suspensions of black students occur at more than triple the rate at which white students are suspended.”

Comparisons by socio-economic class are based on eligibility for free or reduced lunch costs. In addition to identifying an achievement gap, the report notes that high school students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch are suspended at almost four times the rate of those who do not receive lunch support.

The 41-page report, which backs up its conclusions with dozens of charts, verifies that in terms of student achievement, income level also clearly influences performance. In general, more students are proficient in reading than in math, and females perform better than males on reading.

As for climate and inclusion, almost two-thirds of all students attend school more than 95 percent of the time. Lower income correlates with lower attendance, and Asian and black students have better attendance rates than white students. ELL students have the highest attendance rate.

The report also examines the racial diversity of teachers and staff, concluding that it is “greatest at the staff level and weakest among the teachers where 97.6% of teachers are white.” However, hiring practices show progress with 24 percent hired who are people of color, a percentage close to the 27 percent students of color in the district.

In 2010-11, the school district hired six staff of color out of 38 available positions. This was a second year demonstrating “unprecedented levels of affirmative hiring,” the report states.

Martha Maksym, director of the United Way of Chittenden County, joined Balon and others on the presenting panel to explain how the report can make a difference. Maksym is also steering committee chair of Partnership for Change, a three-year, multi-million dollar grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to assist the Burlington and Winooski school systems.

The partnership’s goal, described in a press release, is to design and implement “student-centered” approaches to learning that “draw on new understandings from neuroscience about how people learn, and best practices that are emerging from state-of-the-art schools across the country.”

Maksym called the Burlington School District’s equity and inclusion data report “great work” that can be a model to help reveal “what’s getting in the way of students succeeding.” She added that Partnership for Change “is willing to look at an achievement gap summit” to move the issue forward.

The new school district policy, current pilot report, strategic plan and other documents are available at http://www.boarddocs.com/vt/bsdvt/Board.nsf/Public.

Greg Guma

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