New ‘Director of Equity’ to tackle discrimination issues in Burlington schools

Burlington School District Director of Equity Henri Sparks. Courtesy photo

Burlington School District Director of Equity Henri Sparks. Courtesy photo

In an ongoing effort to confront racism and discrimination issues after a spring filled with controversy, Burlington School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins has appointed a new “director of equity” to oversee a wide range of issues from data collection to conflict resolution.

The district, which was made up of 37 percent students of color at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, drew fire from students, families and community members this spring for what some said was a failure to provide adequate support resources to marginalized students. A group of English Language Learning students visited the Statehouse during the legislative session to make their complaints to the House Education Committee.

The issues in Burlington led to a report released at the beginning of June which laid out a plan to confront issues of discrimination in the district.

The new plan calls for what Collins says is a “three-pronged” approach: Diversity education and engagement, equity, and recruitment and retention, with each of those areas led by a separate director.

The new director of equity is Henri Sparks, known around the high school as just “Sparks,” is a 17-year veteran of the district. He’s served as the coordinator of services for students and families, working to make sure families were kept in the loop with their children’s education. In his new role, he’ll be doing that and more, as he’s also tasked with collecting, tracking and analyzing data about student progress, achievement gaps and complaints.

“The critical part is that equity covers everything,” Sparks said in an interview. He says that while race is often the most visible issue, he’s also paying attention to inequities from the angle of socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation and anything else that might cause a student to feel marginalized. Sparks says the district has a long way to go in providing a diverse faculty, for example.

While his job has often been about the students and their families, Sparks’ new role will involve a lot of number-crunching as well, but he says that isn’t a bad thing.

“I don’t think we’ve approached it like this before,” Sparks said. The data-driven approach, he said, will provide concrete indicators of success and expose areas for improvement.

“Without that data, I doubt very seriously if we’d be effective in moving forward and even looking at some of the new approaches,” Sparks said.

A new process for fielding complaints

One development under Sparks’ purview is implementing a plan for two designated employees at each Burlington school to be responsible for receiving and investigating student complaints. The designated teams at each school will report to Sparks and will all operate on the same protocol, Sparks said.

“When you look at effectiveness,” he said, “it starts with consistency.”

It’s a big job, fielding student complaints, either directly or indirectly, from across the district, connecting with families and analyzing statistics, but Sparks says he and his team are ready.

“I know I’m not going to do it all by myself,” he said. While the size of his team is still in the works, he expects to have 10 to 15 people reporting to him from across the district, which has a high school, six elementary schools including two that are specialized academies, two middle schools and a technical school.

“The greatest thing that we have within our school district is the diversity, because not only students of color learn and benefit from it,” he said. “White students do as well. So I think when you look at that part of it, that’s all a part of education. It’s not just what students learn in the classroom, it’s what they also learn on campus, in the cafeteria, in the hallways. They have an opportunity to really learn from each other.”

While neither Collins nor Sparks was willing to set a timeline on resolving problems and reaching acceptable levels of student support and acceptance — “It’s really not the type of thing where you can just sit back and sigh and say ‘OK, we’re done now,’” Collins said — Sparks said he had a set of indicators in mind to keep him on track.

“My goal would be that every year we are seeing fewer complaints, we are hearing more student and family voices, we are working more closely with community partners and student advocates, we are seeing the achievement gap get smaller and smaller and students are telling us that they feel comfortable and okay in our schools,” he said.

Taylor Dobbs

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