School board adopts equity policy after years of study

Policy aims to ensure every student achieves academic success, regardless of barriers
By Nicholas Johnson | Jul 19, 2017

A new policy clarifies what the Mukilteo School District’s mission statement means by “committed to success for every student.”

More specifically, it distinguishes between equality and equity.

“Equality is treating every student the same, while equity is giving every student what they need to be successful,” 19-year school board member Judy Schwab said.

“Each kid is different, so we meet each kid where they are with high expectations for success. If that means removing barriers to success, then that’s what we want to do.”

The board unanimously adopted its equity policy Monday, July 10, after years of study and training on the subject. For Schwab, it was one of the proudest moments of her tenure on the board.

“It was a seminal moment for me,” said the 70-year-old Schwab, recalling her graduate school days when she and her fellow student teachers got a taste of life as an immigrant.

“We picked grapes with migrant workers, we applied for food stamps and we learned Spanish so we could better interact with their children and families. It was a life-altering experience. That was a long time ago, but it remains a passion of mine. For us to pass this policy felt to me like a fulfillment of that passion.”

Schwab said it all began after Superintendent Marci Larsen joined the district in 2003 and brought it in consultant Barbara Davis to update the district’s mission statement. During that process, administrators and school board members were struck by data showing the diversity of the district’s student body.

“It became obvious that we had to figure out what we could do to achieve equity for all students,” she said. “This policy is the lens through which we now view everything we do in the district.”

For fellow board member Mike Simmons, it was the district’s demographic data that forced him to take the subject of equity more seriously.

"The district is more than 50 percent non-white and nearly half of our students are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals,” he said. “When you start seeing numbers like that, it makes you step back.”

Of the district’s more than 15,000 students, nearly 20 percent are eligible for transitional bilingual services, and some 91 different languages are spoken throughout the district.

The district also serves thousands of students with disabilities, as well as students of varying gender identities and students in foster care.

“The data, for example, makes you ask whether it costs the same to educate a homeless student as it does to educate a student who lives on One Club House Lane,” Simmons said. “And the answer is no.”

The board’s new policy recognizes these barriers to academic success and commits the district to finding ways to ensure all students reach their potential in an environment free of racism, discrimination and institutional bias.

“The Board acknowledges that institutional racism exists and that longstanding institutional biases have resulted in significant, measurable, system-wide achievement inequities for students,” the policy reads.

“Our shared focus is to eliminate racism, inequities, and institutional bias, which will help increase achievements and graduation rates for all students, while narrowing the academic and opportunity gaps between the highest and lowest performing students.”

Simmons said Mukilteo is far from being the first school district to adopt such a guiding policy. He said the board reviewed policies from Everett, Edmonds, Seattle and Tacoma. He also said administrators and board members have attended conferences, listened to guest speakers and read books on issues of poverty, cultural diversity, race and equity.

“You might have one parent who’s a lawyer and one who’s a doctor,” Simmons said. “That student is going to have no issue getting educated. At the same time, you might have a student from a single-parent home on free- and reduced-price lunch. That student is going to cost us more to educate, so we should at least be looking at that as we make decisions.”

Schwab said the district has already begun looking at ways to reduce costs on families.

“If you talk to teachers in a school with high poverty, they’ll tell you they buy basic supplies for their students because they know the families can’t afford it,” she said. “We want kids to start school on an equal footing, so we’re finding ways cut those costs for families.”

Beginning in December 2016, consultant Barbara Davis returned to facilitate discussion on equity with parents, administrators, staff, board members and others. Over several months, she engaged 170 people in an effort to carve out themes to inform the policy.

“The thing I loved about this project is it was about being inclusive,” Davis said.

Deputy Superintendent Alison Brynelson has already begun developing an implementation plan for the equity policy. She said it’s a work in progress that will be treated as a living document. The plan has four components: students, professional development for staff, hiring and retaining teachers, and parents.

“Looking at students, what barriers are in place in our current system that we can remove to give students better access to education,” she said. “That’s the mindset we’re using. We still don’t know all the answers, but we continue to work together and learn together, keeping in mind what all our students need – and what all our students need is different for each student.”

Simmons said the district hopes to include the community as it continues to explore these issues, even though some will catch on faster than others.

It’s going to be a journey because you have to educate a bunch of folks,” he said. “Some will say, ‘My money should be equally applied.’ The equity concept is something we have to help people understand. I don’t begin to think it will be easy, but it is necessary. If it were easy, we would have done this a long time ago.”

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