Jun 3, 2021 · 7 min read
Strengthening Equity in Schools: 5 Key Steps
Rhonda Broussard became intimately familiar with educational inequity and how it shapes our world at a young age. By the end of high school, Rhonda began to question how students with different resources could have vastly different educational experiences.
Inspired to make education more equitable, Rhonda became a teacher. And in 2007, she founded an independent network of language-immersion schools in St. Louis, Missouri. But in 2014, after a Ferguson police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. nearby, Rhonda began rethinking her relationship with education reform.
“The diploma did not stop the bullet; he had just graduated that spring,” she says. “And we were essentially trying to build a better diploma.”
Rhonda says she reflected on all her lived experiences — as a teacher, Black mom and school leader.
“And I thought, ‘What would it take to develop sustainable processes,’” Rhonda says, “‘so that when a charismatic leader leaves, or the funding stream ends, or the legislation changes, the community that makes up a school can keep doing this work together?’”
After spending more than a year rethinking her approach, Rhonda founded Beloved Community — a nonprofit consulting firm focused on implementing regional, sustainable solutions for diversity, equity and inclusion. She equips schools and organizations with the information and strategies needed to dismantle failing systems and replace them with people-centric processes.
Lessons From the Field: Building Educational Equity
In July 2020, Beloved Community received a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to work with Libertas College Prep, a middle school in South Los Angeles, California. The goal? Identify obstacles to equitable family engagement and help Libertas gain and retain the trust of parents.
Through a series of interviews, focus groups and self-reflection activities, Beloved Community helped students, parents and staff be honest with one another, examine historical practices, and develop a vision for a more equitable and inclusive school community.
We asked Rhonda to share a few critical lessons from her work with Libertas — lessons that every educator should consider when strengthening equitable and inclusive policies and practices.
Building equitable communities is emotionally hard work. The Beloved Community doesn’t shy away from that fact.
“Oftentimes, leaders are learning about and exploring their potential culpability in oppressive systems for the first time with us. It’s painful,” Rhonda says.
The key is to make space for people to openly share responsibility for difficult conversations together. People need a chance to honestly reckon with their personal experience and their relationship to power — and they need a way to imagine a different future for their community. At Libertas, it was often the most difficult discussions that pushed progress forward.
“The Libertas team always embraced the discomfort,” Rhonda says. “It’s easy to say, ‘That’s too hard, let’s stop. I’m not ready.’ But throughout our partnership the community at Libertas responded, ‘This is hard. What do we do next?’”
Listen to Every Community Member, Learn Their Pain Points, and Respond
Once people are ready to learn and challenge themselves, the listening begins. Beloved helped Libertas organize community councils to guide the project in real time. Each community council was composed of key insiders who reflected the breadth of the school community.
By ensuring that every community member could be heard through focus groups and interviews, neglected experiences came to the fore.
“We helped them organize a focus group of Spanish-speaking parents and it didn’t take long to realize even under similar circumstances, families are receiving really different information and having different experiences,” Rhonda says. “And the realizations of both school leaders and parents were really incredible.”
The same thing happened with students.
The school was using software that allows teachers to observe and manage what’s happening on a student’s screen during distance learning.
“Not one adult ever mentioned this to us, but we heard directly from young people that they felt surveilled,” she says.
The staff had never considered this a possibility. But once they recognized the problem, the staff relaxed its policies. It was a small but crucial step to build trust and strengthen the community.
“The most revolutionary thing we did at Libertas was listen to people and help leaders across the school community to listen better,” Rhonda says.
Make Open Communication Easy and Sustainable
Sharing pent-up frustrations is the easy part, Rhonda says, but that’s just the beginning. Keeping lines of communication open long-term is central for teachers and school leaders to co-create practices informed by communal values.
At Libertas, for instance, Rhonda says there wasn’t a formal structure for teachers to ask questions, push back, or offer different solutions before administrators made decisions.
That had to change. The disconnect prevented teachers — uniquely positioned to understand the needs of students and their families — from advocating for more equitable engagement. But once administrators saw the value in teachers’ voices throughout the project, they turned it around.
“We were able to help administrators see that once you make the data more transparent, people will come to you with ideas,” Rhonda says.
Moving forward, Libertas will equip teachers with the data and information needed to champion the needs of the entire community.
Track Progress and Keep Pushing for More
Without good data, tracking sustainable growth is impossible. But with it, magic can happen. That’s why Beloved Community worked with Libertas on what they call an Equity Audit. This comprehensive assessment provides more than 180 indicators for stakeholder groups within the school community, charting where a school is in its journey and the areas where it still needs to improve.
In the case of Libertas, school representatives performed the Equity Audit and raised their awareness of how personal bias and structural inequity hinder inclusivity across the board — from the curriculum to school events.
Based on the qualitative data Beloved collected, the school community is beginning the fall focused on select areas of improvement. After a year, Libertas will perform the audit again and continue refining their path forward.
“I always tell folks: identify key areas in need of more equitable practices,” she Rhonda says. “Then, over the next year and moving forward, prioritize those areas in your budget and professional development.”
Build Ongoing Capacity To Carry the Work Forward
Building systems that are informed by the needs of every community member — and that’s built to last — means equipping people with the skills and knowledge to keep carrying the work forward.
To end their engagement with Libertas, the Beloved team led capacity-building sessions to teach additional approaches for equitably, engaging the wider school community. The Libertas team learned best practices that will inform much of what they do going forward, from facilitating difficult conversations to engineering inclusive committees.
It hasn’t taken long for those new lessons to set in.
One group of teachers proposed a style of family engagement that prioritized parents’ communication preferences and busy schedules. Other recommendations included informal opportunities for parents to chat with the principal, a relaxed “video-on” policy for distance learners, and new times for families to pick up school meals.
With new tools to build a more equitable school, Libertas is well on its way to strengthening community and supporting every child and every family.
“At the end we tell them, ‘This was practice!’” Rhonda says. “Now that all of you know how to do this together, how to build differently together, apply it to what comes next for your community … Apply it to the future!’”
To learn more about Beloved Community’s work at Libertas, visit the case study.