From Barrier to Gateway: 3 Ways to Build Equity in Schools

By Kristin Ward, Senior Director of Partnerships

A heavy sigh and a furrowed brow.

That was the reaction of the school leader regarding the new initiative now sitting in her lap. Grade-level growth and proficiency, coaching and supporting teachers, community pressures, and graduation rates –  all priorities filling her already robust responsibility plate and overcrowded brain. 

“The checklist continues to grow,” she thought as she listened to the excited Partnership Director across from her explain how Equal Opportunity Schools could improve access and achievement in her school.

That was my story.  I was that overwhelmed administrator.

At the time, I was just one year into my role as Assistant Principal of Instruction at a well-known and highly-scrutinized high school in my district. The idea of leading equity-building work with EOS at my school seemed like a heavy lift and I did not know how it was going to fit.  

Also, based on other metrics, all the students who should be in our AP and IB programs already were and then some; so what could this work do for us? 

I was unintentionally becoming a barrier to what could be for students. 

My Partnership Director quickly recognized I would need additional convincing. She showed me my school-specific EOS Outreach List, in which I was able to see all of the capable students in my building who were not taking advanced coursework. Essentially, I saw a sea of untapped potential. 

A year and a half later, thanks to our partnership with EOS, my school was leading the way for equity-building work in our district. Plus, our school culture was changing. There was a deeper focus on advanced courses, and students were advocating to be enrolled in them. 

I wanted to share three key lessons that I learned from this experience in order to help principals and other educators jump-start equity initiatives in their buildings and classrooms:

Utilize spaces that already exist

There are existing spaces and structures in your buildings that can serve as prime  environments to inform and engage key stakeholders in your equity work. Staff meetings are perfect environments to share high-level goals and efforts that impact all teachers and staff. School leadership team meetings are a great place to set school-wide goals related to your equity work and to manage their implementation through School Improvement Plans. What spaces exist in your buildings or districts to utilize?

Leverage your existing and upcoming champions 

There are students and staff that are both influencers and champions for equity within your buildings. How can you leverage their influence and belief to get others on board? Side note: The EOS portal can help you identify these champions in a variety of ways.

Consistently use data to Illuminate needs, shift mindsets, and show progress

Quantitative data, along with qualitative data like student voice and experiences, can speak for you when it comes to equity work. Utilize these elements to prompt discussion, incite action and celebrate wins. Inviting students to speak to staff after highlighting a few quantitative data points leads to quicker and more resounding change. Side note: Tools within our portal and reports such as the Equity Pathway and Support and Belonging Reports can help you tell the story of equity work in your building. 

Hindsight is 20/20. I wish that “Assistant Principal Ward” had this insight prior to diving into the work. But the good news is that there is no wrong way to break down barriers – you can take down one brick at a time or you can build a bridge to the other side.

At Equal Opportunity Schools, we work with administrators at over 800 high schools across the country to clear pathways to progress by using evidence-based approaches that truly change the culture of belonging and create impact for students and schools every day. 

If you’re looking to lead the charge in building equity in your district, we have a team of former educators and equity champions who want to help you in this journey. Find out more about our impact here.