Don't let fear interfere with equity

Becoming the superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools several years ago put me on a racial equity journey that forever changed who I am as an educational leader.

I started with the technical step of closely examining student data. Without data, you can’t talk about gaps with your board and your staff. In the numbers I saw that our district’s failure to really relate to each student as an individual was preventing us from becoming better educators. Our kids who were poor and white did much better than the kids who were middle-class and of color.

I brought the data to the school board, which allowed us to begin talking about the impact race had on our schools and creating a common language for discussing inequities.

My leadership team and I also examined our own beliefs as equity leaders. We pushed each other to break down silos and learn how to be codependent. Inequity and silos go hand to hand. If teachers of English language learners are not talking to special education or mainstream teachers, we will never be sure each child is getting the support they need.

All this while I embarked on my own racial equity journey. I set out to identify the why of my belief system and how my beliefs affected my decisions as a leader. I realized that since coming to this country from Chile in 1986, I had worked to assimilate into the U.S. culture, into “white culture,” and that my cultural assimilation had destroyed my individuality as a Latina leader. I knew if I did not start acknowledging the value of each individual for what they brought to the system. racial and cultural achievement gaps in our district would continue to grow.

I had a very diverse team, many of whom, like me, lived by assimilation, believed you had to “act white” to be successful and had experienced many professional and personal challenges to become leaders in the district. After many hard conversations, we each started to grow and to speak our truth as individuals and as a team. I began walking the schools differently, asking principals different questions, noticing how parents got access to schools, or didn’t.  

It was my dream for every leader in the district to take his or her own racial equity journey and eventually have epiphanies as I had. I tried to work with all 350 leaders, from principals to school board members, through equity-focused workshops and coaching. As a team we pushed ourselves to move beyond technical solutions to examine deeply rooted practices and beliefs about children of color, from how cafeterias were managed to how we were teaching the social studies curriculum. To make real change, it couldn’t be about creating another committee and delegating the work to the assistant principal. It had to start with the principal modeling, showing vulnerability, and examining all aspects of school practices.

It was uncomfortable work, and many people just wanted a checklist of behaviors that they needed to learn. For example, If I’m working with Latino kids, this is what I need to do. If I’m working with Asian kids, this what I need to do. If I’m working with African-American kids, this is what I need to do. But that kind of technical solution would not move us ahead. That’s not how you make systemic transformational change for racial equity.

So we shifted our focus to work with a select group of leaders who wanted to engage, who already saw racial equity work as a critical way to improve their leadership and student learning. About a dozen “beacon schools,” as we called them, volunteered. We hoped that when other schools saw the progress these schools would make over time they too would want to commit to addressing inequities. In the first year, the district equity team supported these schools with coaching and help with budgeting and operations. We trained classroom teachers and principals, and leaders from across the schools met to share and learn from one another. They started identifying and changing practices that were hurting kids. One school, I remember, for years had students with special needs who arrived by bus each morning entering the school through a dark back alleyway because it was the easiest place for the bus to drop them off. It might have been convenient, but when my team started asking the school leaders how the students must feel using this second-class entrance, it really made them think. The school changed this practice and had those students enter through the main doors each day like every other child. In a short time, we saw their self-esteem improve tremendously. They even made a video about it.

The beacon schools made some real improvements. Student learning improved, discipline incidents dropped, and parents participated more in schools.

This work takes time--it was after five years that changes really started to stick. I was hopeful that the work would start spreading to other schools, but some stakeholders started talking about equity as an area of loss for them. Being expected to reflect on race made them feel singled out, unappreciated, and uncomfortable. They didn’t see their own biases. They felt these conversations were dividing the staff, students, and community rather than bringing us together.

I told them directly that we were not calling anyone racist. I explained that we all intentionally or unintentionally say or do things that our children and community members sometimes perceive as racist. What we are saying is that race matters in education and if we don’t recognize that and make changes, we will have a lot of students, growing into adults, who don’t believe in themselves.

I was also up against some of my own challenges. For several years, I was one of the only Latina woman in the country serving as a district superintendent in an urban district.  On top of that, English language skills were a barrier for me. Community members, parents and officials often dismissed me as unintelligent when I started talking because of my accent. Or some people undermined me by saying I had gotten the job just because I am a Latina--that I was just a symbol to them.

Still, I pushed on. And many people got it. For example, one of my board members, a retired white woman in her 60s, believed in racial equity but did not understand how deep the work needed to go to have a real impact. She became the most incredible advocate for racial equity. And many teachers who started the training with skepticism later hugged me, thanking me for teaching them to open their minds.

If you’re not an equity leader in America today, I believe you are blind to your reality. A lot of people are afraid to push the equity agenda because they know that work is very complex and could shorten their longevity as a leader. But if we cannot lead for the majority of the kids we have in public education in this country, why are we collecting a paycheck? Good leaders will always get another job. I took many risks and was able to last as superintendent for almost seven years. You can’t let fear stop you from getting into equity leadership. We must wake up our educational systems that have not been developed to serve our incredible diverse group of students for the 21st Century.

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About the Author — Valeria Silva

Former Saint Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva is one of the Superintendents in Residence at the NYC Leadership Academy.

A lot of people are afraid to push the equity agenda because they know that work is very complex and could shorten their longevity as a leader. But if we cannot lead for the majority of the kids we have in public education in this country, why are we collecting a paycheck?

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