What Is Equity In Independent Schools?

While giving a tour of our school last week, I walked into our 8th class during an activity exploring the concept of the cultural iceberg model. Student took turns completing the the statement: “people think I’m _____, but really I’m _____. There were so many powerful elements of the exercise: trust, honesty, self-awareness, other-awareness…Our students have been engaged in the conversation about diversity and inclusivity alongside the faculty this year.

Just like our units of inquiry, we framed our work with provocations, lines of inquiry, convergent and divergent questions, and culminating in community action. Specifically, we are working to define diversity for our school, in order to take the next steps towards realizing our mission commitment to a diverse community.

I recently returned from this year’s NWAIS Spring Heads’ Meeting. One of our sessions was the opportunity to work with Caroline Blackwell, NAIS Vice President For Equity and Justice.she offered a framework and message relevant for schools, families, and our wider community. Much of the language in this post is quoted or summarized from Caroline Blackwell’s presentation.

She began by defining the term equity as serving all students, families, faculty and staff equally well.  Then she asked us:

What are the equity questions in our schools right now? 

  • Understanding gender identity

  • Generational differences

  • Leadership development

  • Finding common language for conversation

  • Access and quality of training for board, faculty, staff, leadership, families

  • Serving learning differences

  • Supporting social and emotional needs

  • Attracting, retaining, developing diverse faculty

  • Support for parents

  • Issues of privilege

  • Access and affordability of our schools

Taking on these questions is an ongoing journey for a school community. Caroline pointed to the importance of learning adaption as a school culture:

How exactly do we create this kind of learning culture?

First, it’s to understand the levels of bias. There are institutional bias, both implicit and explicit; and there are individual bias, both implicit and explicit. As independent school communities, we must look outward and identify our explicit bias. And we must looking inward as individuals to identify our implicit bias.

Then, we have to create safe space for conversation about our bias. Discomfort is inherent. Caroline advised thinking of it as a “brave” space, which is based on principles, mission values, and essential questions as opposed to “ground rules” for the conversation.

There are mindsets to adopt as a school for approaching this work most effectively:

  1. Consider leadership as leading the conversation. Create an architecture for conversation that encourages both divergent and convergent thinking.

  2. Understand culture trumps strategy. Culture needs tending. Consider school culture, individual cultures, and outside community culture.

  3. Embrace that content is highly personal. Nothing is objective. People are constantly making choices and inhabiting multiple contexts. We need to understand that what we say and how we say it, on our websites, in classrooms, is a “curriculum” itself.

  4. Talent faces forward. Consider the next generation of families to serve. Show progress on the diversity conversation. Follow culturally responsive hiring practices.

  5. Our wider community is our market. Always ask “what would it mean for us to embrace ____?”

  6. Innovation is fueled by diversity. And implicit bias is the obstacle to diversity. We are wired for schemas. They can be helpful and hurtful. Schema need to be intentionally interrupted.

There are strategies to employ to intentionally develop these mindset and confront bias:

  1. Take multiple perspectives.

  2. Replace stereotypes with counter examples and experiences.

  3. Improve decision-making by slowing down, eliminating ambiguities, creating structures and objective processes. We avoid change and try to go with what we know.

  4. Increase intergroup contact across the community and beyond.

  5. Individualize, as opposed to generalize.

  6. Count patterns and data.

  7. Practice micro-affirmations and advocacy for others.

  8. Active educate and self-assess.

  9. Change systems to override bias and activate accountability.

  10. And work organizationally and individually to break prejudice habit.