Rethinking equity in education with an XQ school leader

Simply put, equity means being fair and impartial. But what does that mean in the setting of a school? We asked one school leader from Indiana to share what it means to her school.

By Keeanna Warren

Simply put, equity means being fair and impartial. But what does that mean in the setting of a school? Traditional models are built on the foundation of one-size-fits-all education, where the idea of equity doesn’t often feature in the equation of what’s best for its students. When equity is absent and the way students learn isn’t taken into consideration, no one benefits. But, when we commit to recalibrating our thinking about learning and about equity, we can better serve students by starting with the acknowledgment that they are individuals with individual needs. That’s what rethinking high school is all about: putting students first, giving them a voice, and being willing to make the necessary changes to provide them with the best education possible. This is how the team at XQ school, Purdue Polytechnic High School, is tackling the issue of equity and making it a part of everything they do. Hear from PPHS North principal Keeanna Warren to find out more. 

In recent years the term “equity” has earned its position in the ranks of frequently used educational buzzwords. Though the word is often used, student achievement data is telling a different story.  One of the many reasons I was drawn to work with Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) was the commitment to advancing equity. Last month I was privileged to join an equity professional development training facilitated by two wonderful people from the Peace Learning Center staff. This training gave me the opportunity to step back, reflect on our practices and set goals for creating the best environment for our students. I left the training with 6 key takeaways. 

Equity work takes community

As we began introducing ourselves, we shared what brought us to this space. Everyone got a chance to share the reason behind wanting to learn more about equity in the context of education. Within minutes of the training, it became clear many beautiful souls in our city were committed to advancing equity. Building culture, community, and relationships are required to build equitable learning cultures. That is the environment we work to create for our students.

Students Walking outside

Scenery matters

The Peace Learning Center is located in a gorgeous Indianapolis park. It was a sunny day in January and the room had a large window, allowing us to enjoy the natural scenery. Many participants commented on how energized they felt by being in a place that had windows. If our setting had such a positive effect on adults, how do students feel when receiving instruction in prison-like facilities? To advance equity we must make spaces where students feel empowered to learn. 

Social scenery is also impactful. The adults in the building decide what environments we allow. As the leader, it is my job to ensure that the educators in my building are willing to advance equity. While at PPHS, I have learned that students are the true keepers of the culture. Once we create the positive culture they need to learn, students will strive to maintain it. 

Innovation is essential

As educators, we know about the opportunity gap, the school to prison pipeline, and other inequities, but we still have systems that maintain this status quo. Innovation is the key to advancing equity. Our students long for deeper, engaging learning experiences.

One way PPHS has innovated is by removing the idea of a master schedule. This student-centered approach allows us to better provide our students with schedules tailored to their unique needs. We believe a school schedule should fit the unique needs of our students.   

Our students spend the majority of their time collaborating with their classmates to solve interesting, real-world challenges. Our students use the Design Thinking process, requiring students to research, empathize, prototype and test. This allows students to use a higher level of thinking and problem-solving.

Students need autonomy

For too long, students have been given little to no autonomy over their own learning. At PPHS we work hard to provide this agency. We know that it is not necessary to require people to take on our cultural norms to get a voice and seat at the table. It is important for our team to give students voice and choice and to leave space for open and honest dialogue when we fall short. Our school model allows students the agency to opt into the learning experience that they find most interesting. For example, every 6 weeks students may elect into a Passion Project they find interesting such as building a tiny house, creating a hydroponic system, or video game development. 

Educators have to make acknowledgments

During the training, our facilitators identified events in US history that contributed to educational inequity. It was important for us to take time to acknowledge those moments and respect, repent and make room to do better. This includes the recognition of the privilege we benefit from. It is important for educators and students to adopt an attitude in which we are able to look in the past but make a positive plan to do better in the future. Inequality is caused by misuse or unfair power dynamics. It is time we shift the power dynamics. 

We must replace punitive systems

During the training, we were reminded that punitive discipline systems do not work and cause more harm than good. Punitive forms of discipline are the antithesis of equity and must be stopped. I am so glad that our network of schools has adopted Restorative Practices (an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities). Though it is time-consuming and, at times, messy, it is the most student-centered approach I’ve used to student discipline.

A renewed sense of purpose

I was filled with hope when the facilitators ended the session by stating that this was only the beginning of the work ahead. At the end of the training, I felt a renewed sense of purpose as well as a very positive feeling that this was only the beginning. I was refreshed, renewed, and ready to serve my students. I was armed with the tools to advance equity through peace.

In addition to the importance of equity in school systems, a key takeaway from Principal Warren’s essay is the importance of being open to letting the opinions and guidance of others in—in the form of the team from the Peace Learning Center, as well as from our peers, other experts, and, of course, students. Just as the educators and staff at XQ schools around the country encourage their students to be inquisitive learners, it’s essential for those same adults to invest in ways and methods to improve their approach to education. Real change doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens through the participation of communities local and national, with a common purpose guiding the way. 

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