Including and supporting African-American students in higher-level math classes, providing professional development for teachers so they can be equity leaders in their buildings, and making systemic changes after committing to improving the academic and social outcomes of minority students—these are among the winning programs for this year’s Magna Awards.
For more than 20 years, the Magna Awards, with the support of our sponsor, Sodexo, have been recognizing innovative school district programs. This year, the awards continue to focus on equity in education. Our winning districts—the Grand Prize winners and the first-place winners—are working to remove barriers to achievement for underserved and vulnerable students.
We present these winning programs with the hope that you will glean helpful information that you can use in your districts. Our profiles give you an overview of the programs, including evidence of success. We include district contact information for a purpose—so you have the opportunity to get more information from the school leaders and staff who created and manage these initiatives.
We also created an opportunity for you to learn from the three Grand Prize-winning districts. They will be presenting on their equity programs at NSBA’s annual conference in March in Philadelphia.
Whether it’s at our annual conference or through the pages of ASBJ, we invite you to connect with your peers to gain insights and practical ideas to create more equitable schools for your students.
The Game Changer
AMPed UP! (Accelerated Math Progressions for Under Represented Potential)
Under 5,000 enrollment
Winchester Public Schools, Winchester, Virginia
The numbers tell the story in Winchester Public Schools. A district analysis in 2016 showed disparities in the enrollment of minority students in elementary school advanced math classes. In fact, no African-American students were currently taking fifth-grade advanced math-—the pathway that leads to advanced math subjects in high school.
Winchester—in the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains—has 4,500 students and seven schools.
The district’s equity committee had previously been working on discipline disparities and proficiency. When the advance math data came out, the committee turned its attention to figuring out how to get more minority students into these classes.
The key was in how students were placed in higher-level classes at the end of third grade. “We relied heavily on teacher recommendation,” says Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum. “There was implicit bias in those recommendations. We decided to use data to drive our decision-making. You eliminate the teacher pleasing and classroom grades. You’re going on ability or potential in the area of math. This was a game changer for us.”
Instead of relying on recommendations, they decided to use student scores on third-grade standardized tests, including the state-mandated Virginia Standards of Learning test. African-American and Hispanic students who had high scores but did not reach the “pass advanced” mark were invited to participate in AMPed UP!
Those students were sent a letter from the superintendent inviting them to attend a meeting with their parents at the high school auditorium. “That meeting was a foundational piece of the experience for the kids. The kids will say later, ‘You sent me a letter and said: You are a good math student.’ It shows the power of the words we speak over students and the messages we send when they are very young,” says Van Heukelum.
The students in AMPed UP! were placed in advanced math in fourth grade. Several supports were put in place to help them succeed. Some students of color might not feel they belong in an advanced math class, especially if they don’t see other students who look like them. Also, they may not see math as an interesting topic to pursue.
To help them build confidence and a peer group, AMPed UP! offers a STEM program offered through summer school and as an after-school activity. “For these kids, math finally has a meaning. It’s not a rote problem; they understand where they need math in real life,” says Kristin Nicholson, the division math specialist who wrote the curriculum for the program. “The after-school and summer activities are meant to build teamwork among the students and help them see themselves as successful in math.”
During the school day, the AMPed UP! students meet with a math teacher during time set aside for enrichment. Eric Cornish, fifth-grade teacher at Daniel Morgan Intermediate School, says he uses open-ended math problems during his time with the students.
“I’m trying to cultivate and build perseverance and the idea of productive struggle,” says Cornish.
Community and team building are important aspects of the program. Students work cooperatively to solve problems. The emphasis of the activities is to “develop a group identity about their own capabilities,” he says. “It gives these kids one more way to engage with curriculum that they might not get in the sit-and-learn kind of approach. In my experience, learning is social activities, and the more socialization you can do, the better for all the kids.”
After two years of implementation, the proportionality indices for fifth-grade advanced math are approaching 100 percent. For example, the overall population is 10 percent African-American, 10 percent multiracial, and 40 percent Hispanic. In 2018-19, enrollment in fifth-grade advanced math is now 8 percent African-American, 24 percent Hispanic, and 6.5 percent multiracial. Each of these areas has seen increases.
One of the goals of the program is to get all students to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, which will allow them to take advanced math in high school.
Says Cornish: “I’m hopeful that 100 percent will be in advanced classes.”
Commitment to Reform
Over 20,000 enrollment
Des Moines Public Schools, Des Moines, Iowa
Change happens slowly in school districts—and in larger districts, given the complexities involved, the pace can be glacial.
Des Moines Public Schools leaders took on the daunting process of systemic equity reform in a 33,000-student district. In 2014, district leaders signed a pledge to improve the academic and social outcomes of boys and young men of color. That pledge meant committing to boosting efforts to prepare males of color for college and careers and to reducing the disproportionate number who drop out of school or who are suspended.
Des Moines is the largest public school district in the state, serving over 33,000 students who come from extremely diverse backgrounds. More than 40 percent of male students are African-American or Latino.
While the district had already been working to accomplish those things, the pledge gave it a way to focus efforts. “The pledge helped bring together administration and the board behind a clearly defined purpose and made communication and support generation from the broader community easier,” says Superintendent Thomas Ahart.
To begin to change, district leaders started with the data. Gilmara Mitchell, a consultant with the Heartland Area Education Agency who is working with Des Moines on equity issues, says, “We were able to look at data in a different way and we held people accountable for their results. We look at the data as a system, then we break it down.”
The district developed an Equity Analysis Framework that teams use to examine data—taking into account student groups, families and community partners, and student perspectives. The data generates action steps.
The framework includes a dashboard created for school-level leaders to look at their data, to see where they are and how they’ve grown, and to understand their priorities. This Equity Profile is a color-coded online tool that shows each school’s growth and status in all assessments used for equity indicators broken down by student groups.
Another focus was training with the district and building-level leadership teams, with an emphasis on cultural proficiency. The training goes beyond regular professional development, Mitchell says. “It involves modeling behavior; how to have uncomfortable conversations; looking at the systems, policies, practices. I see lots of districts focus only on professional development, but you have to have system and structure in place to support the work.”
This kind of training is difficult, as it requires participants to be vulnerable and talk about uncomfortable topics. Assistant Superintendent Matthew Smith, who works with Mitchell on equity issues, says, “You can’t overcome hate by matching it with hate. You must speak truth and lift people up. Most everyone can get along with someone who agrees with them. Takes character and courage to find a common ground with someone who sees the world differently. We know it takes love and respect to make systemic change.”
The district has created two new positions to support the equity effort: an equity coach for the school level and a school climate, culture and community coordinator position based in the central office.
Students and families are invited to find solutions to the district issues, as well. The district used a survey to discover why chronic absenteeism at the high school is so high. The survey asked students why they weren’t coming to school. Two reasons stood out: lack of curriculum relevance and lack of strong relationships to teachers.
In response, the district moved to block scheduling, allowing more contact for teachers and students. It also involved students in redesigning courses. It created a student attendance committee, as well.
Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, goals specific to the success of males of color were embedded into the district's school improvement plans. Building leadership teams from each school were tasked with setting goals in the three core areas of focus for all students as well as setting a priority goal for African-American males. In the 2017-18 school year, the achievement gap did not increase, and several schools are starting to close the achievement gap for males of color.
The will to start the systemic change comes from the top. “There has to be a genuine commitment from administration and then from the board,” says Superintendent Ahart. “The first step, from my perspective, is for the superintendent and the top leadership team to get real about current reality and be convinced that status quo is not acceptable… even if we don’t know exactly how to solve the puzzle. No one has completely solved the problem, but we never will if we never acknowledge the depth of its roots and at the same time are deathly afraid to fail.”
Teachers Lead the Way
Educator Equity Leadership Program
5,000 to 20,000 enrollment
Coatesville Area Public Schools, Thorndale, Pennsylvania
A racially charged incident in Coatesville Area Public Schools several years ago was the impetus for soul searching among school leaders and the catalyst for change in the central Pennsylvania district.
To address the issues the schools and community were facing, the district in 2015 entered into a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, and the Pennsylvania NAACP. The goal was to develop a plan of action that promoted and embedded educational equity in the district.
Superintendent Cathy Taschner, who was hired after the incident, says that when she came aboard, there were action steps, “but the piece of paper was not enough to really get to the heart of the systems change we wanted to do.”
While the district dove in with surveys, policy revisions, and professional development on cultural competency and trauma-informed classrooms, one thing became clear: Change would not happen without a systemic and community wide focus on equity.
The result was the Educator Equity Leadership Program. Teachers from each of the district's 11 buildings attend a monthly eight-hour educational equity training session provided by the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center trainers. Each teacher takes what they’ve learned back to their buildings and trains the other teachers at a monthly faculty meeting. The training is peer to peer, not administrator to teacher.
“Teachers are at ground level, and we know teaching matters,” says Rita Perez, director of pupil services. “If we can get in the hearts and minds of teachers, work at changing classroom practices and thought processes and notions about students, it’s huge.”
Coatesville is a diverse district, geographically and demographically. Its enrollment is 53 percent white, 32 percent African-American, 14 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian. The district is 75 square miles and includes rural farmland, horse country, and one city. The elementary schools range from 50 percent to 80 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. The high school averages are between 50 percent and 55 percent.
The program approaches equity training differently than the district usually does for professional development. “This is different because we opted not to have the principals be part of the training,” says Perez. “We wanted teachers to have honest discussions and talk about things that were happening in their buildings.”
As the training went on that first year, the district saw changes. For example, minority enrollment in AP and Dual Credit Courses increased, as did the focus on potentially unfair disciplinary practices.
Also after the first year, Perez says, the district realized that parents needed to be involved in the training: “We also know that because it’s a culture change, our culture is beyond our school doors, and parents are a huge partner.”
The district recruited a group of interested parents who also participated in training with the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center. Like the teachers, the parents are expected to deliver training to parent groups at their schools.
After this success, a third group was added: High school students wanted to be involved with program. Their training is different than what the adults receive. Students identify three equity topics they want to work on for the school year and set up action plans. They meet monthly with high school administrators to discuss the projects and other issues.
Minority enrollment in AP courses at the high school level has increased by 37 percent in ninth and 10th grade. This is in part because of the access middle school students have to participate in pre-Ap courses that challenge them to take AP courses.
In addition to increasing opportunities for access to high-level instruction, the district also has increased its graduation rate from 88 percent to 95 percent.
The school board and Taschner also have attended the equity training, as well. “Equity work is hard work,” she says. “If there is not support at the top, it won’t be sustained.”