Catalyzed by a 2017 New York University study that showed deep racial disparities in educational and life outcomes for children in the city, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation worked with Battle Creek Public Schools to ensure its transformation plan is rooted in racial equity, an aspirational pursuit that all people have equal opportunity to experience well-being in life. The district is working to remove barriers to education for students of color, using key metrics to measure success. Over the last several years the district has implemented a suite of efforts designed to reduce racial disparities and ensure students of color can thrive, including new training protocols and supports for teachers, new school climate and discipline policies and adopting a core value of seeing every student by name, need and strength. Through this work with BCPS, we’ve seen that creating more equitable educational outcomes for students of color isn’t a linear process: it involves constant evaluation, collaboration and innovation to narrow the gap.
The 2017 study showed deep racial disparities that the transformation seeks to address. Within the small city of Battle Creek, there are four school districts, three of which are majority white, and one of which, BCPS, is home to a majority of students of color. Because of Michigan’s school choice policies, the demographics of the student bodies of these districts do not match the demographics of the residents living in the districts’ service areas. Over the past decade, wealthier and whiter students have left BCPS to attend other local districts, leaving behind students of color, students living in poverty and students with greater needs.
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Tackling racial equity involves examining the ways that implicit bias and traditional, non-culturally competent teaching practices negatively impact students. Overwhelmingly, educators in the district were enthusiastic about participating in training and development to help them promote equity by changing their own tactics and approaches.
Early on BCPS leaders grappled with data that showed Black students in particular were more likely to be disciplined, or met with harsher punishments, for similar incidents. As a result, BCPS leaders concluded that equity-informed work could not be successful without changing the district’s approach to student discipline and school climate as a whole. With a commitment to racial equity driving their work, over the past three years, BCPS has retrained staff, made key hires and introduced new practices aimed at restorative justice in order to improve school climate and eliminate racial disparities in discipline practices.
While the district continues to seek growth in all measures of school climate and student behavior, student discipline incidents and numbers have risen and fallen, and there have been some setbacks and some successes since the start of the grant. Nonetheless, some positive trends show how trauma-informed practices are changing the culture of the district.
To build an educational environment that centers racial equity, BCPS aims to “see every student by name, need and strength.” This individualized education effort is rooted in culturally-responsive teaching practices and the understanding that every student arrives at school with different experiences and needs. To center racial equity, BCPS acknowledges that many students and families have experienced broken promises from government institutions and authority figures, and that many families’ experiences with education and school have been punitive and criminalizing, especially for Black people. The district’s work is rooted in an understanding that it has to build and earn student and family trust by demonstrating safety, providing support and maintaining consistency.
In understanding that racial equity means meeting students where they are, BCPS has hired new people and implemented new structures and processes to better support students who have experienced trauma, who thrive better in nontraditional educational settings and who exhibit challenging behaviors.
Equity requires accountability — so BCPS uses a data-driven approach. The district’s transformation team ensures that all administrators collect data on a wide range of measures, including academic improvement, discipline, attendance, career choices, literacy and much more. BCPS also partners with the American Institute for Research (AIR), which specializes in measuring education reform efforts at school districts across the country. AIR analyzes student achievement and discipline data, as well as conducts an annual teacher survey, administers parent focus groups, conducts school site visits, and interviews administrators, teachers and staff.
At BCPS, the focus is on making the data actionable. The district’s director of technology, data and innovation analyzes and distributes this data, enabling staff to utilize the findings on a daily basis to inform decisions and pivot in real time. At weekly meetings, BCPS leadership identifies how measures are breaking down along racial lines, such as the number of suspensions, the effectiveness of new trauma-informed practices, student attendance or grade level proficiency. During these weekly meetings, district leadership identifies and targets areas where more support is needed, for example, if the concern involves one particular school that needs additional resources, or if a new practice needs to be fine-tuned, then, leadership talks to building principals and teachers during monthly meetings.
In the analyses of this data, BCPS continues to find racial disparities that still exist within their schools, despite all their proactive efforts to work toward racial equity. Using this tracking helps BCPS address disparities and fosters innovative solutions as part of an ongoing and collaborative process. However, there is still a lot to do.