Racial Equity

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. At the same time, the district is aware that the inequities their students face due to systemic racism start with root societal issues outside of BCPS. With that in mind, Superintendent Carter and other district leaders are active in conversations about how to make Michigan’s broader education system more equitable and how to support the transformation of the Battle Creek community into a place of opportunity for all students.

Local Equity Data Critical to District Plans

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.

View Data

Other key disparities uncovered by the study include:

Student Loss

College and Career Readiness


Equity Training

Tackling racial equity involves examining the ways that implicit bias and traditional, non-culturally competent teaching practices negatively impact students. When the transformation first began, the term “equity” was not widely used or understood. Thus far, much of the district’s work to build more equitable outcomes for students has involved building a shared understanding among staff of where students are currently situated, the unique barriers some students face and why the work to remove barriers is so important. 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.

Even before the start of the five-year grant partnership, WKKF and BCPS made an intentional choice to build a strong core of school leaders well-versed in equity by partnering with the National Equity Project (NEP), an organization dedicated to helping leaders increase their awareness of equity issues and provide practical approaches to better understand people with different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. NEP worked with district leadership the first year and now is focused on changing practices and policies to create more inclusive and equitable school communities.

Increasing teachers’ competency in equity and trauma-informed practices is key to overcoming implicit bias and changing school climate. To recognize the importance of this professional development, grant dollars are used to pay teachers a stipend for participation in the Transformational Teacher Institute (TTI), which offers professional development through in-person or virtual sessions that cover equitable practices, trauma-informed practices, social justice, restorative justice and creating welcoming environments. The majority of BCPS teachers now participate in TTI sessions, and the number of participants has been steadily increasing: In 2020-21, 70% of teachers participated, a major increase from 43% during the program’s first year in 2017-18.Teaching staff also are trained in trauma-informed practices and, as a result, the number of teachers who feel prepared to deal with students who have experienced trauma or who believe they have the resources to help those students continues to steadily increase.

in-person TTI sessions
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of teachers attended at least one session


of teachers who attended changed teaching practices as a result (2020-21 school year)

Approaches to School Climate and Discipline

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. Nonetheless, some positive trends show how trauma-informed practices are changing the culture of the district.

Number of meals distributed directly to student homes by Communities in Schools site coordinators from August 2020 to May 2021
students supported by CIS site coordinators in the 2020-21 school year

As the pandemic was unfolding during the 2019-20 school year, BCPS recognized that in order for students to be successful, they needed to be able to meet their most basic needs, including nutrition. According to state data, 72% of BCPS students qualify for free or reduced lunches, making remote learning a serious risk for BCPS students’ nutritional health if not properly addressed. In spring 2010, the district began distributing meals to students and their families. With many students attending school remotely during the pandemic, BCPS accelerated that work in the 2020-21 school year, working relentlessly to distribute 1,276,238 meals to students and their families.

Reinventing school disciplinary practices involves redefining school safety and acknowledging the harm caused to Black and Brown students as a result of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a name for what many people have experienced as students when incidents in schools have funneled them into the criminal justice system. With this in mind, BCPS security staff were given a new role — Bearcat coaches — and trained in de-escalation, mentorship, restorative practices and tactics for building trusting relationships.

As Bearcat coaches, they carry a caseload of students who may benefit from an additional nurturing adult relationship and serve as a first point of contact for teachers with students who need extra behavioral help. Rather than sending a student into the hall or to the office, a Bearcat coach can pull the student aside, talk through the issue they are facing and help them regain composure and rejoin class. This shift increases the amount of time teachers can spend teaching, and decreases the amount of time students spend out of class. The position was created in the first year of the transformation process, with 14 new coaches spread across the district. After seeing that bearcat coaches were an instrumental resource to both students and staff, BCPS hired an additional 17 coaches in the 2020-21 school year.

In the first year of the transformation, the district created a family advocate position in every building, a person responsible for building relationships with families to increase parent trust, and identifying family needs and connecting them with services and supports. In the third year of the transformation, BCPS leaders built the family outreach system and began a partnership with Communities in Schools (CIS). The CIS model utilizes school-based site coordinators (many of them former family advocates) who refer families to community resources so students can focus on learning. CIS increases access to resources like food assistance, transportation assistance, laundry vouchers, mental health and medical services and dental care to help remove barriers for vulnerable students and improve attendance and academic achievement.

To accommodate the changing needs students and families faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, CIS site coordinators adapted their model of support. During the 2020-21 school year, CIS spent a total of 207 hours distributing devices and hotspots and 121 hours supporting meal distribution.

The Guidebook for Creating Trauma-Informed Schools, which BCPS released in the third year of the transformation, was created to give teachers clear guidance on how to incorporate a trauma-informed approach into their classrooms and establish processes and procedures for supporting students. The guidebook rolled out a new response process based around Student Success Teams (SST) — a problem-solving group including Bearcat coaches, interventionists, CIS site coordinators and more — which assist students, families and teachers to help students overcome barriers to become the best students they can be. . The guidebook offers scenario-based flowcharts to walk staff through SST processes, while offering useful resources for staff like referral forms for students requiring additional support and reflection questions for assessing intervention. Overall, the percentage of teachers who feel they have adequate training to support students dealing with trauma rose significantly from 62% in 2019-20 to 76% in 2020-21.

Since the guidebook was released, one learning has been that it takes a great deal of support to fully train school staff in utilizing the guidebook to its full potential, as school data shows that there continue to be disparities in how student discipline is enforced across the district. Superintendent Kimberly Carter said, “We need to provide more support around the implementation of those philosophies and understandings in a way that has practical application on the ground.”

Research shows that exclusionary practices (any punishment that pulls a student out of the classroom) both harm student learning and disproportionately impact students of color. The most successful approach to equity includes reducing exclusionary practices to keep students in the classrooms and learning for as much of the day as possible. BCPS is working toward minimizing school exclusion by implementing restorative practices that de-escalate conflict, repair relationships and help to prevent future challenges.

Data from the district shows that for this sort of cultural change, setbacks are part of the process and provide key moments for learning. While the second year of the transformation saw a fairly substantial decrease in both office discipline referrals and out-of-school suspensions, unfortunately, school data from the fall 2019 year showed an increase in disciplinary incidents in middle schools and high school: In fall 2019, there were 815 out-of-school suspensions compared to 468 suspensions in fall 2018, and 3,741 total disciplinary incidents in the same period compared to 3,125 in fall 2018.

The pandemic that hit in spring 2020 may have offered an interesting lesson on school climate: in 2020-21, disciplinary incidents actually decreased at the elementary level — a change that many teachers attributed to pandemic-related instructional models, including cohorts and one-on-one engagement. In 2020-21, 51% of teachers reported that disengaged students were a major or moderate challenge, a decrease from 57% the year prior and 71% in 2017, representing that change is happening, even if slowly.

As another alternative to the often harmful nature of exclusionary practices, BCPS sought to create a positive space for students when classroom intervention isn’t an option. Here, students learn to manage their own emotions in a safe and comfortable space. In the 2018-19 school year, all schools implemented student success centers.

In the 2019–20 school year, 61% of teachers agreed that the student success centers were making a positive change in their school, according to AIR data.

BCPS partners with True Success, an evidence-based social skills curriculum designed to unleash students’ character potential, to help students develop vocabulary and skills in areas like compassion, integrity, courage and grit. By integrating these character-building lessons throughout the curriculum during dedicated class time, students are better equipped to address obstacles, heal from potential trauma and work toward positive school outcomes.

Rather than focus attention on negative responses for misbehavior, BCPS uses a system that rewards students immediately following positive behavior, making that behavior more likely to occur in the future. For example, one of the district’s middle schools, Northwestern Middle School (Northwestern), has faced challenges with school climate and low student achievement for several years. In order to improve Northwestern’s school climate, the team adopted a positive behavior system called the “Northwestern Way” in 2018. This approach includes a “Bearcat Bucks” system to reward students for showing up ready to learn and for meeting behavior expectations. Despite these interventions, school climate and low student achievement challenges remain at Northwestern. The district is addressing these challenges by hiring new leadership (including a new principal, Mr. Dave Fooy, hired in 2020) and transforming Northwestern into a K–12 arts academy. But these plans hit a setback in May 2021, as the district’s $45 million bond measure failed to pass. However, BCPS reissued the bond in November 2021 and, on that try, it passed. With the bond passed, these plans are officially underway.

Restorative conversations were used 1,163 times in year three, and contributed to a decrease in detentions (from 1,091 detentions in 2018 to 370 in 2019).

Individualized Approaches to Learning and Trust

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. 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.

While overall student achievement across the district is trending up, BCPS noticed that achievement among Black boys was flat or falling, indicating a gap in the support structures for these students. According to spring 2021 NWEA MAP reading scores, 39% of Black boys met their growth goals, compared with 46% of their peers; 23% of Black boys are proficient in reading, compared with 36% of peers. At this stage, approaches to interventions vary building-to-building, but district leaders are exploring options to make it more streamlined. With this data in hand, BCPS is putting its “unapologetic focus” on literacy and achievement for Black male students into action, and the work is continuing to evolve as the district experiments with new approaches (like a book club specifically for Black male middle schoolers and expanding culturally-relevant teaching practices, for instance) and learns what makes a tangible impact.

In the first year of the transformation, BCPS hired 15 master’s level specialists in child behavioral psychology and response so that each school has at least one behavior specialist on staff. These specialists provide support and training to teachers to help them deal with their own trauma, support them to troubleshoot challenges and also work directly with students.

Throughout the transformation process, BCPS has made it a priority to engage families who are typically harder to reach, but outreach to non-English-speaking families has been a challenge. During the pandemic, this need became even more urgent, prompting BCPS to explore new approaches to reach Burmese- and Spanish-speaking families and community members.

By deepening its relationships with local community groups like the Burma Center and Voces, BCPS has been able to meet Burmese- and Spanish-speaking families in locations where they already feel safe and connected. With community partners as eyes and ears on the ground, BCPS can more closely align their support with family needs. Superintendent Carter holds monthly check-ins with the directors of the Burma Center and Voces to better understand the specific needs of Spanish- and Burmese-speaking families and collaborate to provide solutions.

BCPS also hired student success specialists to work in each school’s student success center, a classroom in each building dedicated to supporting students as they learn the skills necessary to comfortably regulate their own emotions. Success specialists serve as a backup for teachers and a guiding, trusted presence in students’ lives to help them learn how to regulate their minds, bodies and emotions in order to find success in the classroom.

In the first year of the transformation, BCPS reopened their non-traditional high school as W.K. Kellogg Preparatory High School (W.K. Prep), a student-centered and relationship-driven high school experience designed especially for students who need more flexibility to earn their diplomas. W.K. Prep is the only program of its kind in the Battle Creek area — offering a flexible schedule and individualized school environment for students balancing jobs and family obligations. 

Expert staff, teachers and counselors work alongside students, offering tutoring, mentoring and personalized help when and how students need it most. Smaller classes with more personalized attention, mentorship and counseling, support for pregnant and parenting students, flexible schedules, and college and career counseling all combine to create a supportive environment where students can succeed — especially those who might have otherwise been pushed out of a more traditional high school environment.

The Fusion Team is a collaboration between schools, community mental health services, the court system and Child Protective Services to meet the needs of young people who are involved with the court system, as well as their families, who often require law enforcement and juvenile justice to be a part of the plan. The Fusion Team meets regularly to discuss specific student cases that need high-touch intervention.

This partnership with the Battle Creek Police Department alerts the schools if a student has been involved in a law enforcement incident or a traumatic event. If a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that child’s information is forwarded to the school before the school bell rings the next day. The school implements individual, class and whole school trauma-sensitive curricula so that traumatized children are “Handled with Care.” If a child needs more intervention, on-site trauma-focused mental healthcare is available at the school.

In mainstream curricula, core subjects are traditionally taught from a Eurocentric perspective that minimizes the contributions of people of color. When curricula do touch upon Black history and histories of other communities of color, it is often in the context of slavery, discrimination, war and colonization. Recognizing that this can traumatize students of color, BCPS staff are actively exploring approaches that celebrate Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous cultures and histories.

“Once you know that an inequity exists, you have to respond to it. Before, we sometimes only had a hunch about certain practices, but data has given us tangible information to use when we’re having conversations about progress and about students.”

Data Analysis/Tracking Progress

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. There is still a lot of work to do, but using this tracking helps BCPS address disparities and fosters innovative solutions as part of an ongoing and collaborative process.

  • Racial Equity Intro
  • Local Equity Data Critical to District Plans
  • Equity Training
  • Approaches to School Climate and Discipline
  • Individualized Approaches to Learning and Trust
  • Data Analysis/ Tracking Progress