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. 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, especially in the face of unexpected roadblocks like a global pandemic. 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 as a whole.
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. BCPS, in turn, has a higher population of students of color, students living in poverty as well as students with greater needs.
College and Career Readiness
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. In the earlier years of the five-year transformation, the district focused on 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 part of teaching.
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. Unfortunately, progress has been threatened by COVID-related staff departures in the later years of the transformation, requiring the constant need to train new teachers and staff in equitable approaches to matters including discipline. Moving ahead, this focus on “changing hearts and minds” (as Superintendent Carter puts it) will shift to changing practices and exploring building-level approaches to advance equity.
of teachers who attended changed teaching practices as a result (2021-22 school year)
Early on, BCPS leaders grappled with data that showed Black students were more likely to be disciplined or met with harsher punishments than students of other races 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 five 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 as the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have threatened progress. Missed social-emotional development combined with trauma rendered many students unable to cope with school schedules and expectations when they returned to the classrooms, exacerbating school climate challenges.
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.
In understanding that racial equity means meeting students where they are, BCPS has hired new people and implemented new structures and processes to build trusting school communities across the district.
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, student experience surveys, 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. 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, and where additional support is needed.
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, especially given the cumulative impact of the pandemic. It is undeniable that overall academic achievement and attendance worsened as a result of the pandemic, but the supports and innovations built by the district before the pandemic helped students and staff stay more resilient than they would have otherwise been. BCPS was able to avert the most dire predictions of severe learning loss because of their transformation efforts, and community partners stepped up in unprecedented ways to help students and families cope with social, emotional and financial challenges. 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.