Teachers in the Colchester School District (CSD) are going to classes, reading common texts, and learning perhaps just as much as their students. But instead of studying algebraic equations or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, school staffers are studying equity literacy.
What does it mean to be equity literate? In the article, “Equity Literacy For All,” authors Katy Swalwell and Paul Gorski define equity literacy as “a framework for both multicultural curriculum development and bigger efforts to create equitable classrooms and schools.”
The phrase is not new, nor is it confined to the world of teaching. However, for the last four years, the CSD has lowered its head and dived deep into educating its district’s school staffers in equity literacy.
Also four years ago, Amy Minor moved from her job as Colchester High School (CHS) Principal to district Superintendent.
For her, equity literacy was imperative—not due to specific incidents or a thrust of negative feedback, but because she saw it as the path to create the best teachers and school officials possible; her “framework for building leaders,” Minor said.
“I wanted to make sure that we were proactively taking steps to make sure every student and family member felt that they belonged in our schools, as our population becomes more diverse,” she said.
Over the last four years, Minor has hired outside contractors to help train principals and support staff to “have a lens for their work, and ensure they understand what biases they may have.” School administrators and teachers have attended conferences and Minor has assigned common texts for all CSD staffers to read. This year’s text was one of Paul Gorski’s books, Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice.
Current CHS Principal Heather Baron, recalled that many conversations around equity literacy began and were led by Colchester teachers before the shift four years ago. Topics discussed have included race, gender, privilege, class, and power, and continue to be discussed.
Baron describes equity literacy at CHS as “about broadening and deepening our understanding of all of our students and their needs, their backgrounds, who they are, what they bring to the table.”
Another major part of that work involves student feedback, for faculty to better understand spaces for improvement, what they’re addressing and what they’re missing.
One year, a CHS student’s independent study project which involved working with each department around gender identity, pronouns and non-binary gender, inspired a larger discussion within the school. “Their work was really inspiring for teachers because anytime it comes from a student and a student says, ‘This is my experience, this is where I would love to see our school and our world’—teachers love that! That’s what we’re in it for!” Baron recalled. For CHS, the student’s advocacy proved to be a significant in-road into a greater conversation.
“We’re such a vibrant community at this high school and a sense of that community, that belonging is so important to us,” said Baron.
She described equity literacy at CHS as about deepening staff’s understanding of every student and their needs. “Our work as adults is to make sure that we’re creating schools that are inclusive for everybody; where everyone feels a sense of belonging,” she said.
One thing Baron pointed to as an example of a thinking shift among educators as a result of equity literacy training, is the shift from a deficit model to an asset model. “Too often we think about students [as] attributional,” explained Baron. She described the shift as a movement “from thinking about what a student is lacking to what they are bringing.” Baron used as an example, moving from a phrase like, “the poor student,” to, “the student who is experiencing poverty.”
“Those experiences influence a student’s access and opportunities... It’s also important to not expect or assume that students are coming with the background we came from, or have expectations that there is a right way to come to school,” said Baron.
In September earlier this year, CHS faculty took part in a workshop with Rebecca Haslam whose educational consulting program, Seed the Way, works with school professionals on issues equity literacy. According to Baron, Haslam will return to CHS in December for another round of workshops.
According to Minor, teachers who have attended conferences and workshops have called the work “powerful and very moving.” She thinks that the work has “helped our teachers to think about their own beliefs, own views.”
Is the goal to get to a place where the conversation stops? Both Baron and Minor dream of a time when conversations around equity won’t be necessary anymore, but as of now, they think there’s still work to do.
“When people ask me, are we going to continue our equity initiatives next year? It’s hard for me to imagine a world, I can dream a world where we won’t have to have these conversations but until that world exists, we’ll continue these conversations. It’s not something that goes away that we fix and move on from,” Baron explained. “There are so many layers of this work that moves from the personal to the structural.”
The hope is that personal equity literacy affects school culture and the school system. One example of systemic changes in the district, in part thanks to this focus on equity literacy, is the district’s free and reduced lunch program. Another example of systemic work is at CHS, where the administration offered the PSAT for free to sophomore and junior students thanks to a grant.
“My hope is that the actions we’re taking now will contribute to this momentum of a generation of learners who truly appreciate diversity. I would love for all of the steps to result in a spot where every student has found voice and truly feels heard every time they speak,” said Minor.