Focus on equity helps North Clackamas close achievement gap
The North Clackamas School District has come whisper-close to an accomplishment that most schools only dream of: erasing the achievement gap.
Latino students, about 15 percent of the district, graduated at an 84.2 percent rate in 2016-17, slightly better than the district average of 84.1 percent, according to the Oregon Department of Education. African-American students were not far behind at 82.8 percent. Overall, 83.7 percent of underserved races and ethnicities at North Clackamas graduated in four years.
“That is our most significant accomplishment,” said Superintendent Matt Utterback. He says an unrelenting focus on equity is the cornerstone of the district’s education strategy.
The 17,000-student district southeast of Portland has translated a commitment to equity into a broad effort by staff to see the schools through their students’ eyes in ways big and small:
- Curriculum includes positive voices from and about people of color.
- School dances feature music from a range of cultures.
- Classroom snacks are provided without stigma.
- Teachers talk to students in advance when the day’s lesson might make them uncomfortable.
North Clackamas has improved its overall graduation rate 17 percentage points since the 2010-11 school year. Graduation rates for students of color have improved 30 percentage points or more in that same period.
“We don’t want a school system where there are predictable results based on a student’s status,” Utterback said.
Equity has been a part of the North Clackamas conversation for more than a decade, but in 2014, the North Clackamas School Board approached Utterback with the idea of creating an equity policy. The school board spent six months working on it, with input from teachers, administrators and the community.
The two-page policy was adopted in spring 2015. School Board Member Lee Merrick said the board examines everything it does through an equity lens.
“I think it’s important that as elected officials we are concerned about the success of every child,” he said.
Utterback said the board has been essential to maintaining the district’s focus.
“We can’t underestimate the power that the equity policy has,” Utterback said. “It sends a message to our staff that the board has their back in this really important work.”
The equity policy’s message is clear: The district is committed to every student’s success, even if that means students or schools might require different levels of support or resources to reach the same ends.
“This is about looking at each child’s identity,” said Shelly Reggiani, North Clackamas executive director of equity and instructional services. She helped facilitate equity policy conversations with the board. “The equity policy is a message about our belief system.”
The policy guides training for all the staff. Most staff go through a two-day course, while administrators take a five-day course. The training explores what the education experience might be like for students from different backgrounds, and it challenges participants to understand their own biases and preconceptions.
Staff continue to confront their expectations for students through follow-up meetings and professional development.
“It’s a lot of beautiful hard work,” Reggiani said.
Rex Putnam language arts teacher Cresslyn Clay has been teaching for 16 years and had been thinking about equity already when she took the training, but the course crystallized her resolve.
“After taking the training, I thought, ‘OK, this needs to be a North Star,’” Clay said. “I need to give all my students a chance to see themselves in my classroom and be seen.”
Clay’s classes read books and poems from a variety of viewpoints, cultures and languages.
Minority students are more engaged when they see themselves in the curriculum, Clay said. They become the “stars in the room” as they help their fellow students understand the material.
“They become bolder and more enthusiastic and take on a leadership role,” she said.
Clay said the equity work creates the necessary environment for learning.
Rex Putnam language arts teacher Cresslyn Clay uses a variety of literary works to give her students different perspectives. “The kids build bridges between cultures,” she said. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
“When you are in a classroom and uncomfortable or you don’t feel safe or honored, that gets in the way of learning,” she said. “A culture of learning only happens when there is a safe environment.”
Many Rex Putnam students said staff members make the school feel like a family.
Aleigha Britt, a Rex Putnam senior, transferred to the North Clackamas district as a sophomore. Her grades went from mostly F’s her freshman year to mostly A’s her sophomore year, she said.
“The teachers are really supportive and understanding,” she said.
Gilberto Rivera, a Rex Putnam junior, said teachers try to get everyone involved during classes. He said his teachers might not have an in-depth understanding of every student’s viewpoint but they try.
“You feel like they do care about you,” he said. “Having a teacher care about how I do in a class really helps.”
Equity is not just about race. The focus on individual student needs helps teachers think about issues such as socioeconomic status, gender, disability and different cultural references so that they are reaching all their students better.
Rex Putnam science teacher Nicole Layng grew up going to the ocean and aquariums so she knows what a sea star looks like. But some of her students may not have been able to have those experiences, so she is careful to introduce a section on sea stars with videos, photos and other entry points for all students.
“All of the training boils down to how well you know your students,” Layng said.
North Clackamas classrooms provide opportunities for students to openly talk about issues in their world, including race, culture, immigration and the justice system. Teachers guide students to develop critical thinking skills around complex issues.
“We are affirming kids’ identities and making them feel like scholars,” said Rex Putnam Principal Kathleen Walsh. “Part of our mission as educators is to understand our students, understand the inequities in our society and to make sure we aren’t doing anything that adds to that.”
Staff and teachers stress removing barriers to learning. The equity policy pushes teachers and administrators to look at education from the perspective of students and identify what each student brings and what each student requires.
“Relationships,” Walsh said. “There’s just no way around that not being the answer.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
All McMinnville teaching staff and administrators are trained on the same methods and then become the trainers for the rest of the district.
The McMinnville School District offers pre-kindergarten and a program designed for parents of children from birth to age 5.
McMinnville staff want all parents to be able to access the system and fully understand its requirements and rewards.
Career and technical education is a big part of McMinnville’s strategy for helping students graduate.