NORWALK, Conn. — Surveys, focus groups, and education are the first parts of the “Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: Norwalk Public Schools Equity in Education” project.
Eddie Fergus, Ph.D., associate professor of urban education policy at Temple University, presented the Board of Education this week with the framework for a pilot equity program that is taking place in Norwalk.
Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said that this was “the design of our equity lens (for) the listening and learning tour,” and that it would “provide the scope of the work ahead.”
“What are the sort of factors, and in particular school level factors, that are directly or indirectly playing a role in the ways in which disproportion or disproportionality patterns exist within our school settings?” Fergus said, stating what they’ll be looking at through this project.
The plan is to collect data through surveys and focus groups during October, analyze the data during November and December, and then lay out a report for the board in January.
As of Tuesday, the surveys had been open for about 4-5 days, and 187 parents had responded along with 159 school staff. Fergus said they’re going to be looking at who is responding to the surveys to make sure a group is not over- or under-represented. There will also be student surveys and focus groups later on in the month, he said. Virtual focus groups started this week with in-person focus groups starting next week.
From school staff, Fergus said they’re looking to find out “their perceptions around school quality resources that they see happening in their school, the efficiency to which practices are happening, particularly around behavioral and academic supports,” as well as “their perceptions of leadership,” and “their perspectives around culture and race.”
Parent surveys also include questions on culture, race, and in particular, colorblindness, cultural knowledge and responsibility, racial discomfort and deficit thinking, or “what’s the degree to which we also hold some of these concepts within our own sort of lived reality,” affect their views.
One of the areas they’ll be looking at is the “patterns of disproportionately” that show up in particular settings, which can lead to predisposed biases, Fergus said. He gave the example of seeing boys get disciplined and not girls.
“If we’re constantly seeing boys experiencing discipline, we could easily start developing a normalized understanding that only boys get in trouble, right?” he said. “Girls don’t get in trouble. Girls don’t do externalized behavior. When in fact, what we have to reconcile is that it’s not necessarily about, that there’s a problem inherent in the particular population. But there may also be something about the manner in which we’re doing our practice.”
During this first year, school leaders, in particular principals and assistant principals, will be identifying areas of practice, such as how students are disciplined, how students get classified for special education, and how students get selected for gifted or advanced programs. Each building will identify one or two of these areas to dig into to the data on to see if there are disparities, what they are, and how they can be rectified.
“Part of what we have to grapple with is, how those patterns of inequality, those patterns of disparity, are existing,” Fergus said. “And that means that we have to develop a level of equity literacy that allows us to know, to be able to ask ourselves hard questions around our practice, not only sort of, why do we do what we do? How did we arrive at this? But also, how did we arrive at a place where it’s happening for specific groups of kids, and what gave permission for that to continue?”
Estrella said that for example, they could look at how diversity has changed in some of these programs over time, or how new initiatives and programs helped to influence them.
“If we’re looking at gifted and talented and specialized programming, like advanced placement for instance, we would look at the patterns and trends of diversity and how that how those groups have either increased in diversity, or certain marginalized groups, how those groups have been better represented over time based on shift in practices within the work,” she said.
Fergus said some of the work includes breaking down predisposed biases or assumptions about where a particular student or group of students belongs.
“We’re also putting new practices in place that is predicated on recognizing that we’re not giving permission for us to have disparate disproportionality patterns existing with our groups of kids,” he said “We’re not going to be OK with the idea that certain groups of kids are not going to be in gifted, (advanced placement) or honors, or certain groups of kids are going to be experiencing discipline. We’re going to ask, we’re going to push ourselves to recognize that there’s better ways in which we can operate that don’t rely on those set of assumptions.”
Estrella said as a part of the board’s next business meeting, she will provide “a timeline of the work that Dr. Fergus in collaboration with all the other elements—with the RFP for the facilities, special education reviews, and all the other components that will lead to the development of our new strategic operating plan.”