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An education in equity
February 28, 2021
You walk into the classroom and take a seat. The teacher announces the lesson plan for the day, and you reach into your bag for a pencil to take notes. To your surprise and dismay, all you can find are a few broken colored pencils. None of your classmates have an extra pencil. What should the teacher do to help? In an equal environment, the teacher would give all students an extra pencil. In an equitable environment, the teacher would give only you an extra pencil, targeting your unique need.
County-wide commitment to equity
In Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), teachers are encouraged to use the principle of equity to guide their actions in the classroom, which FCPS defines as a commitment to fairness that results in all people —regardless of background— being able to access all available educational resources and contribute to the community.
“Equity is being able to have everybody have an equal voice, and an equal seat at the table, and show the value of diverse ideas and diverse perspectives on different issues, and in daily life in general,” junior Damilola Awofisayo, a Student Equity Ambassador Leader (SEAL), said.
All FCPS high school administrations were directed to establish equity teams at their schools in the 2016-17 school year. Jefferson’s Equity Team, led by Jenifer Hitchcock, a social studies teacher, and Stephen Stern, a computer science teacher, is a part of that county-wide system.
“It’s a division in FCPS, and the whole point is to have a concerted conversation about academic, community-wide practices relating to equity, and being respectful to different cultures within the community [and] elevating the diversity that we have,” Hitchcock said.
In the past, the Equity Team focused on administering FCPS’s lessons on equity to staff at Jefferson.
“We’re about to do our seventh training module for staff members [at Jefferson]. The first one I ever attended was as a long term sub, and that was two and a half [to] three years ago,” Stern said. “Every single person in the county has been getting those trainings.”
Current initiatives at Jefferson
However, at Jefferson, the Equity Team is doing its own work to promote an equitable education for all students. After conducting a student survey earlier this year, the team identified teacher-student conversations in class as an area where Jefferson could improve its awareness of cultural identity.
“In order to get the student to student conversation to be more equitable, we have to help train the staff to be able to feel confident,” Hitchcock said. “Because a lot of times, having a conversation in which we’re changing language to make sure that it’s inclusive is a sea change for folks.”
The Equity Team is introducing concepts of cultural responsiveness through a tried-and-true format for adult learning: the book club.
“We’re on our third book right now which is [about] culture-responsive thinking and the brain,” Hitchcock said. “[It] is a biological, psychological, [and] academic review of how identity impacts the acquisition of knowledge and skill for students.”
The team then plans for teachers to implement cultural responsiveness skills in interactions with students during class.
“We are asking every single member of the staff to, at some point this year, — it’s a very low bar but we [have] to start somewhere — have a concerted day where they’re intentionally having a conversation [about] how their academic field of study is going to intersect with our mission of making everyone feel welcome,” Hitchcock said.
Bringing more attention to the LGBTQ+ community
In addition to more frequent discussions about the multitude of cultural backgrounds of Jefferson students, the Equity Team is also working to increase the Jefferson community’s awareness and understanding of its LGBTQ+ members.
“One of the things that was identified by the student population as a point of concern is the lack of visibility for the LGBTQ student community at [Jefferson]. We [want to] offer resources to the staff [on] how to better support the particular needs of students [in] the LGBTQ community,” Hitchcock said. “That community is so vibrant here at TJ and it plays such an integral role.”
As part of an effort to include LGBTQ+ narratives in class curricula, the new Experimental Foundations of Computer Science course for freshmen recently had a lesson about the achievements and identity of one prominent computer scientist, which included his sexual orientation.
“[The class] talked about some of the preconceived notions that folks have about Alan Turing and the limitations that he had as a gay white man in the [field] of computer science, but also how he overcame them, and how we remember that aspect of his identity,” Hitchcock said. “It’s important that we don’t have to divorce those people from their deeper identities. Oftentimes those deeper identities are actually beneficial.”
The team also plans to create a special advisory panel with staff and students who identify as LGBTQ+, so that all school employees can better understand how to meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community at Jefferson.
“A lot of the time, students, especially in a classroom setting, don’t feel comfortable expressing what they need,” Stern said. “[This panel is] a platform where teachers can learn a lot and start to understand [how] their actions and class policies might be affecting students in a way that they may not intend or think about.”
Encouraging student involvement
The Equity Team currently has two SEALs, Awofisayo and sophomore Michael Owoyemi, who work with other high schools and coordinate with FCPS’s central Equity and Cultural Responsiveness office.
“We meet regularly [with other high school SEALs] to talk about equity in our different schools and what we’re doing to improve it; [we] try [to] build off of each other’s ideas. We also talk to representatives in the school system; one notable one we talked to was the Chief Equity Officer,” Awofisayo said. “We bring all those ideas and discussions back to our school’s Equity Team to implement [them] in ways that fit in our school environments.”
Jefferson’s SEALs collaborated with Facebook group Jefferson Chefs to create a Black History Month cooking challenge during February. They’re currently planning to host a student book club that will mirror the one for staff.
“Maybe every week or so a group of students would come to discuss different equity-related books to increase the open-mindedness of TJ students and allow them to see other perspectives,” Awofisayo said. “So, Michael [and I] are in charge of choosing the books, at least for now. At this point, they’re a lot of science and realistic fiction. Hopefully, when we get it off the ground, if people are more interested in different genres, we can also start including those as well.”
Although Awofisayo and Owoyemi are new to the Equity Team, they have been able to work closely with the staff co-leads and the Jefferson administration on new initiatives.
“I think the best part about our Equity Team, at least compared to a lot of other schools, is that, compared to other schools, it’s not just students, it’s also composed of staff and administrators. [For] a lot of the resources that we might have trouble getting, we can just talk to the administrators [to] see if there’s funding available,” Awofisayo said. “The only downside is the time that it takes: sometimes you need to get approval and that takes a lot of time. I think that’s the real barrier for us not having a lot of stuff to show, but a lot of things planned.”
Next school year, the team plans to involve more Jefferson students through open forums.
“We’re trying to put together some eighth period times to meet and talk [with students]. That hasn’t come to fruition mostly because of the way the pandemic has set up the school year,” Stern said. “It’s been really crazy and really busy and hard to interact with students in a more personal way.”
With these initiatives, the Equity Team hopes to make all students feel represented at Jefferson.
“The goal of the Equity Team is to not water things down. The goal of the Equity Team is to maintain the community’s standards of excellence, with a mind that it should be accessible to everyone,” Hitchcock said. “We [are working] to adjust how we’re interacting so that people who walk in, in ninth through 12th grade, feel like each and every single one of them has a pathway in front of them.”
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