In working with schools across New England as a school improvement coach, I have come to believe that many school district leaders and staff need to engage in significant reflection and study around the mindsets and foundational beliefs of educational equity before they can successfully implement more equitable policies and practices. Although there are various approaches to this work, increasingly schools are hiring leaders to help. Two and a half years ago, Portland Public Schools hired Barrett Wilkinson as a full-time equity specialist.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Barrett to learn about the work.
What does it mean to be an equity specialist for Portland Public Schools? What are the major parts of your job?
In the Portland Public Schools, we’ve identified equity as a pillar of our multiyear strategic plan, called the Portland Promise. Equity is one of the four primary goals. I was hired when the strategic plan was adopted to see through some of the specific project work related to that. To keep a laser focus for our system to go deeper and look at equity.
Some of the equity strategies were named in the Portland Promise, but others are in the works. I’m part of the academic leadership team and I also work closely with Human Resources. We look closely at hiring and diversifying staff. Much of my current focus is about what it means to evolve staff habits, mindsets, and skills as it relates to equity literacy, to use Paul Gorski’s framing. We want everyone in our system to have some shared, foundational understanding of equity and how that relates to their interactions with students, colleagues, etc. We are also working on improving equity and representation in our curriculum, so overall as a system we are working on both how and what we teach.
Last year, we launched the Equity Leaders Cohort, a model I learned from some other districts. Each of our schools have identified at least one person as an “equity leader,” and they come together several times during the year to focus on different topics including bias, privilege, systemic racism, opportunity and achievement gaps, and so on. These leaders are then working to develop professional learning sessions for the staff back at their schools. We receive support for this from the Center for Educational Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, Inc. (MAEC), based in Maryland. They are the regional Equity Assistance Center as identified by the U.S. Department of Education.
I can imagine that other districts would want to know how this works. Tell me more about the nuts and bolts. Are these leaders paid a stipend? How much time do they have?
We meet monthly after school in addition to a couple of bigger, longer deep dives throughout the year. I provide ongoing support to that team such as more nuanced facilitation support, help with activity modification for their schools, resources, etc.
As of right now, they do not get a stipend, but do get school contact hours used towards recertification or credit hours. They are pulled out for three full days, plus the monthly meetings, and that includes planning time that is supported but on their own/with their team. So far, the level of commitment has been very high. Being in the role of needing to train their colleagues is kind of complex, but they have taken it on and are a tremendous resource. They are thoughtful, engaged people who want to really make Portland Public Schools even better. It is awesome and inspiring.
The schools have definitely followed through on their commitment of time and resources for these leaders to bring the work back. Our building leaders are very focused on equity as well and work closely with the equity leaders. This is year two, but the team has grown and we have more equity leaders this year.
How would you define success in your position? What are you hoping to accomplish?
It depends on the day! Right now, I would define success as staff operating from a place of cultural humility and responsiveness to their students and parents. Of all staff being willing to examine their perspectives to improve interactions with students and with each other. I want to have a system that reflects the multitude of values related to equity that I know exist here. Individual identities are such an important part of that. People need to be seen for all of who they are. When this happens, young people engage more deeply in their education.
What advice would you give to school districts that don’t have an equity specialist on staff?
I get a fair amount of phone calls from other districts who have heard about pieces of our work. I think that a good step can be getting people who are curious together. Start with finding allies and try to craft definitions of what things like equity and racism mean in their setting. Invite in voices from multiple perspectives in the system to think about equity broadly but then get specific. There are so many small steps that would be good starts. Start a book group. Read articles together as a staff. Invite guest speakers who might bring perspective we haven’t heard before. Send people to conferences. If someone has an idea and they are committed to taking action, say yes! See what happens.
So easily with equity issues, it can seem too big. But we all have a locus of control or sphere of influence, especially in education systems. We can start with questions like, “What am I seeing? What are the problems? What are students identifying? Staff? Community members?” And we can start by holding up a mirror to ourselves and do our own internal work. This is an essential and ongoing part of meaningful and lasting effort to enhance equity and inclusion.
A lot of times positions like mine exists because there was an incident, and the creation of the position is a response. Since I’ve been at the Portland Public Schools, it feels very proactive.