Shattering inequities: One California school’s story

by Robin Avelar La Salle and Ruth Johnson

Pico-Union is one of the most socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods in the city of Los Angeles. More than 44,000 people live in a 1.67-square-mile area, making it one of the highest density places to live in the county. Sixty-five percent of the residents are Latino and immigrant, mostly from Mexico and Central America. Pico-Union is in the top 17 percent for number of violent crimes in L.A. Seven percent of residents have a four-year college degree and 66 percent did not complete high school.

In the midst of this challenged neighborhood sits Hoover Street Elementary School. It is ranked №1 in achievement compared to other schools with similar demographics in California (EdResults, 2017). Hoover is in the top 30 percent of all schools in the state for achievement and has been identified as a model of excellence in educating students, especially English learners. With this success in mind, California Department of Education officials, as well as community members and business people from across the state, have visited this impressive school.

Hoover is a K-5 neighborhood public school of about 800. Although several charter schools are nearby, Hoover still has a waiting list of students. Each morning, students enter by walking beneath an overpass that reads, “The door to college opens here.” At every assembly, students shout proudly, “Believe it, achieve it!” The school front is almost entirely covered in achievement banners earned over the past seven years.

How did this gem of a school come to be? Was it always this way? How does a public school in this area attain such academic levels when schools just blocks away are among the lowest-performing schools in the state?

The Hoover story

Hoover has always been special, with a stable and fiercely dedicated staff. Teachers’ cars are in the parking lot long before school starts and hours after the last bell rings. Principals assigned to the school over the years have been strong leaders. Student achievement increased most years in small increments, but not commensurate with the time and energy put in by the staff and administration.

In 2009, a new principal arrived. She was impressed by the dedication of the teachers and other staff but was confused by the achievement results. In 2009, only 29 percent of students performed at grade level in English language arts. Teachers were teaching, and students were learning, so what was the problem?

The new principal and her team of lead teachers shared the deeply held belief that every child deserves the excellent education that only some currently receive. They believed that the quality of a student’s education should not be determined by their home ZIP code. The teacher team admitted that the school had tried everything they knew to do to increase student success, yet, achievement only modestly improved. So, the school staff decided to put their dedication to their students ahead of their personal comfort. They asked for help.

The plan

The school invited Principal’s Exchange, a technical consulting organization focused on equity in education, to become partners with them. After assessing the school’s situation, PE recommended the school adopt a six-step plan of Equ ity Actions. The following steps can be taken by any school, cluster of schools or district that wants to shatter long-standing educational inequities:

  • Step 1: Take an Equity Inventory
  • Step 2: Create an Equity Tower
  • Step 3: Define Desired Equitable Outcomes
  • Step 4: Decide the Acceptable Floor
  • Step 5: Celebrate Team Cohesiveness
  • Step 6: Create a Progress Monitoring System

1. Take an Equity Inventory

The easiest way to spot inequitable systems is to first identify authentic examples of equity, then contrast them with those that do not meet that standard. This is a process by which you identify elements in the school or district system that create the greatest positive impact on student outcomes and ask, “Under what conditions could other elements become as impactful?” Imagine answering the questions in the table below.

Districts can extend this line of questioning to other roles including district office and executive-level staff. Using this process, Hoover saw that the major systemic barrier at the school was that not all grade-level teacher teams were equally effective. A few were extremely collaborative and outcome-focused, and student achievement was very strong at those grades. Other teacher teams operated more independently, and student results suffered.

2. Create an Equity Tower

An Equity Tower creates a rectangular-shaped graphic that prioritizes units of a school system based on an agreed-upon set of criteria. Those needing less support are listed at the bottom and those requiring more support are at the top. This process helps to prioritize limited resources and maximize impact.

3. Define Desired Equitable Outcomes

How will you know success when you get there? Decide the equitable outcomes that are not part of the current reality. For Hoover, the desired goal was that all grade levels achieve at the level of the highest-performing grades.

4. Decide the Acceptable Floor

Determine what the line is that characterizes a condition that is not acceptable under any circumstance. This may seem obvious, but it is rarely formalized. This leaves room for personal interpretation — which is where inequities live. Hoover decided that the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing grade level would be no more than 10 percent. They then decided to implement a core set of schoolwide teaching strategies that focused on meeting the language needs of their students. This defined their instructional floor. Other schools or districts may decide on the acceptable floor for any element of the school system (i.e., for student subgroup outcomes, instructional practices, leadership or wrap-around practices, parent engagement or even school climate and culture — all areas that impact student outcomes).

5. Celebrate Team Cohesiveness

The work of breaking down inequitable educational practices must be done as a collaborative effort. Align risks and rewards in a way that celebrates cohesive team effort rather than individual accomplishments to cultivate a culture of equity. To promote “teamness,” Hoover provided collaboration time for grade levels as well as grade-level teacher facilitators to support positive and productive collaboration time.

6. Create a Progress Monitoring System

Finally, design a monitoring system that will provide frequent formative feedback about how well the plan is performing. Hoover created a system where each grade level agreed on the learning outcomes expected of every student for the year. They organized the outcomes into six units of time, grouping them in ways that made best teaching sense. Then, teams created common assessments designed to measure how well students learned the specific targeted outcomes. This process occurred about every five weeks. Each team, guided by a lead teacher, uncovered the lessons from the assessment data. Most importantly, they made team agreements about how they would modify their instruction prior to the next unit assessment to target the desired improvement. The principal’s role was then to inspire and support teachers to adhere to their team agreements. The goal of this process was to maximize student achievement by the end of each unit of instruction.

Inequities shattered

The implementation of the equity plan was profound in raising student achievement. A significant outcome was the empowerment of all factions at the school. Hoover staff learned that the hard work and good intentions of individuals cannot override systemic barriers to achievement. The courage of the principal and the staff to ask for help produced a school of confident, academically competitive scholars.

California schools serve many vulnerable students. Adults who believe that education is the gateway to future success in college and careers work in every school and district. Similarly, every student is entitled to the best education offered anywhere, regardless of background. Students should graduate with every option available to them, including that of attending a university right out of high school. Sadly, this is not the current reality everywhere in California.

Shattering inequities requires both equity heart and equity know-how — with a systems lens. For those schools and district that have both, please share your results and lessons. They serve to inspire others. For those educators who are champions of equity and have tried everything you know to do without the desired results, ask for help. The opportunity to change lives and entire communities is immense, and the know-how does exist. Just ask!

Robin Avelar La Salle earned her PhD in education from Stanford University and is the co-founder and CEO of Principal’s Exchange (now known as Orenda Education), a technical assistance organization with 20 years of history partnering with schools and districts that serve struggling students. Ruth Johnson is professor emeritus at Cal State LA and the author of several books including Data Strategies to Uncover and Eliminate Hidden Inequities: The Wallpaper Effect (with co-author Dr. Avelar La Salle) and Using Data to Close the Achievement Gap. Their latest book entitled Shattering Inequities: Real World Wisdom for School and District Leaders, will be released in January 2019. This article originally appeared in California Schools magazine, a publication of CSBA.