DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is a commonly used acronym, but what does it mean in the context of day-to-day operations in a school district?

As many experts will point out, DEI initiatives are prone to fail when they aren’t getting at the crux of the issue—existing systemic processes and challenges that prevent promising solutions and DEI-focused policies from being successful.

During an eSchool News Innovation Roundtable with a focus on DEI, moderated by eSchool News Content Director Kevin Hogan, district leaders delved into the critical but complicated topic of DEI in school districts. Roundtable participants included:

  • Julie Mavrogeorge, Coordinator II – CTE (Esports, Drones, AME and Ag) with Fresno Unified School District
  • Allison Reid, Senior Director of Digital Learning and Libraries in the Wake Forest County Public School System
  • Dr. Cynthia Wise, Principal of J.H. Hines Elementary in Waco, Texas

Here’s what eSN’s panel of educator experts had to say about DEI in action in their schools, the challenges they still face, and what they think will advance DEI initiatives in the years to come.

What does DEI mean in your district’s day-to-day operations?

JM: DEI doesn’t live in one place. Some people say we need a DEI team. But it’s the responsibility of the entire district to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I need to create programs for students that will help educate them in their own culture and their own way. Ethnicity, diversity–all students need to learn how each culture is different. There’s also the equity and inclusion of gender preference. To me, [DEI] is educating myself and our team, but also educating teachers, staff, and students. We only know what we know until we know something different. My passion is specifically for the neurodivergent population and our foster and homeless youth. I try to educate people that we’re all human; we need to be treated as human. How do we go about training our students to realize that where we come from is important? How we’re wired is also important, but we also need to understand people who are different than we are.

AR: I believe that creating a space where each student, every day, feels like they belong is critical for moving the needle for students and allowing students to become the most successful version of themselves. In touching on the different types of ‘otherness’ – DEI means we see people for who they are. We are not blind to their otherness; rather, we see their otherness, we celebrate their otherness where we can, and we use that as a basis to make sure we’re giving those students what they need as individuals and see them wholly so they can grow into the best version of themselves. In looking at policies and processes, we must keep in mind that [we are] teaching students every day–regardless of race, nationality, gender, religion, orientation, neurodivergencies, whatever their otherness might be or not be. Are the decisions we’re making made with consideration of all our populations? Are we courageous enough to have the conversation and really look at what we’re already doing and make changes where necessary? Context matters, and we have to ask the questions to understand the context for each and every student.

CW: I have dedicated my entire administrative career to ensure students of color receive a high-quality education that is safe, inclusive, and recognizes and celebrates diversity while meeting every child’s needs so they can thrive. Diversity stands for acknowledging that there is a range of differences in the classroom. Equity is meeting each individual student’s needs–their exact needs. Inclusion signifies embracing those differences so all students feel supported. I also believe the equity should be applicable to employees, not just students. All employees should be appreciated and allowed to make meaningful contributions and that would boost morale in the workplace.

How do these DEI concepts play out in your districts? What do they look like in terms of the active participation of teachers and students?

AR: [One of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent edtech plans] discussed active vs. passive consumption of technology. We started looking more closely at how our students were using tech in the classroom. What’s fascinating, when you look at it, is students of marginalized subgroups–when we give them technology to use, we give them technology that is passive consumption. We would like for them to watch a video; we would like for them to do a drill-and-kill online. Students in those at-risk subgroups–that’s the kind of technology we give them, and we wonder why it doesn’t work. They’re not actually doing anything–they’re not making decisions, they’re just receiving. We’ve removed the opportunity for conversation, dialogue, or interaction with a human. We’ve given them technology in ways that, quite frankly, stink, because it is passive consumption, and in doing so we’ve removed the human element. Now, our advanced students–when we give them technology, we ask them to create with it–create a video, or a slide deck, or make a movie. Far different cognitive asks of the student regardless of the modality. When we’re talking about DEI, how we use technology with specific subgroups can either exacerbate or help with the achievement gap we see. Making sure that as we’re making decisions about how we integrate technology into our instruction and into our curriculum, are we allowing students of all achievement levels, all subgroups, the opportunity to use technology in an active way, in a creative way. That’s why, when you look at research on gamifying learning, it’s so powerful–because kids are actively engaged in what they’re doing and they’re making choices versus just passively consuming text. We’re starting to see some changes.

CW: In my district, every student has Chromebook, but the downside is that it’s for class use only. We are a Title I district. At my school in particular, 98 percent are on free and/or reduced lunch. I have friends working in more affluent districts and those children are allowed to take their Chromebooks home. The students from these Title I schools are at a disadvantage because the only use they have, as far as using Chromebooks/computers, is at school. The other side of that is, let’s say the district allowed them to take the Chromebooks home. Most of these homes don’t have internet, so now you have another problem, because it’s very expensive. You can give them the devices, but when they get home, where’s the connectivity? In my opinion, the issue is beyond being equitable. I think the issue is more affordability. Internet access is not affordable for all families, so that raises the question around whether this is about equitable access to technology or about affordability. And this creates a digital divide between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Technology is here to stay, so we need to understand what it can and can’t do for the users–but at the same time, it’s expensive for many things and families cannot afford the additional costs.

JM: We are over 90 percent free and/or reduced lunch. About 1 percent of our student body is homeless or foster–that’s 700 students in our district. We also are 1:1 with our devices–our students do take their HP or Lenovo laptops home. When we talk about coming back from the pandemic, our students are so disengaged, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their ethnicity. They’re not as engaged with humans as they were prior to the pandemic. Our district applied for a grant that enabled us to put up Wi-Fi towers in our regions. There’s a Fresno Unified tower families can connect to for Wi-Fi. Through one of our internet providers, families can also get internet access for $10 per month. Technology is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere. My main focus has been the integration of technology or the integration of students with technology in their current classes, as well as in after-school programs. I help to run our esports programs. When you take what seems dry and you put in creative ways of delivering it to students, gamifying just that general education–a huge component of Minecraft in education and what you can do with Minecraft in a classroom. There’s not a single subject you cannot teach within Minecraft, not a single assessment you cannot do within Minecraft. We have to take us older-school education people and retrain our way of thinking about how to deliver [instruction]. And that provides that equity and inclusion for students where they are, but we’re still delivering the content they need in order to succeed in society.

Is it ultimately the responsibility of a district to not only provide a student with a device, but also guarantee them access to anything they’re being assigned at school, at home?

CW: When it comes to technology, we’re stagnated rather than being innovative. Schools really don’t have the freedom to fully invest in the active use of technology, and the other side of that is most schools don’t have the funding to invest in the active use of technology. The way the schools were able to get 1:1 Chromebooks was because of pandemic ESSERR funds, but those funds will run out. Also, the system is designed and geared towards closing the achievement gap in reading and math between black children and white children. That’s what this is designed to do. So, unless, the way I see it, you have to get other outside [funding and support] sources such as tech companies and other companies, grants, donations, but outside of that, the funding is not there. A lot of districts are cutting staff and making deep cuts because the money is no longer there.

AR: I do think we have a responsibility to provide students with the resources they need to access their education. But I very strongly believe having internet access for students and families is not a K-12 problem. This is a community problem that our local government should be investing in. This is not an educational problem. We are at a point in our history in America where connectivity is a basic utility; if there are not programs in our community (we are not there yet either–we provide Mi-Fis for kids who don’t have access at home but sometimes those Mi-Fis are inadequate)… Stop giving our school districts all the problems to solve. We need community partners to step up and own the responsibility for providing this very basic utility for our families, regardless of whether they have children in schools or not. I do think we’re at a point that we owe students that and we certainly should partner with our municipalities, but I do not think this is a K-12 education problem. We’re already facing an educator shortage; these are big problems that are going to have to involve a lot of infrastructure and that doesn’t happen in the silo of a school district–we’ve got to have community partners.

CW: When you look at equity, [it means] each individual student has received exactly what that student needs to be successful, but then you have to train teachers. Where does the funding come in for that? The emphasis in education is not on educators becoming active users of technology; teachers don’t receive that training. The training they receive promotes passive use of technology. I like the [mention of] looking at community partners and municipalities. I want [to also focus on] the continuing education for teachers and teacher prep programs. Those programs do not prepare teachers to actively use technology. Teachers need extensive training on how to actively expand and use technologies in their classrooms. If we’re going to make this a primary goal, it’s going to take some radical rethinking of education in the United States. And I don’t think we’re there yet.

AR: If all we do is give kids a Chromebook and send them home with a device, and we are not changing the pedagogy of how we design instruction for our students, then we have only given lip service to DEI as it relates to using technology for student achievement. Technically, access has to happen first. Without question. But until we shift how we design instruction and kids are asked to do different things with it. we’re not really going to see the potential exponential growth technology can provide for us. If all you’re doing is taking that Chromebook or device and you’re turning your 30-year-old worksheets into digital tech worksheets, you’re just not doing anything different. Nothing has changed in terms of that child’s attitude about school–you’ve made the notebook heavier. I do think we’re at a point that we owe students that and we certainly should partner with our municipalities, but I do not think this is a K-12 education problem. We’re already facing an educator shortage; these are big problems that are going to have to involve a lot of infrastructure and that doesn’t happen in the silo of a school district–we’ve got to have community partners.

JM: That’s largely my role, to find the tech that can transform what kids are learning. We have teachers using Minecraft to teach during the day. We have a class we call Tournament of Technology in our middle school geared toward design, coding, robotics, and video production. And it’s mainstreamed with a lot of the linked learning, so students are doing this with their science, English, and math teachers, and projects of value are being incorporated into teaching. In my opinion, we need to absolutely do away with standardized testing–it’s a waste of time; all we’re doing is teaching a kid whether they can or cannot take a test and most students walk away feeling that they failed. A lot of what I have been working on in our district is providing students with internships during their class period. I work with industry partners to work with those students during their class period on real world projects. [I’m also] training teachers on how to play Minecraft, training them on Raspberry Pi, and how to work with robots, drones, and coding. I have a huge background in communication and conflict resolution. What is it you’re struggling with and how do we make you successful, because if you’re successful, your kids are going to be successful. We can’t just focus on the student–that teacher often needs support, love, and care.

What are your hopes for 2-3 years down the line?

CW: It’s going to require a systematic shift in education, and education as a whole is very conservative. It’s going to take some time, but I know we will get there. I’m not saying that we are not offering any type of active usage of technology. We do it, but we don’t do it with fidelity, and that’s what is needed. I believe the earlier we start with our students at the elementary level, they’ll become more proficient as they progress onto the secondary level. I think we have to be careful and not lose sight that one of the most significant parts of elementary instruction needs to be a focus on learning to read and write in order for elementary school students to be successful at that elementary level and beyond. I see where technology will play a significant role–there are some awesome programs to reinforce those reading, writing, and math skills. I would love for us to get to the point where our students will become active users.

AR: In the late 90s, they’d talk about how education will experience a paradigm shift. For 20-some years, I’ve been looking around waiting for a paradigm shift. We’re still testing kids just like we did in the late 90s. The reality is that what gets measured gets done. So, we test whether or not we covered content. What if we said that the 4Cs were important and we measured and reported on that–I don’t know how we’d do that; that’s messier, that’s not black and white. We have to have some shifts in what we assess, but I do think there’s a paradigm shift on the horizon and I think it’s coming to us by way of AI. For the first time in my career, I think we have some technology that can actually give time back to teachers. We just keep adding to the plates, and we’re not taking anything away. AI has the potential to take some of those mundane tasks and offload those, so teachers can get back to the art of connecting with children on a human level–so they can know them by name, strength, and need, and help them be successful. If we can be more strategic about what we measure and what we report, maybe we can change our attitudes about assessment and focus on the things that can really move the needle. I think AI is going to help us do some of that.

JM: AI is going to help teachers, and we do need to help them embrace it. It is going to give them back time and help them make those connections. That’s what’s needed–teachers need more time. Thy need to feel loved and cared for, and they don’t. How do we expect teachers to teach when they’re almost robots in front of a classroom having to teach to all these standards that kids aren’t embracing? It’s not engaging. We definitely need a shift. We can do what little bits we can in our district, but it needs to be from the top down.

Related:
Navigating cultural diversity in American education
How to work for equity of access in classrooms
For more news on DEI, visit eSN’s Educational Leadership hub

Laura Ascione
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