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Principals to Get Specialized Training to Tackle Racial Inequities in Their Schools

The country's second-largest school district—where 82 percent of students are Latino and African American—is tapping principals to root out racial bias and inequitable practices in their schools.

Los Angeles Unified School District and the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California have partnered to train principals and other school leaders to tackle systemic inequities. The Racial Equity Leadership Academy for principals will begin in early 2020, with the first cohort consisting of about 40 principals from some of the district's highest-needs schools.

"We know that the pursuit of racial equity in schools requires skill-building among principals, and teachers, and everyone who is involved in the ecosystem of schooling," said Shaun Harper, a professor and the executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. "Part of this [program] is a recognition that many people did not learn in their prior educational and professional upbringing how to solve complex racial problems, what to do when data consistently show us pervasive inequities between racial groups, how to make good use of racial tension when it arises in a school. Those are all teachable things."

The work with USC Race and Equity Center will have two major components.

The first, the academy, will include six months of Saturday sessions to help principals better understand policies, practices, and environments that lead to inequitable outcomes in their schools and how to take proactive and pre-emptive steps to address those disparities, Harper said. 

The second component is a project that principals will work on to identify a major problem of racial inequity in their school and develop a plan to address it. They will have access to experts from the center to design the project, track results, and measure the impact. They will also have a mentor at USC for 18 months.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said the new academy and the racial equity projects are part of an overall reorientation in the district to focus on the unique needs of schools and the unique needs of students in the different communities that make up the vast school system.

"One of the things we want to do is build the capacity in our school leaders to make choices—informed choices that are in the best interest of students—together with those who work in the schools they lead," Beutner said. "It's not just 'restore the school, connect it to the community.' If you do that without building the capacity of leaders you miss part of the puzzle, and that's where our work with USC comes in."

The district is already engaged in a number of initiatives to address racial inequities, including working with the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, Million Dollar Hoods, the Social Justice Learning Institute, and other organizations to reduce arrest and suspensions rates for African-American students. While black students made up less 9 percent of LAUSD's enrollment, they accounted for about a quarter of citations, arrests, and diversions by the school system's police between 2014 and 2017, according to the Bunche Center's research.

The district has also piloted programs to address the over-identification of African-American boys in special education, Beutner said.

In one, the district is taking a more holistic approach to identifying whether students need to be placed in special education. And in another initiative, the district is working with a local college to recruit more teachers of color, particularly African-American men, to work in the system.

Harper said that unlike many equity initiatives promoted by corporations and school districts that shy away from race, this program will tackle the issue head-on. And it's not a one-off professional-development opportunity where a consultant comes in, delivers the lesson, and then leaves, he said.

"We are not doing this in a raceless way," he said. "There are so many schools and districts across the country that are claiming to do equity, but they are doing so in a paradoxically raceless way. We are putting race at the center of all of this work...We are going to be talking about racism, racist school cultures, racist institutional norms, and racist practices and policies. We're not going to run away from that or sanitize it in ways that frankly we often see in other places that are claiming to do things in the name of equity."

The curriculum will include topics like disaggregating data to unmask racial inequities; eliminating racial gaps in school discipline; creating more opportunities for educators of color to become principals; integrating race across the curriculum; teaching strategies to engage students of color; and teaching slavery and America's racial history in a more accurate and fuller way.

Classes will be divided into three portions. In a class on retaining teachers of color, for example, principals may spend the first 90 minutes discussing why nonwhite educators leave the profession in disproportionally higher rates and the "extra labor that teachers of color have to take on because they are so under-represented," in schools, Harper said.

Educators may then spend another 90 minutes on proactive approaches to better understand how educators of color experience the school work environment, with the specific goal of retaining those teachers. The last 90 minutes may be spent on how to change the school environment to make it more welcoming and supportive to teachers of color, he said.

With all of the classes, principals will review case studies and explore how they would address similar issues in their schools. Lecturers have been tasked with creating practice-oriented lessons so that principals can leave a session on Saturday and start implementation in their schools the following Monday, Harper said. 

Harper said that he expects the center to be available to support principals in their work for the rest of their educational careers. 

While the program will start with school leaders, future cohorts will likely include teacher-leaders, area superintendents, and other educators who work in the district's central office.

Ultimately, Harper said, he'd like to create a virtual community of practice for educators who have participated in the program so that they would be able to pose questions to each other about thorny challenges they are facing, share success stories, and be a resource to each other.

At the conclusion of the academy, Harper expects principals to be more comfortable discussing race, racism, and racial inequities and the reasons they remain persistent in schools. They should also be able to use what they learned in the academy and the project to make concrete changes in their buildings and to hold themselves and others accountable for racially equitable outcomes, he said.

And he expects that schools led by principals who complete the project will see a "reduction in racialized gaps—either student performance gaps or other kinds of measurable gaps—between blacks, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American and white students."

"We certainly expect that schools will benefit from cultural reform, curricular revision, pedagogical improvement, and leadership effectiveness on matters pertaining to racial equity," he said. "Perhaps, most excitingly...these schools will emerge as sites of effective leadership and practice on racial equity in ways that are inspiring and instructive not only for other LAUSD schools, but for public schools across the U.S."

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