The coronavirus pandemic has exposed historic equity gaps that have long plagued our schools and society. Schools have always served as a hub of support and aid to children, their families, and communities. At our district, the majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch And while Broward County Public Schools (BCPS), like districts nationwide, has focused on COVID emergency responses to ensure that students get the social, emotional, and academic supports that they need, we recognize that as our students return to the classrooms, they are returning to a different world.

In the wake of this unrest and the political tensions, our teachers must be prepared to have some difficult conversations. A key piece to these discussions and, ultimately, closing the inequity gaps is to look at the long-term, root causes of inequities and provide all adults who work with students the opportunities to learn how to address, discuss and examine implicit bias as a community.

Related content: How COVID put a spotlight on equity

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the foundational framework that successfully continues to bridge the equity divide at BCPS is our work with Public Consulting Group’s (PCG) Courageous Conversations about Race online program, developed in partnership with renowned equity expert Glenn Singleton that provides the tools to engage in difficult discussions in productive and safe ways that systemically shifts our district’s culture. To date we have trained over 1,200 educators, school staff and community stakeholders and continue to scale and expand our equity initiatives.

When I became superintendent of Broward County, Florida in 2011, I faced more than academic challenges. Our district serves an extremely diverse population of over 275,000 public and public charter school students, representing over 200 countries and over 190 languages. Yet, it was immediately clear that the diversity of our student population was not reflective of our teaching staff, which created challenges for students and educators.

With this, I saw an opportunity to do more than just tackle our academic performance gaps, but address the racial disparities and long-term outcomes for students of color and take on the challenge of improving equity. Every student has their own story – their own successes, their own challenges, and their own way of responding. And if we truly want and expect our students to excel, we need to be able to not only teach academics, but to understand our students’ stories and how those narratives play out at home and in our classrooms.

In 2018, BCPS partnered with Public Consulting Group to tackle those inequities by training our teachers and school staff to understand not only their students’ stories, but their own. Through workshops, training, and building our teachers to serve as Equity Liaisons to champion the work in their own schools, we got necessarily uncomfortable. We challenged ourselves to uncover our own implicit biases in service to our students. We continued to host these critical conversations online when COVID hit even though our school buildings were closed.

I’ve heard time and time again from our teachers and staff that anyone who works with students needs this training.

That’s why I’m rounding up the key variables needed for district leaders to advance their own Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including:

1. Let your data speak. See where your academic gaps are, but also look for other signs of inequality, whether in behavioral citations or absences.

2. Look inwardly. We all have implicit biases. We are born with them. They are formed or reinforced by our environments and lived experiences. We need to be ok with looking at how our perspectives were shaped and where they might be wrong.

3. Analyze your school and district leadership and how their practices impact equity at every school. This is not a top-down implementation. At our district we developed a system wide approach for organizational structures that starts with teachers acting as Equity Liaisons to lead this initiative. We knew that this couldn’t be a management-led initiative, so we aligned with teachers unions including NEA and AFT who were already taking this on as a priority.

6 tips to help districts bridge the equity divide

Our teachers are mission critical to spread the work and it’s imperative to get them invested on the ground level. Despite the impact of the pandemic over the summer, we saw an 80 percent completion rate among teachers, administrators and leaders that voluntarily opted into the online course.

4. Establish a dedicated department to manage your equity initiatives. Equity extends beyond classrooms and is about creating a comprehensive culture – from school improvement plans, hiring practices, procurement, awarding of contracts, and academics. These types of shifts also help us prioritize and even fund our equity initiatives.

5. Engage your external community stakeholders. It’s not just the school system in this work. All of the agencies that intersect with the school district; county government, city leaders, law enforcement, social service agencies, parents, Urban Leagues and United Ways need to be speaking the same language through a shared vocabulary about race.

Shifting culture in a district is never easy. Dismantling hundreds of years of systemic racism and oppression is incredibly hard, but it can be done by prioritizing the resources to do so. We are fortunate that we began this work three years ago and have built a solid foundation to be able to respond to the societal inequities that have come to light in 2020.

Our small strides to bridge racial disparities will have a long-term, positive impact on our students and community by making schools a safer place for our diverse student population. If this year has taught us nothing else, it’s that equity and racial justice needs to be addressed holistically, in order for our children to flourish. At our district we are making these courageous conversations a priority and other districts should too.

About the Author:

Robert Runcie is the Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in Florida.

Add your opinion to the discussion.