What’s Your Plan?

Originally published Oct. 1st, 2021 in the Greater Park Hill News.

More Support Needed To Install Black Excellence In All Schools

By Laura Lefkowits

For the GPHN

Stedman Elementary Principal Michael Atkins, with students. Atkins has installed a Black Excellence Plan at Stedman, detailing steps to prioritize achievement for Black and African-American students. File photo by Ali Monroe Larson

Black and African-American students represent only 13 percent of DPS enrollment but in 2017-18 they constituted 28 percent of all out-of-school suspensions and 16.5 percent of students identified with a disability.

In that same school year, only 67 percent of these students graduated on time (78 percent of white students did) and only 10 percent were enrolled in rigorous high school courses.

Perhaps most disheartening, only 58 percent of Black and African-American students reported feeling safe in school, compared to 67 percent of their white peers.

In 2019, the school board passed a “Resolution on the Excellence of our Black and African-American Students” to address the district’s failure to adequately support these students. Known as the Black Excellence Resolution, it required each school in the district to create a Black Excellence Plan (BEP) outlining the steps they will take to prioritize achievement for Black and African-American students.

The resolution acknowledges that “both research and practice have created an unbalanced picture that overemphasizes the deficits of Black and African-American children, families and community, instead of celebrating them for the unique gifts they bring with them in schools. . .”

This language is a marked departure from the historical deficit-thinking that relies on remediation (what’s wrong with those kids?) to “fix” student achievement. The resolution calls on schools to unleash students’ innate capacity to learn by removing barriers and creating authentic opportunities for success.

Michael Atkins, Principal of Stedman Elementary School, appeared at Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education’s first monthly EdEquity Corner of this school year to describe Stedman’s BEP and the school’s overall approach to equity. Often when schools are told by the central office that they must create a plan to comply with a school board resolution, they breathe a sigh of exasperation and look for a time when they can sit down, write up a plan, and check off that box. Not so at Stedman.

What became clear to those of us listening to Principal Atkins is that Black Excellence at Stedman is not a plan that sits on a shelf but is woven into the fabric and culture of the school community and exemplified every day by students, teachers, and school leaders.

To develop the plan, Mr. Atkins not only looked at student performance data; he also interviewed parents about their perceptions of Black Excellence and asked them what they wanted for their students. Families of color most often talked about wanting their children to feel safe and to be “known” at school, to have the capacity to advocate for themselves, and to be able to succeed in a system that too often causes them harm.

Acknowledging that barriers to student learning can come from within the hearts and minds of educators themselves, Mr. Atkins required every staff member in the school to participate in the well-known “Intercultural Development Inventory,” an assessment of one’s own cultural competency followed by a facilitated, personalized learning plan of improvement. The assessment helps teachers truly know themselves and their students in a more authentic way, recognizing that without that knowledge, no amount of instructional excellence can overcome implicit bias or a lack of cultural competency.

Although the work at Stedman is moving ahead at full steam, Mr. Atkins acknowledged the need to do more, both at the school and at the district level. As is often the case with school board resolutions, support for implementation and true accountability will compete with other priorities in the central administration.

But if we are truly to achieve both the letter and spirit of the resolution, more support, including ongoing professional and community development, will be needed.

In October, EdEquity Corner will feature new DPS Superintendent, Dr. Alex Marrero. We will be asking him to comment on how the district will be supporting implementation of schools’ Black Excellence Resolution and how they will hold principals accountable.

In the meantime, ask your principal about your school’s plan and find out how you can get involved in the work. We will be inviting the other principals in Park Hill to join us at future EdEquity Corners to learn how they are approaching Black Excellence specifically, and equity more broadly, in their schools.

October’s EdEquity Corner will be Wednesday, Oct. 20 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (Note: This is the third Wednesday of the month rather than the usual second, in order to accommodate Superintendent Marrero’s schedule.)

Register at this link tinyurl.com/EdEquityOct21.

Laura Lefkowits is a founding member of Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education and a former member of the Denver School Board.