Hampton Roads school divisions gather to discuss excellence through equity

“Don’t make this conflict inside of me harder.”

“Does every English speaker ace English?”

“The way that someone looks should not define them.”

“I listened. Did you listen?”

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Those messages reflected the voices and hearts of 13 students from several school divisions who took to the stage to perform an opening number that set the tone for the one-day “Excellence through Equity Conference.” Hosted by Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) at Kellam High School July 27, the conference was attended by 758 educational leaders from nine Hampton Roads school divisions.

“Excellence through equity as a concept is pretty miraculous because oftentimes when people start talking about equity, people start thinking about lowering, instead of raising expectations,” Superintendent Aaron Spence shared in his opening remarks.

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“We think that the way we get there is by making sure that every child gets our very best, every single day. In order to achieve that, we have to have difficult conversations about equity, about how we treat every child in our city in our care no matter where they live, who their parents are, the color of their skin, the money in their pocketbook. We have to make sure that we give them the very best we have to offer.”

That message was echoed by the conference keynote speakers.

“All children have challenges,” said Dr. Pedro Noguera, a nationally-known speaker who started as a public school teacher in Oakland; has authored 11 books; is a regular education commentator on CNN and other news media; and whose research focuses on ways schools are influenced by social conditions. “Our job is to continue to stimulate an environment that gets children excited about learning by getting to know their interests and personalities.”

“The more we know about who we teach, the more we know about how to teach them.”

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Noguera challenged educators in the room to think about how we will make a difference for every child and create culturally responsive schools that understand how equity supports all students along their learning journey.

Co-presenter Alan Blankstein agreed and encouraged schools to ask the question, “Why?”

He shared the example of one school he visited where a student arrived late on testing day. When the student was sent to the office, she confessed to the principal that she was late because she had to seek safety in a bathroom until the bullets that were flying across her neighborhood stopped.

“That student should be given a medal for coming to school and in many cases we don’t stop to ask students about their circumstances,” Blankstein emphatically shared.

Blankstein was that student at one point in his life. He grew up in a group home in a New York area he described as not giving young children “a lot of hope for the future.” Two weeks before graduation, his principal told him that if he was late again the school would drop him. Fortunately, a program called Educational Opportunities that was looking to support economically and disadvantaged youth intervened.

As he stated, “I can’t remember the name of the principal who was going to drop me, but I do remember Dr. Brown [from Educational Opportunities]. You never know the ripple effect that you can have on youth.”

Blankstein went on to become a music teacher, author of the award-winning book Failure is Not an Option and founder of the Hope Foundation, an organization that has worked with over 250 schools across 38 states to help low-performing schools turnaround.

The conference was filled with many messages of not just hope but strategies for schools.

Attendees chose from break-out sessions ranging from “Creating Powerful School Cultures” to “Implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports” to “Restorative Practices in Education: Helping Disenfranchised Students Thrive in School Settings.”

By the end of the day, leaders from across participating school divisions walked away with shared visions for Hampton Roads schools.

Zachary Haney, Principal at Westside Elementary in Isle of Wight County echoed the sentiments of the workshop he attended.

“As one of the speakers stated, in equality everybody has the same shoe but with equity we really make sure that every shoe does fit,” Haney said. “I really find that as leaders and teachers we have to push to make sure that every student feels equitable as they enter the school building. I am really excited to sit down with my fellow colleagues in my division and develop a plan to promote moving forward to make sure that we have equity with all of our students.”

Norfolk Public Schools math specialist at Richard Bowling Elementary School Dawn Bofo agreed.

“Equity is not necessarily everybody getting the same thing,” Bofo said, “instead it’s everybody being able to achieve the same thing—needing of course, different things to reach the end goal.”

VBCPS Principal Timothy Sullivan sees equity as an opportunity.

“Every day I go to school I have the opportunity to make a huge difference. I have the opportunity to make the biggest impact of any principal in the city at the elementary school level and that’s how I see it every single day,” Sullivan said. “How I hire, how I treat students, when I have high expectations for all of my students and build great relationships with my teachers and students and make sure that my teachers build great relationships as well, the more successful we can be as a school.”

At the closing session, Dr. Spence called on everyone to be tenacious leaders and reminded everyone that “there are no lost causes. When you give them what they need, any child can succeed.”

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