'Equitable' Means 'All'
As a fledgling educator in Dallas Independent School District, where the majority of my students were English Language Learners, I quickly realized a few things: much like my family’s immigrant past, my students’ families viewed education as the ticket out of poverty; trust is the only way to overcome barriers in communication and it takes time and consistent sincerity; and for many girls, additional invisible obstacles in the form of patriarchy held them back.
When I transitioned to the role of administrator in Oklahoma City Public Schools, I brought that knowledge and those lessons learned to a new context. But I had a greater challenge before me: how to address and improve a failing school system characterized by low expectations, systemic inequities for students in crisis and an unclear curriculum offered by demoralized teachers doing their best in a state where education is continually facing budget cuts and teachers earned some of the lowest pay in the nation.
My toolbox held one resource—Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s book Transforming School Culture—and I used this book to guide me in tackling a culture that was toxic to student and adult growth and learning. Dr. Muhammad proposes and defines four groups of educators in our schools: Believers, Tweeners, Survivors and Fundamentalists. Through his research, he has discovered that these individuals and groups leverage the power to shape school culture. I found this to be quite true, and in my face-to-face meetings with each staff member, a picture of each person’s contribution to the culture, along with community, parent and student perspectives, began to emerge. Academically speaking, the influence of these educators also manifested itself in the professional learning communities (PLCs) and how they functioned to promote student learning.
As a teacher in Dallas, I was used to high-functioning PLCs, and I wanted to bring that capacity to my school as a principal. As we began the journey, I saw that if I kept my own standards and expectations high, monitored what was non-negotiable, and held fast to ensuring that even the most difficult students were provided opportunities to learn and relearn, some of the Traditionalists would either conform or find another place to go. But more importantly, many of the Traditionalists and Tweeners soon saw that the PLC process worked. By focusing on the Three Big Ideas and Four Critical Questions, we were able to narrow our focus strategically, and by the second year, we saw great gains. Eventually, we became a Model PLC and celebrated together with our teachers, parents, students and community!
Now, in my first superintendency, I see the role of PLCs as an avenue to equity for all students. In urban, Title I schools, I found that often the overflowing plates of high-volume counselors led to errors and omissions that had negative outcomes for youth. In rural Title I schools, there are fewer resources and less access for students to engage in uniquely innovative learning opportunities. When Dr. Muhammad invited me to present at the first Culture & Achievement Institute, I was humbled and overjoyed—and I knew that my topic was going to be Equitable Outcomes for All Students Created Through Professional Learning Communities.