5 ways school leaders can take DEI from awareness to action

District leaders should move from a focus on building awareness of DEI to strategic action.
Akeshia Craven-Howell
Akeshia Craven-Howellhttps://bellwether.org/
Akeshia Craven-Howell is a partner at Bellwether in its Strategic Advising practice area. She can be reached at akeshia.craven-howell@bellwether.org.

One in three U.S. students attended a racially, and often socioeconomically, segregated school in 2020-21, creating inequitable learning environments and outcomes. In my 16 years working in urban K-12 school districts, I saw this statistic play out every day.

Amid the many proposed solutions to address this systemic inequity, districts are increasingly turning to diversity, equity, and inclusion training for school and central office leaders. However, not all DEI training is created equal and training alone isn’t enough. To substantially improve DEI in schools and school systems, district leaders should move from a focus on building awareness to strategic action.

Honing cultural competency among leadership teams and adults in school buildings is a key ingredient in any DEI initiative. Frequently, leadership teams engage in implicit bias training and DEI “book clubs” to build awareness and share experiences in building community. What’s often lacking is the through-line that moves beyond awareness of systems of inequity and into structural, tangible cultural changes that identify and address the needs of chronically underserved communities, promote diverse learning environments, and establish systems of support and accountability.

In my last district, we took a proactive stance. Our 19,000 employees served more than 140,000 students across 180 schools, nearly half of which received federal Title I funds. One-quarter of the district’s students identified as white. The district took intentional steps to establish an identity as an organization committed to identifying and dismantling policies and practices which perpetuated inequities along the lines of race and socioeconomics.

We began with cabinet-level professional learning to unpack implicit bias (which included book study for all senior managers and principals), a shared DEI language, and publicly elevating equity as a strategic priority (including disaggregating data to examine the link between socioeconomic factors of race, income, ZIP code, and student outcomes).

DEI drivers

Building awareness of the problem and a shared DEI language as my former district did is an important first step, but more work must be done. Superintendents and system-level leaders should consider five ways to move from awareness to action in a strategic and sustainable way.

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  1. Make DEI and cultural competency a priority at the highest leadership level. Tie this vision to the district’s core work of teaching and learning, rather than to a moral imperative. Establish a compelling vision that focuses on the benefit to all students because all students—not just students of color and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—benefit from diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environments. This is something my former district did and it made an impact.
  2. Actively seek out and respond to the voices of impacted communities to redistribute power and agency and allow the voices of those who have been historically and systemically underserved to influence the change agenda. Superintendents and school leaders should intentionally engage families of color in conversations about what they want for their children. They must also center student voices to shift their engagement approach from one-way information sharing to a partnership-centric approach that delegates more power around common interests. Leaders should create regular opportunities to listen to families and look for themes that relate to shared goals so everyone is clear about which decisions families can influence or determine. This allows families to take ownership of shaping—and, when possible, leading—the solutions.
  3. Ensure strategic plans reflect the district’s equity agenda and prioritize historically underserved students. For districts considering a new strategic plan or a refresh of an existing plan, be intentional about how DEI and cultural competency is integrated at every level against desired impact and the tactical elements to get there. Leaders should articulate goals in a way that explicitly targets the experiences and outcomes of systemically marginalized students. The plans must also allocate resources beyond federal Title I funds to ensure the majority of resources follow students with the highest needs and transparently share and invite feedback on progress toward goals. Districts should review existing strategic plans throughout the academic year in professional learning or cabinet-level meetings, and look for ways this work can be integrated into existing priorities. Create frequent cycles for goal-setting and progress monitoring with an emphasis on disaggregated data.
  4. Create more diverse learning environments. Do your school attendance boundaries and school choice practices exacerbate or mitigate the effects of segregated housing? There may be more opportunities than you think to make changes to increase diverse schools such as prioritizing diversity in how seats are allocated via choice lotteries, and considering socioeconomic factors when developing school attendance boundaries and feeder patterns.
  5. Embed expectations for DEI practices in human capital frameworks for recruitment, interview and selection, staff performance and evaluation, and professional learning. Moving beyond diversity to equitable and inclusive environments requires ongoing capacity building paired with systems of accountability. Place a particular focus on how these expectations inform the core work of leading and learning, and on influencing behaviors—not beliefs—to infuse districtwide culture with an action-oriented DEI strategy.

At Bellwether, we embed these questions in our strategic planning, implementation, and academic advising work with schools, districts and networks. Leaders, too, should ask themselves how to make DEI a lens through which teams see their everyday work, and not just another thing to do.

As school systems consider strategic and annual planning efforts, superintendents and school leaders have the opportunity to be unapologetically intentional about addressing districtwide inequities through DEI principles—in policy and practice; in priorities, goals and resource allocations; and in providing greater agency to families and communities.

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