Oklahoma City Public Schools leaders take initial steps toward educational equity 

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At the first gathering of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Student Experience and Equity Committee, school board member Ruth Veales opened the meeting asking, “What does equity mean to you?”

The committee members’ varied remarks, ideas and observations on equity didn’t surprise Veales, one of the two most senior members of the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) Board of Education and secretary of the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education. Despite a growing national dialogue on equity in education, there remains a common misconception that equality and equity are interchangeable in education. Although seemingly similar, there is an important difference between the two. Veales said the difference is equality is the same whereas equity represents fairness.

As the District 5 representative overseeing schools in the northeast section of Oklahoma City and Spencer, Veales repeatedly sees a lack of equity between race, poverty and academic success, with minority and low-income students trailing peers in the district. While it’s an important goal for all children to have equal access to education, the reality is that low-performing students require more resources to catch up, succeed and close the academic achievement gap, Veales said.

“Often, traditional school systems will work under the formula of equality,” Veales told Oklahoma Gazette. “That really is the formula of Oklahoma City Public Schools, where everyone gets the same cut of the pie. … Yes, we aspire to one day be in an equal situation, but currently, with students that are so far behind, we really need to focus in on equity. We need to get everyone on the same playing field in order for them to accomplish the same educational goals.”

Operating as the state’s largest school district serving 46,000 students, OKCPS produces mixed academic results among its school sites. While the urban district boasts a high performing high school and a handful of elementary schools producing strong academic outcomes, thousands of OKCPS students attend schools deemed chronically failing.

With the approval of chair Paula Lewis, Veales and other district leaders are tasked with developing the district’s first equity statement, which will be used to influence future policies, programs and fiscal decisions. The Student Experience and Equity Committee met for the first time in June. In addition to defining equity and producing the equity statement, the committee is tasked with studying urban districts that have implemented equity-based structures within their schools successfully.

Veales said there is a night and day difference in academic outcomes between districts that implement equity-based policies and those that don’t.

“We have the possibility to do great things in our district,” Veales said. “In order for us to do so, we must grow and do what others with positive outcomes are doing.”

National conversation

OKCPS joins a growing number of districts across the nation focused on equity, which came to the forefront of public education following the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013 report For Each and Every Child.

A congressionally appointed Commission on Equity and Excellence was charged with the mission of advising the education secretary “on the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap.” The report mainly provided recommendations for policymakers but came with some advice for local education leaders. One recommendation calls for additional financial resources to be dedicated to low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners to address academic needs.

Issues of equity are often linked to poverty and its role in student achievement. It has become a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school.

Six years ago, Stanford University researchers examined the relationship between family socioeconomic characteristics and academic achievement, concluding that the achievement gap between richer and poorer youths has grown substantially since the 1960s. Family income could have a direct impact on a child’s academic achievement and educational attainment.

OKCPS sees its fair share of challenges related to poverty with some of its schools located in Oklahoma City’s poorest neighborhoods. According to Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, OKCPS has a poverty rate of 28 percent, above the state average at 17 percent.

OKCPS families hold an average household income at $53,956, which is below the state average.

As the committee continues its work, members will discuss how inequity has entered the district, or threatens to, in areas of assessment, linguistics, staffing and programs, Veales said. This level of analysis will be hard, requiring open and honest conversations about creating more equity-based learning environments for all children. The committee has the backing of Superintendent Aurora Lora.

“I am so proud of our board’s aspirations for a future in which social factors do not predict student outcomes in OKCPS,” Lora said in a statement to Oklahoma Gazette. “Board member Veales’ leadership on this committee and on the national level with  the Council of Urban Boards of Education has been invaluable as we begin this journey towards giving each student what he or she needs to be successful.”

To end the first committee meeting, Veales once again asked the members, “What does equity mean to you?” She hadn’t expected them to settle on a definition of equity following the first meeting, but she was inspired by the comments. Now, the real work begins.

“Until we get where we have addressed the equity piece,” Veales said, “we will never get back to where we are equal.”

Print headline; Equity studies: Oklahoma City Public Schools leaders take initial steps toward educational equity. 

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