Ensuring Equity: What Can Principals Do?Posted by AVID Center on 10/8/2018
By Patrick Briggs, Northeast States Director, AVID Center
Look at the racial and socioeconomic make-up of your most rigorous courses. Do these courses reflect your student population? Chances are they do not. Changing the status quo when it comes to equity and student success takes more than just opening access to these courses though. There are specific steps principals can take to close the opportunity gap at their school.
What Do You Celebrate?
As a former administrator, when people ask me about ensuring equity, I ask them, “What do you celebrate at your school?” Once during a training at a Texas high school, I stepped outside for a break and watched the basketball team practicing while school was out during Thanksgiving week. I noticed the team was 100% black, even though the school was about 30% Hispanic, 30% white, and 30% African American. I asked about the percentage of African American males in their AP program and received the answer I expected. Once a week, this school pulls every student out of class to attend a pep rally for the sports teams. The band plays, the cheerleaders cheer, the dance team dances, and everyone yells and screams and celebrates the sports teams. In a conversation with the school’s Spanish teacher, I asked him if he would love to have his Spanish students show up on a non-school day eager to practice Spanish with him and, of course, he agreed he would! If schools treated academics the same way they treat sports, academics would see the same outcomes. I’m waiting for the day when the entire school is pulled out of class once a week to have a pep rally for those who are on honor roll or in AP classes.
I have been just as guilty. I celebrated my sports teams weekly, but I had an honor roll breakfast once a semester. Half the kids were embarrassed to be pulled out of class because they were going to the “nerd” celebration and only other “nerds” were invited. When academics are celebrated the way we celebrate sports, then it will be cool and exciting to participate in advanced academics. What we celebrate says a lot about what is important to us. I pray for the day when schools celebrate AP, honors classes, and the honor roll as we celebrate sports.
I See Color
I was one of the few black boys in my high school’s honors courses. I was always called “white” or told that I was trying to be “white” by my black friends. If I did not have a strong support system at home, I would have dropped those classes in a heartbeat. Because my dad told me and reinforced it at home, I knew that I needed to be in those classes, and I wanted to be in them. Please believe me that peer pressure was important to me. I wanted to fit in and to not be teased. As an administrator, I made sure that every black boy had at least three other black boys in their advanced courses. I wanted each child to have someone who looked them in an advanced course. I would not allow a black boy to be the only one in an honors course. I used AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) as a vehicle to make this happen. AVID’s methodologies allowed my team to ensure for access to rigorous classes with the proper academic and social supports. As AVID grew, it became normal to have minority students in honors courses and the kids stopped the “white” teasing because my most rigorous courses looked like my school. Before AVID, the kids knew by looking at an honors class that there were some classes that were 99% white. They assumed they were for white kids because they saw mostly whites in them and had no idea how to get in them (even if they wanted to). I had created a system of white privilege. My system was set up to reward kids with rigorous courses if their parents knew how to get them into those classes. If your honors courses only have one or just a few minority students, surely, they are not the only ones in your school with the potential to be there.
I had also created a system to keep kids living in poverty and kids of color out of those classes. This, of course, was not done consciously or intentionally. It was just the way my system worked. Everyone was used to it and nobody questioned it. It says a lot about who we were. As a person who sees color (I always tell administrators they better see color), I knew I had a problem in my system. When your school is predominantly Hispanic and African American, and your honors courses are predominantly white, the kids assume those classes are for whites and anyone in them is either white or wants to be. The system was saying that loud and clear. I was not comfortable sending that message, nor was I comfortable with the status quo.
Parents are a Major Part of the Solution
My dad kept me in honors classes even when I did not want to be there. If my dad did not understand the hidden rules of school, I would never have been placed in those classes, or I would have purposely failed to get out. I know now that staying in my honors courses was worth it, but as a 14-year-old, I would have preferred to be in classes that were more diverse. I found that when I educated parents of color about AVID and advanced courses and what they were going to do for their kids, they were my biggest supporters. Before, parents knew that their kids were smart, but were fine with the A’s, B’s, and C’s in regular classes. Their kids were passing and no one from the school was calling them on their jobs. I let the parents know that their kids were brilliant and needed to be in more rigorous courses. Once I informed them on the benefits of AVID and AP courses and explained how AVID was going to help with study skills, organization, writing, mandatory tutoring, GPA, college applications, scholarships, etc., they became like my dad. Once I had them hooked in school as AVID parents, they started to change the demographics of my parent volunteer program. Before AVID, the demographics of the parents in my volunteer program did not mirror the demographics of my students.
The Administrator Sets the Tone
Administrative support is critical to the retention of minority students and students living in poverty in advanced courses. The administrative support comes in the expectations of the staff. When my teachers knew that having these students in AVID and AP and honors courses was important to me, the it became very important to them. AVID methodologies became part of my walk-throughs and teacher evaluations. I modeled AVID teaching strategies in my staff meetings, so teachers could utilize them in their classrooms. We all wanted the best for our kids. I told my staff that our previous AP program sent a strong message to kids that those were classes only reserved for certain students, and all others need not apply. Once it was pointed out to them that we had a flaw in our system, they could not help but see it, and they wanted to do something about it. It is very hard to argue with your own data. My own data said that I had inequities in my system at best and a racist system at worst. They knew that I expected for non-traditional AP students to be in AP classes and that I was my expectation they support, nurture, encourage, and retain those kids in AP classes. The administrator supports and retains these students in advanced courses by leading, having the vision, and clearly articulating that vision to teachers.
Everybody wants to be normal and cool. Is it normal and cool for all students to be in your most rigorous courses? In 1999, it was not cool or normal for minority students to be in AP at my school. Through analyzing what I celebrated, seeing in color, seeking out and educating parents, and setting the tone, it became normal and cool to be anybody in AP, honors, and rigorous courses. Frederick Douglass said that without struggle there is no progress. The status quo and the norms set up by the system are institutionalized. The progress is worth the struggle, and it’s the right thing to do for kids.
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Patrick is AVID’s Northeast States director. He came to this position after 11 years as the assistant director, then director, of AVID’s Southern Region States. Before that, he spent 15 years as a teacher and administrator in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Texas. Patrick believes that any perceived “achievement gaps” are the result of opportunity and expectations gaps that adults must work together to close. His passion lies in helping all learners achieve at high levels so all students are college- and career-ready upon completion of high school. Patrick believes all students deserve a high-quality education, enabling them to make choices in life that will lead to success in any field of their choosing.