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School board and staff discuss new Equity Policy

Nikki Lockwood, Spokane School Board member, and Oscar Harris, family and community engagement officer for Spokane Public Schools, describe issues they meet.

Nikki Lockwood of the Spokane School Board and Oscar Harris of Spokane Public Schools (SPS) recently led workshops on the district's Equity Policy during the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

As the parent of two children, one who is disabled, Nikki sees a range of experiences and options for students. She also brings to the Spokane School Board her background as a Mexican American working to empower people and provide opportunities with love for the common good.

Oscar, who has been in Spokane 27 years, is passionate about education and sees schools as a microcosm of the community. He spearheads work on resources and policy.

Nikki said the Equity Policy adopted by the school board in January 2020 developed out of years of talk, frustration and trauma, especially experienced by students of color and others who have been underserved.

"There was an opportunity gap," she said. "Advocates also asked us to deal with the gap in school discipline because of the inordinate number of students of color facing discipline.

"We gathered data and listened to stories of parents and students. Many parents of color did not want any child to experience what their child experienced," Nikki said.

There were meetings with the Diversity Advisory Council and Citizens Advisory Council. There was concern about the impact of the pandemic and the police murders of George Floyd and others.

"The community was ready for more than talk," Nikki said.

The board received hundreds of emails from staff, students and parents. All but five favored such a policy. Of the 60 testimonies, few were opposed, she said.

Oscar discussed specifics of the Equity Policy, which establishes policies to guide the budget process, as well as students' experiences.

The policies require a new emphasis on anti-racism and multicultural training to ensure schools are responsive, increase students voices and collect input on issues of racial equality, he said.

"Advancing equity among students centers on learning cultural contexts, introducing wellness and anti-racism as key factors for student and staff success, and caring for the whole student from intelligence quotient (IQ)to emotional quotient (EQ), and prioritizing the inclusion of students," he said.

SPS has established goals, enhanced the processes for receiving family concerns and invested in developing multicultural clubs—including students from European cultures.

"We adopted a new school safety model," Oscar said, "and formed programs to promote student agency on a project-based model for learning competency, centered on structures for grading, course completion and advancement."

Oscar encouraged the use of terminology to "foster cultural responsiveness and operate from cultural humility that encourages connecting with cultural brokers."

High school students, who started a Pacific Islander Club and had slow response, decided to form a Multicultural Club.

Nikki said there is a lot of diversity in the district—with the largest language group being Marshallese.

She also discussed questions about equity and new boundaries.

"Every school has unique needs and we are doing an ongoing assessment of the boundaries," she said. "Some areas are higher needs and more poverty."

Rogers High School, which is in a neighborhood with many social and economic challenges, now has improved its rate of graduation, she said.

"Equity is about providing students with what they need to succeed," Nikki affirmed.

Oscar said equity is also about recruiting and retaining teachers. Like companies recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, he said the schools need to be set up to connect and network with society so they can engage people and protect them.

"There is an increase in diversity in Spokane, so Spokane Public Schools need to diversify staff to make Spokane schools welcoming to individuals of different faiths and cultures," he said. "We need to have conversations so we can diversify."

Nikki said the Equity Policy adopted a new safety model, so staff do not arrest students. It's a change for the school community to wrestle with the model in which staff members were commissioned by the police department rather than contracting with police. The use of campus resource officers (CROs) grew with concern about school shootings.

"We know that students in the criminal justice system are more likely to be adults in the criminal justice system," she said. "The new model is not to arrest children but to assure personal safety, guard the school perimeters and lock doors so no one can enter.

"Safety is a comprehensive issue involving social-emotional learning and inclusion to make a positive learning environment in the school," she said.

"The more students feel valued, seen and heard the less need there is for criminalizing them," Nikki said. "Safety is not just the responsibility of CROs but everyone in the school."

She cautioned against criminalizing behaviors and actions that are part of growing up and adolescence, so response does not traumatize students. In the past, SPS even arrested fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

"We need to address behaviors to help all feel safe," she said. "In the pandemic, we have seen more strategies to foster safety."

Oscar's philosophy is that safety is everybody's concern. 

"We need to respect the role of law enforcement so our schools are safe places for learning," he said. "We also need to do the work beyond the policy shift, so all students feel safe. We want to be partners and have families and the community feel supported."

Nikki said the Equity Policy was a year in the making before the national rhetoric on critical race theory (CRT) at the college-level and in law schools.

"It's important not to connect Equity Policy with CRT. Our policy grew out of community input on drafts and several readings before we adopted it.," she said.

"The night of the final reading, there were many voices in support. Some members in the auditorium were not wearing masks, so we had to move online," Nikki said. "Adopting it was a proud moment.

"This year, we have dealt with many high-profile issues like boundaries, masking and school mascots, as well as the equity policy," she said.

"We were near adopting the Equity Policy when push back on CRT began arising," she explained. "It's not in our school curriculum, but we acknowledge systemic racism exists in the school system.

The Equity Policy talks about every student being seen and valued, said Nikki.

Oscar affirmed that the goal is to raise the achievements of all students by identifying and changing policies that perpetuate systemic racism.

"Our objectives are access and outcomes to assure learning and growth, community and family engagement, and a safe employee working environment," he said." Government is responsible for student success shared by staff and administration, community and families.

"Democracy is messy. We need discourse," he continued. "We engage the community as stakeholders and partners in the effort to address achievement and opportunity gaps."

Nikki and Oscar added that the schools are considering having a multicultural ombudsperson, reviewing their hiring processes, looking at social and emotional impacts of policies, and learning the history of indigenous trainings.

"This is just the beginning.  We appreciate partnerships," Nikki said.

"We are working to diversify our curriculum, but it takes time. It includes being more culturally responsive in math and science, as well as history to offer a more honest portrayal of how we got to the point we are," she said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2022