Back to Basics: Creating Equitable Learning Environments

By Meg Van Voorhis, Manager of Dual Language Curriculum and Instructional Services, VIF International Education
“I think understanding is imperative to teaching diverse students and promoting equity. Not all students follow the same path or require the same amount of resources but they should be exposed to the range of opportunities and experiences that are out there. And then it is their choice which path to pursue.”

~ Dr. Neil Pedersen, Director of CCRESA and former superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools

In the world of U.S. education, the statistics around the achievement gap are often pretty grim. No Child Left Behind and other broad initiatives have attempted to close this gap on a larger scale, but some of the most impactful initiatives are those implemented at the school level.
If we accept that the day-to-day interactions between teachers, students and parents are determining factors of the success or failure of any broader attempts to promote success for all students, then sustaining a successful and equitable learning environment starts with three things: administrative support, meaningful student and teacher experiences and parent engagement.

1. Administrative Support

“I think the most common characteristic of the successful turnaround schools is the principal. So if we could just get a great principal in these schools, it would trickle down to the teachers.”

~ Dr. Neil Pedersen

While he acknowledges that an equitable school environment cannot be created by a principal alone, Dr. Pedersen, former superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools in North Carolina and current Executive Director of CCRESA, deeply believes that the administration of a given school can have a tremendous impact on a school’s ability to promote a successful, equitable learning environment.  
Suzanne Mitchell is an example of one of these administrators. After almost 10 years as a reading coach and then an assistant principal, Mitchell is now in her third year as principal of Selma Elementary, a Title I school in North Carolina. As many new principals do, she inherited years of school improvement plans as well as a “low-performing” designation in a school comprised mainly of minority students. On top of that, she was also handed a dual language program that had good intentions, but received negative feedback from teachers.
With so much at stake, including student performance on English standardized testing, how could she reinvigorate this school to not only improve student test scores but boost employee moral?
It required a culture shift within the school; a shift to support equitable learning practices.
This shift primarily occurred as a way to better integrate the dual language program and promote it as an equitable program for the diverse population of students at Selma. Mitchell said:

“The instructional practices used in the dual language classrooms have contributed to students’ ability to collaborate in groups, as well as a more positive attitude and approach to learning. I also wanted to move away from independent silos of instruction to the message of: ‘we’re all in this together.’ The school motto this year is: ‘One heart, one vision, one school’–we want to create a school where children are biliterate and where we celebrate our diversity as a strength.”

And that’s exactly what she has done. Mitchell was recently named the 2015 Principal of the Year by Johnston County Schools and has seen her school go from a ranking of “Did Not Meet Growth” in 2012 to “Exceeds Growth” in 2015. She has led her staff to be proud supporters of the program and recognize the opportunities it offers their students.

2. Meaningful Student and Teacher Experiences

“Giving teachers experiences is better than giving them another coffee mug.”

~ Suzanne Mitchell

When most people think of providing meaningful experiences in education, they think of the students–and rightfully so. But we can’t neglect or forget about our teachers. Mitchell believes we need to promote initiatives that show appreciation for our teachers and create a connection beyond the school environment. Events could involve dress-up days for Dr. Seuss week, a cookout at a teacher’s home or a school-wide 5K race. Administrators can also create a social media system through Facebook or Twitter to share positive messages and foster a sense of community.
Mitchell and her school actively celebrate the diversity of her staff, which ranges from American teachers, some of whom have never left the state of North Carolina, to international teachers from Colombia, Peru and Chile. Through international potlucks and cultural celebrations, the staff have become more engaged with one another. According to Mitchell, teachers must learn to appreciate their own diversity and have their own experiences in order to help their students to do the same.
Because of these initiatives, the dual language and traditional staff have become better integrated and plan student activities together. Teachers are now thinking about how thematic concepts could integrate global content and language when planning. Traditional teachers have started helping dual language teachers find materials in Spanish and there is less division between the international teachers and teachers from the U.S.
“When it comes to school, there are extreme differences among children’s experiences.”

~ Dr. Neil Pedersen

Not only do these meaningful, social experiences boost teachers morale, they also carry over into teaching and planning of student lessons to ensure that all students have access to experiences that enrich their learning. Recently, when second grade students were completing a unit about the environment and camping, teachers realized that almost none of their students had ever been camping.
In order to level the playing field for all students, teachers and community members decorated the school auditorium like a campground. They set up tents, brought in firewood, created a virtual walk through the woods and ate s’mores. These meaningful experiences are crucial when working with students who come from diverse backgrounds. But while teachers can foster additional student experiences, these experiences become even more meaningful when shared with parents.

3. Parent Engagement

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Parents, like students, come from diverse backgrounds and not all initiatives will work for all parents. It takes commitment and trust from school administrators and parents to collaborate and see the value in these efforts.”

~ Julie Keane, Director of Research and Evaluation, VIF

Encouraging parents to come to school and share in student experiences requires building trust between parents, teachers and administrators, which can often be a difficult endeavor. Administrators may make assumptions about parental involvement just as parents may harbor their own biases based on past experiences or language barriers. Parents often associate visits to school with discipline issues or missing homework assignments.
At Selma Elementary, Mitchell has attempted to create a more inclusive environment for parents. First, she initiated a “Pancakes with the Principal” breakfast for parents of all grade levels. Parents who attend can share stories about their kids, celebrate successes with other parents and sense that Mitchell views its children and families as human beings rather than statistics.
Mitchell and the international teachers also created an International Night to showcase student diversity and invited parents to participate and attend. Students shared messages of inclusivity in Spanish and English and celebrated the diversity of their school community. Teachers and students called out every country name represented by families at the school and invited these families to stand up when their native country was called. According to Mitchell, “the sense of pride was palpable.”
Perhaps the most successful parent initiative at Selma, however, has been their “JAM” nights, which stands for “Joining All Minds.” Parents come to the school on designated evenings to help their children complete science challenges, math games, read-alouds, etc. and have the opportunity to talk to the teachers. They leave with bilingual books, teaching strategies to assist with homework and a better understanding of the learning environment at Selma.
Mitchell wants the focus of any meeting with parents to be on student growth rather than proficiency. And, as Keane has observed as a dual language parent and PTA advocate, Mitchell’s efforts to increase parent engagement will continue to evolve with the needs of both her students and parents.
“There’s no number that is going to define who we are: we are doing the very best for our students, period.”

~ Suzanne Mitchell

Selma Elementary’s path toward an equitable learning environment is one that can be replicated in any school that effectively combines administrative support, meaningful student and teacher experiences and parent engagement. Effective communication between administrators, staff and parents can lead to greater understanding and support for students and their diverse needs; the integration of these factors fosters an environment that promotes academic success for all students.
This post is part of a blog series on global education and equitable preparation in the classroom produced in partnership with VIF International Education (@vifglobaled). Join the conversation on Twitter using #globaled. For more, check out (Global Education and Equitable Preparation).
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Meg Van Voorhis is the Manager of Dual Language Curriculum and Instructional Services at VIF International Education. Follow Meg on Twitter, @mcvanv.

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