SKSD grappling with concept of ‘equity’

Equity emphasizes the issue of fairness in schools

PORT ORCHARD — Over the past year, South Kitsap School District staff have had larger conversations about incorporating equity in its policies and practices in order to better create equal opportunities for all students.

The term “equity” and how it is being incorporated into the district’s policies and practices has attracted increased attention, as it has in other school districts around the country.

At its essence, the term “equity” means treating everyone fairly, Superintendent Tim Winter said.

Not to be confused with equality, “equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances,” according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers website.

Staff members within the district say they recognize it is something that needs addressing.

Yolanda Harrison, a paraeducator at South Kitsap High School, spoke of the racism/microaggressions she sees students experiencing in school. Harrison said multiracial students talk with her about concerns they have after wearing their natural hair on days in which they have classes with mostly white students. The students have told the paraeducator that their white peers often invade their space by touching their hair, which they say makes them feel uncomfortable.

The district is looking to recently passed Washington State Senate Bill 5044 for guidance on incorporating equity training and practices into the district, said Dr. Mona Johnson, executive director of South Kitsap’s Wellness and Support organization.

For Johnson, equity means meeting all students “where they’re coming from,” addressing individual needs based on diverse backgrounds.

Johnson gave a shout-out to South Kitsap students, who have been incorporating equity and awareness work long before it started at a district level, she said. This is particularly true with the group “Shades of Color” at South Kitsap High School. Of those South Kitsap students, Johnson said, “We need and want to listen to them.”

The work of an equity committee, started in October 2020, spurred Winter to propose an operational expectation for the district on equity practices. In March, the school board adopted the expectation. Recent drafts, however, leave out a specific policy on equity, which has Winter concerned that the priority assigned to equity in the district will be lost.

At the district and board level, considerations for how equity will be implemented into operational expectations are being made. Johnson said the goal of the district’s equity committee has been to “increase our own awareness and common understanding of what the full broad spectrum of equity means.”

The committee has drafted a purpose statement and is planning to implement equity training this fall and establish equity committees at school buildings across the district. The work of this committee spurred Winter to define how the district will seek to acheive equity through Operational Expectation No. 16 and bring it before the board in March.

“I really wanted a board endorsement of the work that we’re doing on equity because I think it is one of the top things that we need to be addressing as a district and as a committee,” Winter said.

The board adopted the expectation, which stated:

“The Superintendent shall ensure an environment and culture that values and respects the diversity of its students and staff, addressing factors affecting student achievement and well-being.”

That expectation has now become embedded among the newly drafted operational expectations the South Kitsap School District’s board of directors drafted as part of a four-hour work session on June 25.

Winter isn’t completely comfortable with this change.

“Honestly, as I started to look through that [the draft] I thought, ‘Well, they’re embedded. They’re deeply embedded,’” Winter said. “I think if [equity is] something that’s important to us and something that is a priority, we need to call it out as a priority. And that’s where the embedded part concerns me. If you have to search for it, can it really guide the work?”

The operational expectations will come up for adoption at the next board of directors meeting July 21. Ultimately, the district’s policies and practices shape the educational experience of students.

“The benefit to them [students] is that we all are approaching our work with not only an academic lens, which is critically important for success, but we’re looking and elevating the importance of equity when it comes to social support, emotional support,” Johnson said.

The equity committee plans to do a district-wide survey on equity for students and staff this fall, Johnson said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Yolanda Harrison’s last name