Equity & Diversity

How 9 Leaders Think About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Their Schools

By Caitlynn Peetz & Ileana Najarro — May 31, 2024 6 min read
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The role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in K-12 education remains under national debate as DEI more broadly faces political attacks that have focused largely on higher education and the business world.

Some district and school leaders have taken to a rebranding of DEI to focus less on explicit references to racial disparities and more on the general concepts of inclusion and belonging for all students. Experts have pointed to the continued need for specific policies and practices addressing the needs of underserved students. For instance, this frame of mind acknowledges that disparities can exist even within racially homogenous school districts.

To better understand where school and district leaders stand on what DEI offers K-12 education and what belonging and inclusion for all means, Education Week reached out to school and district leaders who are members of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

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Ahenewa El-Amin speaks with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Ahenewa El-Amin speaks with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024. State leaders in Kentucky are pushing the message of making sure all students feel they belong in school including by offering ethnic studies courses.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What DEI looks like in K-12 schools

In my opinion, DEI, in a K-12 setting, means ensuring that there are no opportunity gaps for any one subgroup of students. This could be things like computer access (device as well as connectivity), having a diverse staff of certified teachers to deliver instruction, making sure that all communication is in families’ home languages, offering multiple times of day for parents to meet with teachers for conferences, providing rich books for families to have in their homes, and paying for school fees of the students who have a free and reduced lunch status.

We are the only Unified Champion school district in Tennessee [a program through Special Olympics Tennessee]. This means that we include our students with the most severe disabilities in all of our activities as well.

Cathy Beck, director of schools in Ashland City, Tenn.

When I think of DEI efforts (we don’t use that term anymore due to the unfortunate politicization of it) in our school district, it is about paying attention to—and promoting—the participation and representation of diverse individuals and groups. We also make purposeful efforts in hiring to more closely mirror our student demographic so they can see themselves in the various positions.

Our goal should always be to have our classes, teams, clubs, etc. look similar to our student demographics.

Theron Schutte, superintendent in Marshalltown, Iowa

For us, the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is far more than a school board-approved policy or a priority in our strategic plan. It is, quite simply, about helping students and communities to understand that there is a place in the world for them—no matter how they show up—and that place has value. What that looks like may differ from student to student, from school to school, and from community to community. But the inclusiveness that comes with diverse and equitable work must first be centered around building a sense of belonging in every single student we serve. Only through belonging can we help our students grow and, ultimately, succeed.

I offer you a phenomenal example from a graduation ceremony at one of our developmental centers, which educates students with significant disabilities. One of the school’s graduates has a propensity to sit down on the floor frequently, and he got up from his seat and did so several times during the ceremony. When it was his turn to receive his diploma, the student stood briefly with the principal before sitting down on the stage. Without missing a beat, the principal sat down next to the student, handed the student his diploma, turned them both to face the photographer, and moved seamlessly on with the ceremony. That is the epitome of meeting students where they are, of helping them understand they belong, of celebrating milestones no matter the location, and of recognizing the value and worth that every human in our schools and communities brings to the table.

Mark Bedell, superintendent of schools, Anne Arundel County, Md.

Successful public schools are educational communities where all students thrive. Diversity is our stance that recognizes the gifts, strengths, and assets that each student brings. Equity is making sure that the district is providing what each student needs so that there are no longer opportunity gaps in our system. And inclusion is the act of creating belonging and success for every student.

Jennifer Spencer-liams, assistant superintendent in Tualatin, Ore.

What inclusion and belonging entails

Unfortunately, DEI has been politicized and weaponized as a nefarious concept. As educators, we must ensure that students are accepted, valued, and feel a sense of belonging so that they can learn. Emotional and physical safety are integral for achievement to occur.

At Birmingham Public Schools, we distribute a culture and climate survey to understand the needs of our students. We use that data, as well as focus groups with students, to drive initiatives that improve the experience for our students.

Our strategic plan specifically includes equity and inclusion as core values, and a strategic aim of creating a culture of unity and well-being. I am proud that our stakeholders have named that every single person in our community should be celebrated for who they are because it makes us stronger.

Embekka Roberson, superintendent in Birmingham, Mich.

Schools must focus on educational equity to ensure every student has access to exemplary learning opportunities with the support they need. Schools must commit to creating a climate and culture that ensures all people consistently feel valued, respected, included, safe, and a strong sense of belonging.

In addition to setting intentional and deliberate goals that can be measured, the best way for schools to know if students feel they belong is by asking them. Schools must commit to a process that amplifies student voice and we must commit to ensuring students know their voice was heard and valued through meaningful action. Engaging students through advisory and action councils, as well as frequent perception surveys help us measure our students’ sense of belonging. As part of their school improvement process, Naperville schools are required to set, measure, and report on sense of belonging to the school board.

Dan Bridges, superintendent in Naperville, Ill.

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Students at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., play during recess on April 2, 2024. Students have access to cards with images and words on them so all students, including those who do not speak, can communicate on the playground.
Students at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., play during recess on April 2, 2024. Students have access to cards with images and words on them so all students, including those who do not speak, can communicate on the playground.
Meron Menghistab for Education Week

Why invest in DEI and belonging

The purpose of focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the PK-12 environment is to ensure that ALL students receive access, opportunity, and success along their learning journey. School leaders can ensure that all students feel a sense of inclusion and belonging by first modeling leadership that puts the needs of ALL children first as well as being willing to confront historic barriers that may exclude some children from success. When we treat ALL kids like OUR kids, our classrooms, schools, districts, states, and nation thrive.

Nathan Quesnel, head of school, Norwich Free Academy, Conn.

At Battle Creek Public Schools, we approach everything through an equity lens to ensure that every student feels seen by name, need, and strength. Over the past seven years, we have been intentionally transforming the student and family experience in our district to ensure we are being inclusive to our diverse community—for example, by communicating with our families in their preferred languages as much as we can, including in Spanish, Burmese, and Swahili, and by offering International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Our ultimate goal is 100 percent success for every Bearcat, and that is only possible if our students feel welcome and valued. That is the environment we strive to provide every day.

Kimberly Carter, superintendent in Battle Creek, Mich.

With mental health issues on the rise and the rapid growth of artificial intelligence, DEI awareness and a sense of belonging are more critical than ever in our schools. It is essential that our students know that they are seen, heard, valued, and respected, or we will lose them. They need to know their identity to be successful in life.

Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent in Ypsilanti, Mich.

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Image of a group of students meeting with their teacher. One student is giving the teacher a high-five.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva

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