Equity & Diversity

How a DEI Rebrand Is Playing Out in K-12 Schools

Under political fire, DEI is evolving into a more general focus on belonging for all.
By Ileana Najarro & Caitlynn Peetz — May 17, 2024 9 min read
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.
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Should school district mission statements explicitly mention diversity, equity, and inclusion? If a district ensures that all students feel a sense of inclusion and belonging, does it matter how it brands that work? Do all districts need to examine how inequities play out within and outside of school buildings?

These are some of the questions district and state leaders and researchers are grappling with as national debates on the role of DEI initiatives in public education continue, and as DEI more generally sustains a barrage of political attacks that have led some universities to cut DEI jobs and corporations to downplay their embrace of DEI principles.

In public schools, at least 18 states have imposed bans or restrictions on instruction about race, gender, and other related topics. These efforts stem from a September 2020 executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump, which banned certain types of diversity training in federal agencies. President Joe Biden revoked the order, yet momentum for such prohibitions has continued in Republican-led states.

In a 2023 analysis of more than 1,300 mission statements from districts nationwide, the Pew Research Center found that only 34 percent of these documents directly referenced DEI.

Of all the topics in these statements, DEI proved to be the most politically divided. Fifty-six percent of districts in Democratic-voting areas mentioned DEI efforts in their mission statements, compared with only 26 percent in Republican-voting areas.

This complicated political landscape has led some district and state leaders to focus less on explicit references to DEI and more on promoting and supporting work focusing on inclusion and belonging for all students.

Yet even under a rebrand, education leaders need to think carefully about the work involved in making sure their schools actually fulfill the ideals of inclusion and belonging, said Decoteau Irby, an associate professor of educational policy studies and qualitative researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“In the perfect world, inclusion would be really changing the conditions of the school, a learning environment, such that students know when they walk into a building that they belong there … not only them individually as a person, but that belonging becomes exemplified through the kinds of educational resources and opportunities that are there,” Irby said.

Education leaders in Illinois and Kentucky offer some insights into how they can engage in such holistic efforts while keeping them as broadly politically palatable as possible.

How a mission statement’s terminology matters

Matthew Montgomery, superintendent of the Lake Forest district in Illinois, and a group of fellow district leaders and community members spent weeks poring over the draft language of the district’s updated mission statement earlier this year.

They examined “every single word,” Montgomery said.

There were more than a dozen iterations, trying different words and phrases to get the district’s statement just right, and avoiding any potential political trigger words that could have “distracted from the intent and mission” of the exercise.

Ultimately, what the group landed on—and what the school board in the district located north of Chicago approved—was a statement that incorporates what can be political buzzwords, like “diversity,” “inequities,” and “inclusion,” but in a way that its members felt would appeal to everyone, regardless of political persuasion.

The statement—eight sentences in total—says the district “espouses the importance of fostering an inclusive environment for all students and staff” and that an inclusive environment “encourages the affirmation, appreciation, and exploration of multiple identities and multiple perspectives.”

“We understand that excellent and exemplary school districts foster a culture of inclusion where the lives and needs of all students are validated, recognized, and appreciated, and are centered in the educational experience provided,” the statement said. “[The district] knows that ‘every student has an incredible capacity to learn. Our responsibility is to create an environment that maximizes the possibility for each student’s growth.’”

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Students leave Birney Elementary School at the start of their walking bus route on April 9, 2024, in Tacoma, Wash.
Students leave Birney Elementary School at the start of their walking bus route on April 9, 2024, in Tacoma, Wash. The district started the walking school bus in response to survey feedback from families that students didn't have a safe way to get to school.
Kaylee Domzalski/Education Week

The focus is not on explicitly referencing specific groups of historically marginalized students. Rather, it aims to encompass the views and experiences of all students, Montgomery said.

“There’s nothing here that anyone can argue is the wrong thing to do for every single student,” said Erin Lenart, the principal of the district’s high school, who helped lead the work on crafting the statement. “What we’re saying is ultimately that we are inclusive of your ideas and views until it becomes exclusive of someone else. If you say that to anyone, they can’t really argue with it.”

Focusing too heavily on making sure one group of students is included can inadvertently make other groups feel singled out or excluded, Lenart said.

“Any time you enter the world of making groups of people feel excluded, then you’re kind of defeating the purpose of some of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Lenart said.

The work to develop the districts’ vision statement is just one piece of a larger mission to fully incorporate every voice, perspective, and lived experience into guiding the schools’ work. But it is emblematic of what district leaders hope to achieve: A district whose work is reflective of every student and community member, without excluding anyone, even if they disagree with one another.

“It’s a fine line to navigate—not necessarily to get a statement approved, that’s not what it’s about—but to make sure that we really are meeting the words of seeing and hearing and valuing every single student in this building,” Lenart said.

Now that the statement is developed and approved, the real work of putting it into action begins, Montgomery said.

Any time you enter the world of making groups of people feel excluded, then you’re kind of defeating the purpose of some of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Montgomery said that will include frequently, consistently, and respectfully communicating with the community; staying focused on the shared vision for students’ success; and getting comfortable with tension, knowing it won’t always be easy work.

“If we say these are our values, that you’re going to be seen and heard and valued, how are we making sure we’re finding a way for every student to feel that as a reality?” he said.

State leadership can set an example for districts

When Thomas S. Tucker was hired as the Kentucky department of education’s deputy commissioner and chief equity officer in 2020, he was tasked with developing an office that would advance the goals set out in the state board of education’s 2019 anti-racism and equity resolution.

His first order of business was to challenge himself and others to think about the purpose of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

He and his team came to define that as: “Regardless of our political beliefs, regardless of what political aisles we represent, we want our kids to have a sense of belonging.”

“We did not make this about ethnicity alone. We didn’t make it about the nebulous term ‘race.’ It covers every aspect of what it is to be American—to respect one’s religion, ideas, and practices; to respect one’s sexual orientation; to respect one’s military or veteran status; to respect one’s socioeconomic status,” Tucker said.

Similar to the Lake Forest district, this broader conceptualization of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, or DEIB, allowed the Kentucky state division to withstand political wars in a politically conservative state, Tucker said. The state is now among the 18 with a law restricting how teachers can teach about race, after the Republican-dominated legislature in 2022 overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto to pass it.

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Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

About 17 school districts in the state have hired DEIB officers over the last several years, with some doing so prior to Tucker’s start in 2020. His team now brings these officers together to share ideas on developing and fostering DEIB initiatives across the state.

That work includes: establishing an equity dashboard that allows schools and district leaders to look at aggregated achievement data by student population to discover inequities; challenging educators to use a problem solving analysis tool to address those inequities; offering a Kentucky academy for equity in teaching where school and district staff can use online modules to learn more about self-awareness and others’ awareness of how education systems function to find solutions to inequities; and distributing grants to help schools build out infrastructure for social-emotional learning.

Tucker’s team also reviews graduation requirements that allow students to personalize their coursework in later high school years. Such a structure makes it easier for students to take courses like Advanced Placement African American Studies for graduation credit.

Regardless of our political beliefs, regardless of what political aisles we represent, we want our kids to have a sense of belonging.

One challenge Tucker has faced is helping districts whose students are predominantly from one racial or ethnic group to realize that they too need to engage in work that helps all students belong.

“Many times, folks think that if you do this work, you’re only dealing in the area of race and racism, that this is affirmative action work,” Tucker said.

But a predominantly white school can still face a situation in which schools are disproportionately suspending students with disabilities, or students from low-income households can’t access the same educational opportunities as their higher-income peers, he added.

“If you bring more people to the table, more people see that this is not just a benefit for people of color,” Tucker said. “This is about improving and saving the lives of all young people.”

True inclusion and belonging requires hard work

Irby, the University of Illinois, Chicago, researcher, understands why district and state leaders are moving toward a more generalized branding of DEI work by focusing on inclusion and belonging.

Part of the reason discussions around DEI have tended to focus on race- and ethnicity-based inequities is because “the primary goal of educational institutions specifically is to increase the learning opportunities for students who have historically not received the quality of education, the access, and opportunity that we know from the research provides them with high educational outcomes,” Irby said.

Historically, students of color have been among those underserved students.

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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

Yet DEI work goes beyond race and ethnicity, Irby said. What ultimately matters is how willing school systems are to put in the hard work needed to enact change.

Schools can modify policies to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students taking AP courses, for example. But if the only AP history courses offered focus on European and Western history, that doesn’t necessarily foster an authentic sense of belonging and inclusion for these students, Irby said.

Schools can recognize the importance of making students with disabilities feel included, in part by ensuring students with wheelchairs can physically access school buildings as easily as their peers.

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During recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., students have cards with objects and words on them so that all students, including those who cannot speak, can communicate. Pictured here on April 2, 2024.
During recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., students have access to cards with objects and words on them so that all students, including those who do not speak, can communicate. Pictured here, a student who has been taught how to lead and use commands with a campus service dog does so under the supervision of a staff member on April 2, 2024.
Meron Menghistab for Education Week

And for LGBTQ+ students, allowing students to use the restroom where they feel most comfortable is a more concrete way of fostering a sense of belonging, Irby added. Of course, this is complicated in the 11 states that have passed laws barring transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity in K-12 schools.

While districts may face political backlash for measures aimed at fostering belonging, a silver lining Irby has found through his research is that many districts across the country, including predominantly white districts, are willing to bring about systemic changes that benefit all students.

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