Equity & Diversity

Lessons From 4 District Leaders Who Conducted Equity Audits

By Eesha Pendharkar — April 26, 2023 7 min read
Fourth graders work together to plan life for their “colony” during a class activity focused on colonial America at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2017.
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District leaders who have conducted equity audits swear by their effectiveness to find disparities and start addressing them.

These analyses often look at student data on academic performance, discipline, or attendance, or a combination of those, and compare them with the district’s, school’s, or classroom’s demographics to see which types of students are under and overrepresented.

Education Week spoke with four district leaders in three districts, who emphasized the importance of analyzing data about student performance, discipline, and other areas to find and target discrepancies.

All four leaders also discussed the importance of accepting responsibility for some of the inequities found in the data, and working with an entire school staff to change policies and practices to address those discrepancies, instead of placing the blame on students for their academic performance, attendance, or discipline.

Here are the lessons the leaders learned and the changes they brought to their districts based on the results of the equity audits:

Equity audits can bring changes to recruitment policies

As part of her doctoral coursework at Texas Tech University, Edna Garcia started conducting an equity audit at Plainview ISD, a district that enrolls about 4,800 students, where she worked as director for state and federal programs, in 2020.

She decided to analyze districtwide data showing the demographics of special education students, bilingual students, students in the gifted and talented program, and economically disadvantaged students. Edna Garcia also decided to analyze data on teacher demographics and student discipline.

Edna Garcia conducted the data analysis along with Ricardo Garcia, the assistant superintendent of Plainview at the time, and Garcia’s husband. They found that although Black students made up 3 percent of the district’s enrollment, they made up 6 percent of discipline referrals, while white students, who accounted for 14 percent of the student population, made up less than 12 percent of discipline referrals, Ricardo Garcia said.

The audit also found that male students were referred to suspensions at a rate of about 71 percent, which was almost three times the referral for female students, which was 28 percent, Edna Garcia added.

They also found in the audit of their staff that most of their teachers were white. For the 2020-21 school year, two-thirds of the district’s teachers were white, and less than 30 percent were Hispanic, according to Texas Tribune data.

“A lot of the policies that were in place were written to be equal, but were not necessarily equitable,” Ricardo Garcia said.

“The way our policies were set up, in my opinion, based on the data that I saw … were not really creating opportunities for all students across the board. It was almost like a one size fits all,” Edna Garcia added.

Both district administrators created a plan to address the inequities found in their data analysis. They changed recruitment practices to focus on hiring more minority teachers, especially bilingual teachers.

A lot of the policies that were in place were written to be equal, but were not necessarily equitable.

To address inequities in student discipline in regular and special education, Edna and Ricardo Garcia met with principals and other administrators to develop systems to improve communication about student discipline between teachers, the campus office, and the central office to understand why students were getting disciplined.

They also incorporated conversations with juvenile probation offices, which oversaw their alternative education programs. Finally, they included school counselors in those conversations in order to offer multi-tiered support to students instead of discipline whenever possible.

“We started with a disparity within [the] discipline, so we took that disparity, had critical conversations between leadership between campuses and between departments, and then developed … an accountability net to ensure that we were not disenfranchising our students,” Ricardo Garcia said.

“As uncomfortable as it might be, ultimately to say, we are here to improve.”

At the end of that year, Ricardo Garcia left the school district to lead Tulia ISD. Edna Garcia joined him next year, as Tulia’s executive director of the central office.

Although they haven’t conducted an equity audit at Tulia, both administrators have carried over the lessons they learned from Plainview, and plan to incorporate both quantitative audits using district data, and qualitative ones, using student surveys and conversations with staff.

Equity audits can evaluate different aspects of students’ lives

One district in upstate New York conducted an audit of student participation in extracurricular activities, examining which students were participating and who was left out.

Nate Franz, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and equity, led the audit at the 2,400-student Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District in upstate New York, which is 73 percent white, with other demographic groups all making up less than 10 percent of the school system’s enrollment.

After collecting data on student participation in extracurricular activities, clubs, and athletics and analyzing it based on students’ family income and disability status, it found that economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities were underrepresented in extracurricular activities and athletics.

The district then decided to conduct student interviews, as well as interviews with club advisers, principals, athletic directors, and fine arts teachers. The administrative team conducting the audit also reached out to some high school students directly to ask questions about participation in non-academic activities.

“One of the best ways to follow up is to ask more questions to the individual stakeholders who are being impacted,” Franz said. “And getting some more qualitative information from stakeholders in order to make some desirable changes to get better outcomes.”

One finding was that the district’s wide range of student clubs and activities—such as the knitting and crocheting club, Model U.N., and happiness club—lowered the participation numbers in any one activity.

But administrators also found that some students were participating in community-based activities outside of school, such as volunteering at a local fire station, Franz said.

“So while it shows up as a student that’s not participating, we did find out that they were very active in the community, that they had a good connection,” he said. “They were passionate about something that they were spending their time doing outside of the school day.”

Finally, the district realized some students may not be able to participate after school because of transportation challenges, so it added a late bus for middle schoolers. The district is still waiting to see if that change will have a positive impact on participation.

“That’s the biggest thing, is that you have to make sure that you act on the information that you’ve got,” Franz said. “And so both following up with individual students, and making some changes in transportation, we’re hopeful that more kids will be able to participate.”

Equity audits can help address racial disparities

In late 2020, the Baldwinsville Central School District in upstate New York collected data on middle school students’ participation in accelerated learning programs, which aim to provide them with access to Advanced Placement and other college-level courses in high school, according to Deputy Superintendent Joe DeBarbieri.

In this process, district officials found that students of color and students with disabilities were underrepresented in advanced courses. Baldwinsville enrolls about 5,000 students, 87 percent of whom are white. Around 800 of the district’s students have disabilities, making up 15 percent of the student body.

Joe DeBarbieri

The district has since made this data publicly available on its website, although DeBarbieri noted that addressing the issues uncovered in the data presents significant challenges.

“The easy part in my mind is pulling the data and getting them into the format where you can see the proportionality,” DeBarbieri said. “The difficult part then becomes, what are those next steps to address the issues?”

To make sure all students have access to accelerated learning opportunities, Baldwinsville made changes to the pre-course requirements.

“Most schools have very stringent acceleration criteria and policies that limit participation because they have either entrance exams or other prerequisites. And we’ve worked over time based on those equity audits to eliminate many of the prerequisites that we have, especially grade requirements, etcetera, over the course of the last many years in this district,” DeBarbieri said.

“That’s one area that has been a shift from the audit. And we’re starting to see more students, you know, take those options to accelerate.”

The district also changed its student code of conduct to make it more equitable, after consulting with Baldwinsville’s DEI committee, DeBarbieri said.

To address racial disparities in discipline, the district introduced restorative justice practices that rely on conflict resolution as an alternative to traditional discipline, such as suspension.

As a result, the district is seeing a reduction in the number of students of color or students with disabilities being suspended.

“We started to see, given some of the interventions that people—building administrators and teachers—put in place, some reduction. It’s not there yet,” DeBarbieri said.

“I mean, ultimately, our goal is to get to the point where, in an ideal world, everything’s proportionally aligned.”

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