Baltimore County schools to focus on equity, achievement gaps

On Friday morning, in the auditorium of Loch Raven High School, more than 300 school administrators closed their eyes for 30 seconds.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance had asked them to think about what could make schools "opportunity rich" for all students.

"Those are the types of conversations we're going to have over the course of this year," Dance said in the school system's administrative and supervisory meeting to kick off the school year, which begins Aug. 25. The meeting for administrators and principals focused on equity, opportunity, engagement and relationships in county schools.

When she opened her eyes, Colleen Banks, assistant principal of Chase Elementary School, said she thought of the word "equity," which is what the meeting largely focused on.

Patricia Kaiser, the principal at Hampton Elementary, said "smaller classrooms" to the person next to her.

She wants smaller class sizes so relationships can be stronger and the children know the teachers support them 100 percent, she said.

Dance said his word is honesty.

"Everyone has a different word ... but if we're honest, there is a reason why we have achievement gaps," he said, referring to the gaps among children from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different races.

Over the next three years, Dance wants equity to become part of the culture of the school system, which has a majority minority student population.

"It's no one's fault that we have achievement gaps," he said, mentioning some schools that fill the gaps well. "But we can't do [equity] in pockets, it has to be system-wide."

The students are having conversations about equity and noticing the gaps, said Dance, adding that it is time for administrators and leaders to talk about it and show the students that decisions are being made on behalf of every student.

"If a student can recognize that, it's unacceptable for leaders to not recognize that as well," he said.

Lisa Williams, director of the office of equity and cultural proficiency, did a lengthy presentation on equity.

"To what degree are we missing an opportunity to really prepare young people for what the world is like?" Williams asked the audience. "The world outside our school is vastly diverse."

The school system, she said, will seek to increase equity through staffing, engagement, curricula, incentives, policy and assessment.

"This is really about preparing our young people for society, for participating in a society that is really ratcheting up requirements across the board," Williams said.

The more faculty members challenge students and challenge themselves to meet students' needs and make sure they have access to the right programs, the more "successful we'll be," Kaiser said.

"I think as educators, we've always felt that equality was necessary ... to make sure students have a strong foundation and that we address needs they have when they come in and move forward," she said. "People don't necessarily want to talk about race and socioeconomic status, but that's an excuse."

Dance and Williams gave faculty permission to discuss race and class.

It all comes back to having honest conversations with other leaders, even if they are sometimes "uncomfortable," Dance said.

Administrators on hand for the speech appeared ready to rise to the occasion.

"I think [Dance] has a lot of great expectations for school administrators and teachers," said Padonia Elementary principal Melissa DiDonato. "He raised a high bar for us."

Candice Logan-Washington, a specialist in the system's office of equity and cultural proficiency—the hot topic of the morning's remarks—said Dance's remarks offered "lots to think about."

Tyler Waldman contributed to this story.

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