“ Educators need to keep asking a basic question: which of our everyday acts move specific students or student populations toward educational opportunity, and which acts move them farther away from it?”
Mica Pollock’ s question 1 above serves as the foundation for the work that is being undertaken by the Grand Rapids Public Schools Office of Equity and Inclusion.
We operate under the belief that as a staff and community we must approach our work with and for our students and families with a good measure of cultural competence in order to meet the unique needs that our diversity commands.
The Grand Rapids Public Schools serve a student body that is a microcosm of the world that surrounds us. Our families represent more than 68 countries and speak more than 54 languages. We serve and are served by people who vary in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, cultural, religious and gender identities, values, physical and learning abilities, and spiritual beliefs creating the perfect conditions for an educational experience and benefit that is above and beyond any monolithic experience. We value, embrace, and are strengthened by our diversity!
Formally established in January 2016, The Grand Rapids Public Schools Office of Equity and Inclusion exists to ensure that ALL GRPS students are educated, productive and self-directed members of society by ensuring access to an equitable educational experience that celebrates and capitalizes on our diversity. Our goals are to become a model school district where equity and inclusion are infused in every aspect of our district landscape; to become an organization where biases are recognized and challenged; to create a supportive and inclusive environment so barriers to access and success are removed; and to be a community in which our diversity is understood, valued, and respected by all.
We understand that these goals require an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about differences. One writer eloquently describes this awareness, termed cultural competence, as the ability to understand the within-group differences that makes each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry.2
The Office of Equity and Inclusion strives to embed into our system that the understanding of one’ s own identity, as well as in-group and between-group difference, is key to access, equity, and inclusion for our entire student body. Our journey begins with looking into the mirrors of our thoughts, beliefs, and actions while being honest about what they truly mean for our students’ success.
Over the past 3 years, much time has been spent studying, planning and rolling out the initial phase of our continuously evolving plans. We began with a study of the changing demographics of our city and school community. As these communities transform, our educational practices must also transform to meet the needs of all of our children and families. There is a need to shift the system. Far too many of our students are underachieving in a system where there is a lack of opportunity for them to see themselves represented in the adults, environment, and materials guiding their education. Marginalized groups are facing gaps in achievement, and we recognize an imbalance in discipline and suspension rates between these same marginalized groups and their white counterparts. This situation is not unique to Grand Rapids Public Schools. However, GRPS has chosen to be leaders in the quest to provide ALL students with an excellent education.
The work of the office of Equity and Inclusion is supported by an Equity Leadership Team comprised of professionals from key departments in our district. This team is an integral part of the learning, planning, messaging, and coaching needed to change our system.
On the horizon.
Four critical supports bolster our mission and vision: the written and taught curriculum, parental involvement, staffing, and professional l earning. We continue to research, learn, plan and prepare the system to make the necessary shifts in these areas. We must know and connect with the lived experiences of our students and families.
Soon, equity teams will be in place in each of our buildings under the guidance of their principals and District Equity Leadership Team. We recognize that this is inside out as well as outside-in work, meaning that this is a personal and systemic journey. We must come to terms with cultural incompetency and how it manifests in classrooms, school buildings, and interactions with families across our district.
The conversations, reflection, and learning that must take place to cause the needed shifts and movement must come from personal reckoning, the study of our students and our practice, and a willingness to face and embrace the journey. This journey is much more attainable when undertaken as a school community. This includes you, our parents, and our most prized ally. We need you on this journey. You provide a window and door– catalysts for critical conversations, sources of knowledge, gifts, cultural insight.
The students of the Grand Rapids Public Schools are the future of our community and nation! We believe that all students deserve the opportunity to achieve and be successful! Embracing, valuing and capitalizing on the richness and varying perspectives gifted by our diversity is key to our success.
1 School Talk-Rethinking What We Say About and To Students Everyday
2 Why Cultural Competence? www.nea.org