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Unit 5 School Board Approves Plan To Fight Systemic Inequities

Michele Steinbacher
Lashonna Harden, left, a member of Unit 5's district equity leadership team, speaks with consultant Ivette Dubiel, of Systemic Educational Equity, during a break at the Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, at Normal Community West High School.

This week, Unit 5 officially launches a district-wide program to root out systemic inequities that educators say often disadvantage the district’s minority students.

The district’s been developing its Equity Action Plan (EAP) since last spring. But at Wednesday’s meeting, the school board officially approved the wide-reaching effort after hearing a presentation on a year-long equity audit, and another thoroughly detailing how staff will implement the EAP.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Amy Roser, school board president, following the vote. She called the plan’s launch historic, and praised Unit 5 staff, students and families involved in developing the plan for their honest and courageous self-reflection.

Among the EAP goals are: addressing student discipline data that shows racial minorities disproportionately represented; working to recruit and retain educators from diverse backgrounds; and developing teaching and learning strategies that are more inclusive.

“This is systemic. This is built into our system, into our culture, and we have to take a step back to look, to critically analyze and to review, and to see where we can do better,” said Roser. The EAP sets a guide on how to do that, she said. “Now the real work begins.”

Tackling inequity will be a years-long project for Unit 5, she added. Some EAP steps apply to the 2021-2022 school year, but others will build upon collected data.

One immediate sign of action: Over the next week, recently hired Kristal Shelvin, the district’s first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion director, will introduce all Unit 5 staff to the EAP as part of back-to-school professional development.

Weikle said she’ll update the board throughout the year on the progress of the EAP.

Plan presented to board

With the help of several members of the district’s equity leadership team, Shelvin shared EAP details with the board that met in person at Normal Community West High School.

Working to advance culturally responsive teaching and learning practices is the best way to create fair opportunities, said Shelvin. “Not just for some, but for all, of the students we serve,” she said.

The EAP divides the district’s equity leadership team into five subgroups: One focuses on the systemic approach to furthering equity at the policy level. The others look at classroom components; staff development; student feedback; and family and community involvement.

The Normal West auditorium was crowded with many Unit 5 staff members who came to hear the EAP presentations, and applauded afterward. When Roser asked staff to stand for acknowledgment, most attendees rose from their seats.

Earlier in the evening, the board heard from Ivette Dubiel, who heads Systemic Educational Equity, and who was consultant on the district’s equity audit. She said doing equity research is complex, and no small undertaking for the district.

The nearly 200-page document was released this week, and is posted on the Unit 5 website, said Superintendent Kristen Weikle.

“Our team, we didn’t want to wait,” she said. “Some districts may opt to wait to get the final results of the equity audit,” said Weikle, adding Unit 5 was eager to start mitigating the inequities, and so began meeting in the spring.

Public commenters support plan

Carla Campbell-Jackson, vice president of the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the NAACP, praised the district for launching the EAP.

She said data has indisputably linked minority student success to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Others speaking in favor of the EAP included Jade Hursey and Courtney Marks, both Unit 5 parents involved in the Engagement, Equity and Educational Excellence group.

That organization sees the EAP as a proactive way to address disparities among students of color, in particular, as it pertains to discipline, academic achievement and district hiring practices, said Hursey.

"These pillars haven't changed for our parent group," she said, adding the EAP is "where the rubber meets the road."

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