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Unit 5 diversity chief: Plan's goal is equal access to academic success

Kristal Shelvin
Breanna Grow
Kristal Shelvin is Unit 5's first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This week she gave the Unit 5 school board the first quarterly report on the district's Equity Action Plan.

A Unit 5 administrator hired this year to focus on educational disparities updated the school board this week with progress on the district’s Equity Action Plan.

Kristal Shelvin, Unit 5’s first director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), told the board at its Wednesday meeting that since the plan’s August approval, more than a dozen advances have been made.

She credits the momentum to the many Unit 5 stakeholders invested in the plan's success.

Unit 5’s District Equity Leadership Team includes staff and administrators from across the board. That's meant a bottom-up philosophy, she said. People who really are in tune with what they’re hearing and seeing in schools, they're the ones reporting back.

“So it's not just 'Oh, the district office pushes out a training, just accept it and go.’ We really are looking at making sure the training is useful — and responsive to students, responsive to staff needs, and responsive to our community requests,” said Shelvin.

Equity Action Plan, full speed ahead

In the few months since the school board formally OK’d the plan, Unit 5 leaders have worked on improving equity in the hiring process, developing more DEI professional development training for educators, and adding more family coordinators to schools.

The district’s Equity Action Plan is a framework created to address systemic inequities facing today’s U.S. education system — especially as it pertains to the McLean County-based school district. It’s grounded in data collected through a districtwide equity audit, said Shelvin.

The plan’s divided into five key areas:

  • Systemic, or, strategic planning.
  • Teaching and learning.
  • Student voice.
  • Professional development.
  • Family and community, as agency. 

Shelvin said when Unit 5 talks about equity, what leaders really are doing is making sure the district’s mission -- and visionary goals -- are within reach of all students, not just the ones who’ve traditionally succeeded in U.S. education.
“Expanding our definition of personal excellence really includes everyone -- students who have some differences in their background, whether it's regarding learning styles, learning differences, racial/ethnic differences, language differences: We really define diversity broadly.”

Achieving DEI goals also means paying attention to teacher behaviors that can make classroom learning more responsive to students' varying cultures, as well as recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce that reflects the community.

Equity Audit grounds decisions in data

Shelvin said a 175-page equity audit of the district, released in August, factored into the district’s Equity Action Plan — though the plan was being organized even before the audit's completion. It’s a comprehensive report that covered data which, among other things, detected disparities among several subgroups.

One real area of concern, said Shelvin, is finding a way to address disproportionate suspensions and expulsions that fall along racial lines.

Black students in Unit 5 schools disproportionately represent the majority of those exclusionary disciplinary infractions, she said.

“We know that it's not a matter of simply having more behaviors. There are some systemic things that we can change to support” addressing the disparity, she said, asking. “How do we work at the front end, so that we understand what those behaviors are communicating?” before it reaches those negative-impact discipline levels.

Another subgroup Unit 5 needs to examine is students eligible for special education services, she said.

“How do we ensure that population is representative — and not where there's one particular group who has more access to special education services, and one group who really is missed or has less access,” said Shelvin.

Unit 5 families speak more than 30 languages

Diversity encompasses more than race, said Shelvin, noting that more than 30 languages are spoken among Unit 5 families.

One area of the district’s Equity Action Plan specifically works to improve communication, and encourage participation from the variety of cultures that make up Unit 5 families, and the broader community, she said.

“It really focuses on making sure that communication is two-way. So not only that we are more successful with getting messages out in the family’s preferred language, but also making sure that all of our resources are accessible — so that language is not a barrier."

Elevating those families' concerns also is a goal, she said, explaining that is part of the plan's focus on family/community as agency.

Next steps

The Unit 5 Equity Action Plan plan is an ongoing, yearslong program, Shelvin said. As the district continues to collect data, leadership should respond and react to it, addressing that data.

She told the school board Wednesday that among the District Equity Leadership Team’s next tasks are drafting a diversity statement, training educators in culturally responsive practices, and creating a teen group tied to the Equity Action Plan.

The team also is working to recruit a more diverse Citizens Advisory Council that reflects the diversity of the 12,000-plus students in Unit 5.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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