(This blog post was written by Dr. Jennifer Santiago, Director of Equity and Excellence for Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia.)

After undergoing an equity audit of our district, Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS), located in northern Virginia, we understood that we needed to identify a position within the division that would lead its equity work. However, even after identifying me as that person, it was clear that outcome-oriented equity work could not and should not be done by one person. Instead, we needed to develop a districtwide equity team, which we called our Equity Division Level Team (DLT); we wanted that team to systematize the equity work and response across the division and elevate the work that was already underway.

In developing this team, we wanted to ensure various stakeholder groups were represented; the work needed to be embraced by all employees in the district. At the moment, this team is made up of an administrator and teacher from each of our pre-K-12 school buildings, two directors from the operations side of the district, a social worker, and a school psychologist. The team is led by me, the director of equity and excellence, and William Bates, the chief academic officer. Each school and operations pair are then responsible for leading school- or operations-based equity teams in their buildings. This structure helps ensure the division understands the needs of the schools and operations, and conversely schools and operations understand the division’s equity goals. In creating this structure, we have built stronger relationships across the division as we communicate great work happening in one area and elevate it so that it happens in all areas. Additionally, this structure provides us the flexibility to be responsive to each building with its different needs. At the onset, it became clear that most of the people on the team knew each other by name because we are a small district, but very few people had relationships with one another. To do the work, we needed to have a team; we needed relationship building. When we began our work with ISA, that work helped to build not only that sense of team but also our respect and support of a safe space to discuss sensitive topics, push back against one another, and build good work.

In FCCPS, we have five schools: a preschool, a K-2 elementary school, a 3-5 elementary school, a 6-8 middle school, and a 9-12 high school. By their very nature and the needs they meet, they are in different places with implementation. Our middle school, for example, had established a school-based equity team before we developed the DLT. The team has been supporting teachers’ understanding concerning equity, elevating students who developed a social justice club, and spearheading community workshops for families on how to talk to kids about race. Our high school also developed a school-based team with administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Our elementary schools are building their equity teams now and establishing the relationships and understanding concerning equity work; they decided on a shared first action of examining classroom libraries, and in this audit of books, school teams will look to see what kind of representation there is and what is needed to expand that representation so that all students are represented in their choice readings and classrooms. The schools will identify books to purchase and will support classroom libraries as well as the school library.

At our DLT meetings, we support each other, ask questions of those who are further along, and work together to build our collective path so that everyone has a place to start walking. The DLT is not intended to direct the division on all things equity. The purpose of the DLT is to help support a systemic approach to our work and allow flexibility for that work to continue to grow in a responsive manner.

In developing our equity DLT, we have found that DLT members, all volunteers, were at very different places on their equity journey. They had different answers to what equity is, to what it looks like in a district, and to what it means for FCCPS. In order to level-set our team’s understandings, build a sense of trust with the chance to be open and honest, and develop our skills to do outcome-oriented equity work, we partnered with ISA, as the folks there have been providing ongoing professional development in response to our needs. These sessions have helped us build a cohesive team and aligned understanding of what equity work is and why it is essential. From there our team has worked to analyze our data with the outcome of defining a problem of practice with a theory of action. This work has helped us identify one area to focus on as a pre-K-12 division, developing a division-level equity action plan, which is then operationalized through additional school-based action plans. Our plan is to continually identify problems of practice in the big picture and support action plans to fix those problems, in addition to school- and operations-based work.

Over the past two years, we have been purposeful in moving from a reactive approach to a proactive, systemic approach cultivating a more equitable and caring division for both students and staff.

(Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.)