Frontline Equity Programs

In April of 2018, newly appointed Portland Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero addressed a letter to all district staff detailing his hopes and future plans for equity work within the district. Guerrero wrote that the district was “on a forward mission to build a system that [was] equity-focused and student-centered.” He also expressed his “personal commitment” to PPS’ “next evolution of racial equity work” and vowed to “co-construct the next five-year equity plan.” Guerrero dubbed this new stage “Equity 2.0.”

In the transition to the new stage of district equity work, Guerrero defunded a number of existing PPS programs, including the equity budget that was delegated to each school and district-wide Beyond Diversity training. According to PPS Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisor Dani Ledezma, equity funds still exist on the district level. Ledezma explains that “[the district’s] approach to the budget this year has been to look at schools where there has been a significant population of students who are underserved and… make sure that we’re equitably distributing resources using that equity allocation methodology.” Ledezma says that the largest budget item for district equity is the support of culturally-specific services in schools. This work is happening not on a school-by-school basis, but in the PPS Office of Student Supports.

Guerrero also cut all equity related positions within the district. Equity TOSAs, or Teachers on Special Assignments, worked at the district level and within schools to foster discussions and programs around race.

When examining systemic inequities, it is critical to observe the strategies used to combat these inequitie[1] s. While district-level programs have changed significantly in recent years, various school-specific programs have helped promote racial equity in a number of schools.

As stated on the Courageous Conversations website, the formerly used Beyond Diversity training aims to “[deinstitutionalize] racism and [eliminate] racial achievement disparities,” by examining the role of race in a school environment. In a two-day training, newly hired staff would utilize the Courageous Conversations model to explore and dissect systemic racial inequity and its impact on education. Franklin Instructional Specialist and former Equity TOSA, Julie Palmer, believes that the dissolution of the equity department in PPS “sent a really clear message.” She points out that PPS cut equity work without proposing a clearly outlined alternative, which makes it easy to interpret the move to Equity 2.0 as the district disregarding equity work. As a result of these cuts, the promotion of racial equity has been left primarily up to individual schools.

Madison High School has historically done much of their racial equity work through a restorative lens. This was primarily carried out through the PPS contract with Resolutions Northwest (RNW), a nonprofit organization with the goal of “[facilitating] honest dialogue to resolve conflict and advance racial and social justice.” According to the RNW website, “in a school setting, the restorative justice philosophy seeks to reduce high suspension and expulsion rates that disproportionately affect students of color, and to improve school climate.” RNW hopes to achieve this by “creating time and space to build community, teaching students and staff the importance of accountability, and empowering students and staff to repair harm when needed,” with a specific emphasis on “[interrupting] the school-to-prison pipeline.” Since 2010, the agreement with RNW delegated a Restorative Justice (RJ) Coordinator to a few PPS schools—Madison among them. According to Madison student Faisal Osman (11), the RJ Coordinator’s work involved “a lot of intervention in classrooms when students are having problems with their teachers or when there’s difficulty with the classroom environment.” He explains that his school’s former RJ Coordinator, Nyanga Uuka, would come in and mediate conflicts or address disruptions in the learning environment. “Everyone at our school knew Nyanga… a lot of the people that I know, they really felt like his role was so important,” Osman says. At a PPS Board meeting in January, he testified that Uuka “built profound relationships with every student at Madison.”

Sarah Holm, a Restorative Justice Specialist for PPS, mirrors Osman’s position. “The [PPS] RJ team feels that RJ practices can change how students feel about their school experience,” she says, explaining that RJ can help build community. “The use of restorative practices helps to establish and maintain healthy, positive, constructive relationships where people can learn to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, as well as building empathy and mutual respect and mutual concern for one another.” Each formal RJ conversation takes place in a circle, emphasizing equitable practices. Holm says “the circle structure itself is an equitable space, so there’s no power dynamic.” Holm also stresses the importance of “step up, step back” guidelines in a restorative setting. “We are encouraging people whose voices are typically silenced, just giving them that encouragement to use the floor when it’s their turn, build that power inside themselves,” she says. Those whose voices usually dominate discussions are challenged to “sit and be reflective in the space as others [are] talking.”

Ahead of the 2018-2019 school year, the district’s contract with RNW shifted, and funding for RJ Coordinators was cut from the PPS budget. Instead, the contract between the two groups shifts the focus of the agreement to a district level, redirected “exclusively on facilitating escalated adult situations.” As a result, Madison has gone without an RJ Coordinator this school year, something many in the community believe has negatively affected the school environment. “Since Nyanga’s been gone, I’ve noticed so many more fights happening… it just feels a lot more hostile at my school,” Osman notes. According to Restorative Justice Program Manager Char Hutson, Madison’s administration hopes to address concerns by delegating a portion of their school-specific budget to restoring the position of RJ Coordinator for the 2019-2020 school year. This was not a viable solution for 2018-2019 because Madison learned of the district’s decision after the school’s funding for the upcoming year had been projected. In the meantime, Madison students hope to continue to facilitate restorative conversations and promote equity through their equity leadership class and RJ Club. Osman feels that Madison’s student-run RJ team is left to fill Uuka’s shoes, expressing that he finds this “difficult because we don’t have a higher level of expertise surrounding RJ work that Nyanga did.”

Grant High School students have also taken a leadership role in equity work in their building. Race Forward, a racial equity program established four years prior, facilitates conversations about race within classrooms. The program takes place quarterly, focusing on a different topic each session. Past sessions have included topics such as the n word and microaggressions. Conversations take place in individual classrooms and are facilitated by students, placing an emphasis on youth leadership. All conversations follow the Courageous Conversations Compass, a restorative justice model that creates a more structured way to discuss race. Micah Mizushima, a Race Forward equity committee member and leader, says that the point of the program “isn’t to call out racism in one session because you can’t do that. The point is just to start talking about it.”

The program has been incredibly successful, garnering visitors from across the state and administrative support. Mizushima says that Grant Principal Dr. Carol Campbell “helped us make a schedule around Race Forward that allows us to have it every quarter. [That’s] super helpful. She also provides us with class lists to help us organize the facilitators and where they’re going.” However, the school has not experienced the same level of intensive support from the district. Mizushima observes that Race Forward receives “more moral support and less structural support from [PPS],” creating a disconnected dynamic. Ledezma hopes to expand Race Forward districtwide. Mizushima says that in doing so, the program “loses its ability to reach out to specific student bodies.” The structure of Race Forward was created by and for Grant High School. Because each school climate is at a unique position in their conversations around race, programs targeted to those specific schools will be the most effective.

Guerrero brought Ledezma onto his team as an Interim Special Advisor on Equity in January of 2019. She has served in her current role for the district since January. Ledezma believes she was brought into PPS to transform the district’s equity work into a place where “racial equity and social justice practices and programs… [are] really integrated throughout everything that we do in all departments.” Ledezma is currently the only PPS employee in an equity specific role. Guerrero writes that in her role, Ledezma “will work closely with culturally specific student organizations, our community partners and senior leadership to develop strategies, actions and professional opportunities that push our equity plan forward.” As Ledezma likes to say: “I don’t do equity work for the district, we all do equity work for the district.” So far, no new equity plan or funding has been presented to the public since the announcement of Equity 2.0 in 2018. In mid-April, Harry Esteve, the PPS Director of Strategic Communications and Outreach, expressed that the district hoped to publicize the work Ledezma has done around racial equity and social justice during the next month. “We [PPS] try to be as transparent as possible and post all the information online so people know where we’re going,” says Ledezma.

At Franklin, a structured equity program has yet to be established, but the school’s collaboration with community partners creates some level of focus on racial equity. Some of these programs include the SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) program, I Am Academy, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), NAYA (Native American Youth and Family Center), and Step Up. Step Up is an after school tutoring, mentoring, and leadership development program that places an emphasis on the success of students of color and does equity work within the building but does not receive full funding or structure from the district. Site Supervisor Will Fernandez works to “seek multiple perspectives in everything we [Step Up] do” in order to create a culture of equity within the building. Fernandez says that students within the program “learn what they’re actually capable of” and are given “the advocacy that’s been missing.” Even though this support is not available for every Franklin student, it creates a culture of encouragement and stewardship within the building for all. “A lot of whiteness is about moving through and keeping the status quo,” says Fernandez, and Step Up pushes back on this practice by providing long-term mentorship and unconditional positive regard.

In years past, Franklin has had Equity Focus Groups (EFGs). Each EFG was made up of a number of Franklin teachers who would look deeply into a specific subject, such as facilitating conversations about current events, culturally responsive instructional strategies, restorative practices, or implicit bias. By allowing each staff member to choose which of these groups they participated in, Franklin was able to see high levels of engagement, according to Palmer. However, the EFGs met during the staff meetings on district-alloted early dismissal days, something that PPS eliminated from the 2018-2019 school calendar. As a result, equity at Franklin has remained in a somewhat stagnant state, with some teachers lacking the development to facilitate conversations about race. Franklin Principal Chris Frazier expresses his desire to return to EFGs in the 2019-2020 school year “to provide personal professional development for staff.” 

Looking into the future, Frazier hopes to “increase student voice and participation on teams such as the Climate Team [and] Equity Team; to assist with school wide decisions, programs, and opportunities, provide more resources, education, and trainings for staff, students, and parents, [and] continue to message our beliefs as a school to all stakeholders.” With the work of students, staff, and the district, racial equity work can find its place in all PPS schools. In its current state, district equity work requires a great deal of administrative support. With the publicized racially charged incidents at both Cleveland and Wilson High School, a sense of necessity for race conscious communities and schools is developing throughout the greater district. This necessity has long existed and been advocated for by many—now, with desire for equity implementation becoming audible, racial equity work could become a reality for all in PPS.

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