OPINION: Chief equity officers wear many hats and are needed in school systems now more than ever

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Chief equity officers in public school districts across the country have one key mission: to help address the inequities in our education system. But as more equity officers are hired, their individual challenges — and how to solve them — are unique.

In practice, the work of a chief equity officer varies vastly across counties, cities, neighborhoods and the schools they serve — often even classroom to classroom.

Most equity officers are aware of the external fights and forces they face, such as the debates around critical race theory, school name changes and the reversal of equity initiatives, along with the politicization of the role itself.

And they face hurdles withinthe very school systems they serve.

At Chicago Beyond’s recent convening of equity officers from around the country, many shared a similar throughline: Too often, some don’t receive the support they need from their school districts and feel isolated. It’s critical to note that a goal of equity work is that it will exist in all aspects of a school district, and it should not squarely fall on one person alone.

I believe there are three mechanisms that district equity leaders and educators can reimagine to advance student equity, whether equity officers’ mission is supported or not: funding, policy design and collaboration.

Addressing the first mechanism, many districts rely on traditional, often outdated funding models, like those based on school size. Yet students at some of the smallest schools are often the most marginalized or the furthest away from opportunities.

The result is a vicious cycle — a lack of resources creates inadequate educational experiences, which creates academic emergencies that require more resources and ensure that there are no means to even begin considering equity.

An example of a reimagined funding model is the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Opportunity Index, whose metrics include barriers to opportunity like race, socioeconomic status, health and community factors.

Equity officers should play a vital role in the funding process, providing their expertise and input to ensure that underrepresented schools receive the resources they need to succeed.

Related: How one city closed the digital divide for nearly all its students

Second, district leadership can foster equity by focusing on policies behind the scenes that lead to better outcomes for all.

Take a school with low reading scores, where an obvious solution involves creating and funding a reading program. Designing an equitable policy would involve considering broader questions: Why aren’t the children reading at grade level? What systems and programs do we need to put in place for all students to read and write at grade level? Are students’ books culturally relevant to them and can they connect with them?

Third, all reimagined polices must also be informed by the voices of students’ families and communities; those who are most impacted have the most to gain or lose.

Educators and administrators must work alongside equity officers to develop policies that are culturally responsive and inclusive. Even if everyone doesn’t agree with the final policies, all can walk away knowing that they were given a chance to provide input and that proper information was gathered beforehand.

That’s why collaboration is key. Too often, equity officers are brought in after a policy or program is enacted and getting media attention.

We can create learning environments that enable all students to thrive by focusing on and reimagining the ways we fund, design and collaborate with equity in mind.

Equity officers must collaborate to work alongside other district leaders and department heads, parents, students and community members. Otherwise, their endeavors will certainly encounter obstacles that slow or block progress toward equitable outcomes.

One positive example: Chicago Public Schools this year renamed an elementary school after American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

In the past, a name change would have involved just two meetings with families. The equity office revamped the approach to add more involvement from staff, parents and, most importantly, students.

Each grade level researched names to nominate and presented ideas to the entire student body, who voted for their favorite. The process was long and occasionally fraught, but ultimately created meaningful partnerships.

That test case helped the school district develop a standardized, thoughtful process for name changes in the future that will include student ownership and pride.

A school name change is progress. But it’s only a start. We can also do this for decisions that include district leaders.

As chief innovation officer at Chicago Beyond, my work gives me a unique opportunity to engage with national leaders across urban, rural and suburban school districts. I understand the responsibilities facing equity officers everywhere and believe we can create learning environments that enable all students to thrive by focusing on and reimagining the ways we fund, design and collaborate with equity in mind.

We trust our teachers to shape our children’s futures. Let’s trust our chief equity officers as well.

Maurice Swinney is chief innovation officer at Chicago Beyond. He spent 21 years in public education, most recently serving as the first-ever chief equity officer at Chicago Public Schools.

This story about equity officers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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