Kansas school leaders discuss need for equity in education in virtual panel

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Topeka Capital-Journal

Four of the five Black school superintendents from across Kansas were featured in a virtual panel Tuesday to discuss issues of diversity and equity in education.

The Kansas Association of School Boards, the United School Administrators of Kansas and Topeka Unified School District 501 co-sponsored the conversation that attracted more than 400 viewers.

Tiffany Anderson, Topeka, Anthony Lewis, Lawrence, Reginald Eggleston, Geary County and Charles Foust, Kansas City, represented their schools, sharing their perspectives and ideas they have to address implicit bias, privilege and other issues pertaining to race and ethnicity. They were joined in the dialogue by Frank Henderson, Seaman Unified School District 435 board member and former president of KASB.

“I think having a conversation about race and equity in Kansas is a wonderful starting point for opening up dialogue in a much broader sense,” Anderson said. “A conversation about equity is, I think, long overdue. Bringing together a group of people that is educating a large number of students of color (made for) a great conversation.

“I think it went very well and is a good starting point. The key is it cannot end there. It needs to be ongoing and it can’t end with conversation. It must be followed up with action.”

Former Topeka School Board and KASB president Patrick Woods and executive director of USA-Kansas G.A. Buie moderated the session, which can be viewed on both the KASB and USD 501 Facebook pages.

The conversation covered a wide range of topics, including:

• Engaging disaffected students

• Ensuring discipline isn’t affected by implicit bias

• Making faculty and staff more representative of the school population

• Closing the achievement gap

“As school board members, when we took our oath of office, we truly were making a commitment to every student that comes through the doors of our buildings,” Henderson told board members viewing the discussion. “The first step to looking at equity is to begin wherever you are. Ask if equity truly is a core value (in your district), and if it is, what are you going to do about it? As board members we are responsible for driving that discussion.”

Woods concluded the dialogue by encouraging school leaders that, while change is hard, the outcome will be worth it if schools commit to improving in the areas of equity and diversity.

“I’m reminded of the old saying ‘Institutions are but the shadows of the men and women who build them,’” Woods said. “So if we start looking at the students who are underserved by public education, and we acknowledge (the truth of that saying) then it should be no surprise…that some students are underserved. We need to make it fit better the population that we’re trying to serve since our values as a society have evolved for the better.”

The statewide dialogue will continue with two more virtual meetings on July 7 and July 21, both at 10 a.m. The next meeting will feature Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools, and Caney Valley Public School’s Blake Vargas, the only Hispanic superintendent in the state. Those meetings will also be on KASB and USD 501 Facebook pages.

While the statewide meetings are scheduled to continue, Topeka Public Schools will host its own series of conversations on local issues of equity and diversity.

Topeka Tuesday conversations will be held in virtual forums every other Tuesday at 11:30 a.m., which the public can also watch on USD 501’s Facebook page. The forums, to be held July 7, July 21, and Aug. 4, will discuss topics such as diversity and inclusion, community policing, equity in the classroom and closure of the opportunity gap.

The USD 501 Student Equity Council will hold two in-person forums at Highland Park High School, facilitated by Beryl New, former principal of Highland Park, who now serves as the district’s director of equity in school personnel, and Juli Watson, current associate principal at the school. This question and answer session will feature a panel of USD 501 students and can be watched on the USD 501 Facebook page. These discussions on student equity will be June 26 and July 17, each at 1 p.m.

“We’re excited about the energy around ensuring we create a sense of belonging and inclusivity for all of our families,” said Anderson, who noted the district is currently working to ensure its curriculum is inclusive and edifying to minority students. “I’m excited for where these efforts are headed, both across the state and here in Topeka.”