Laura Garza, Elementary School Executive Director, Dallas ISD
Aaron Aguirre-Castillo, Network Coordinator, Dallas ISD
“You can’t say that you’re waiting because of the pandemic, right? We’ve been waiting and look where it’s gotten us. And so why not now?”
— Laura Garza
“It has to be talked about. We have to make time for it.”
— Aaron Aguirre-Castillo
The Pointed Problem: Making Sure All Students Feel Valued
Laura Garza says a crystalizing moment last spring came during a virtual end-of-the-year awards ceremony. While recognizing the achievements of a particular Latinx student, the girl’s teacher mispronounced her name — once again, after a full academic year together.
For Garza, the episode called to mind countless others like it that can make students from marginalized populations feel misunderstood. It also confirmed for her that the time was now to strengthen her team’s ability to create schools where all students, from all backgrounds, felt safe, seen, and heard.
The Innovation: Changing Mindsets Through Dialogue
Amid a long-overdue national dialogue on racial equity, Garza felt it wasn’t enough for each cluster of schools to decide how to tackle the issue. What was needed, and what she pushed for, was a region wide effort in the district to elevate and change the conversation about equity.
An early result was a virtual “Racial Equity Kick-Off” — called for by Garza’s own supervisor, and organized by colleague Aaron Aguirre-Castillo — in which nearly 100 Dallas principals:
- Openly examined their assumptions about race and its role in society;
- Considered how well they knew their students — including their histories and lived experiences; and
- Began planning ways to create a more welcoming school environment for all students.
Their thinking: By starting the important, and at times difficult conversations about racial equity, and following it with dedicated time and training to sharpen equity leadership skills, they could begin to shift mindsets and realize changes in adult behavior that would lead to the kind of environments in which all students feel they belong and can thrive.
The Story: Creating Space for the Right Conversations
(Re) Defining Equity
Garza says that while we often talk about equity in education, we rarely explore what it looks like in practice. Making sure all students feel valued calls for an expanded definition of success, one beyond student achievement data, attendance, and suspension rates. For Garza, truly equitable schools will see improvements not only in these traditional measures, but measures of self-efficacy, social-emotional wellness, and family and community engagement as well.
Garza knew that in order to achieve success by these measures, her team would need to create a comprehensive and series of powerful learning experiences for her leaders.
Aguirre-Castillo, who took the lead on planning the Kick-Off, drew heavily on own past experience as a school leader. As a principal, he’d made equity-oriented discussions a regular part of staff development, job interviews, and ongoing conversations throughout the year.
From his previous work, he was able to recommend several existing resources to inform the Kick-Off. To ground discussions among principals around a broader vision of equity, they adapted an equity framework from the BELE Network (for Building Equitable Learning Environments) and drafted the following theory of action:
Leaning into Discomfort
The two leaders stress their kick-off was not a “training.” Their goal was not to hand principals a playbook to implement. To change mindsets about racial equity they had to first engage school leaders in open dialogue and self-examination.
Aguirre-Castillo says such conversation cannot take place in a traditional “sit-and-get” webinar. During their Kick-Off, principals wrestled with a series of themes — or shifts in thinking about equity — in groups of six in Zoom breakouts. Borrowed from the Equity Literacy Institute, these shifts were:
- From “Celebrating Diversity” to “Committing to Equity”;
- From “Color-Blindness” to “Self-Examination”; and
- From “Learning about ‘Other’ Cultures” to “Advocating for the Rights of All Students”.
Network leaders had already identified these themes as the focus of what would be ongoing work in schools around equity this school year. The kick-off provided the opportunity to introduce the ideas to building leaders.
In one breakout, principals examined their own views on race with an adaption of the Common Beliefs Survey from Teaching Tolerance. In others, they tackled such hard questions as: “How well do I truly know my students?” and “What is my role in truly leading for equity.”
“There’s uncomfortableness,” says Garza. “But yet you’ve created a space that is safe for people to have this dialogue.”
From Ideas to Action: “Paying Attention to the Details”
The two leaders say moving from ideas to action requires an understanding of what equity looks like in practice. In the Kick-Off, participants heard a Dallas principal describe the environment he sought to create while leading the school to significant levels of growth in student learning. The group then discussed how the school exemplified equity, and how the leader had advanced it.
Recalling his time as a principal, Aguirre-Castillo says that in addition to prioritizing dialogue around race, community, and identity development, much of his own leadership moves in support of equity involved modeling and directing attention to student engagement. During changes in class periods, for example, he made a point of checking in with individual students as they passed in the hallway — asking what they were learning, and how they were doing.
Going forward, Garza and Aguirre-Castillo plan to keep equity front and center in conversations with, and within schools, throughout the year. Says Garza: “That is how we’re planning on transforming what we’re doing, by really paying attention to the details.”
- Racial Equity Kick-Off Presentation
Slide deck from virtual event introducing principals to the district-wide equity initiative. Aligns with this Guided Notes document.
- Equity Initiatives Planning Sheet
Resource Aguirre-Castillo created to support principals in planning campus-level conversations on racial equity.
TAKING IT BACK TO YOUR SCHOOL(S)
Building a Shared Vision for Racial Equity
Garza and Aguirre-Castillo’s #1 advice is “Don’t wait.” If anything, the pandemic makes it more imperative to start open conversations about making sure all students feel safe, seen, and heard.
- Who in your school/network/district has expertise in facilitating dialogue on racial equity?
- What existing resources will you use to guide such conversations? (Consider those used by Garza and Aguirre-Castillo: The BELE Network, Teaching Tolerance, and the Equity Literacy Institute).
- How will you make it “safe” for people to have potentially difficult conversations about race? What norms and formats will you use?
- How can you help others see what a fuller vision of racial equity looks like?
- How will you model leading for equity, and in what situations?
- How much time are you willing to devote to this work? From where will this time come?
- How will you “pay attention to the details”? What will you and your team look for as evidence of moving toward a broader vision of racial equity?
As we support thousands of leaders at Relay GSE, we see how critical leadership is — especially in time of crisis. This year, we follow a select group of leaders to highlight what they are doing to keep equity and learning thriving in their schools. Click here to read more pieces from exceptional leaders demonstrating what’s possible amid turbulent times.