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Episode 34: To the Heart—Equity Professional Learning

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hello listeners. I'm excited to bring you this month's topic—Equity and Professional Learning. In New Jersey, we have an equity and professional learning guidance document based on N.J.A.C. 6A:7, which I'm going to link in the show notes so that you can access it. {N.J.A.C. 6A:7, Managing for Equality and Equity in Education (PDF)} Some highlights from that document are that all parents and community members are required to be invited into equity professional learning. All staff must be included on a continuing basis in equity professional learning and training must focus on the unique data and opportunities for an individual district, charter, or other local education agency. Later in the episode I'm going to talk to staff from Hopewell Valley Regional about what they do to make this a reality and go beyond the regulations to ensure that they're really impacting their district for equity.

To start out, we are going to profile the type of work educators can do in community with each other, across the county, to ensure equity professional learning goes to the heart of the educators and the parents and the community in their area. As you listen to districts and county leaders talk about their relationships and how they spurt each other on to growth in equity through professional learning, think about the ways that you lead as an educator, whether you're a teacher, a paraprofessional, a district, or school leader. And think about how this may apply to you.

Interview 1: Gloucester County

Avé: Hi. My name is Avé Altersitz and I work for the Department of Education in the County Office. And I am County Superintendent of Schools in Gloucester County.

Loretta: Hi. Good morning. My name is Loretta Winters. I represent the NAACP {National Association for the Advancement of Colored People} and I am the President of the Gloucester County NAACP.

Joe: Hi. My name is Joe Bollendorf. I am the Superintendent of Schools in Washington Township in Gloucester County.

Patricia: I am Patricia Haney. I am the Superintendent of Logan Township School District in Gloucester County.

Ken: So the first question I wanted to ask is: why is a commitment to equity so important for your organizations as a whole?

Patricia: This is Pat Haney. Developing equitable access in an educational environment for all is a long journey, a rewarding journey and a necessary journey for all public school educators and employees. This area is not a comfortable area for a lot of people who...who have...don't have the close proximity to people of color in their personal lives. And so, therefore, they don't always know what to say or using the right words. And we know in this work that words do matter. So that ongoing professional learning opportunities is so critical and that we are committed to that.

And then communicating with the community. During the Black Lives Matter movement, the protest in June of 2020, we formed committees. And spoke. And wrote. And addressed our community. And stood strong saying that black lives do matter. And we were challenged that that was a political statement, that we made a political stance. And we believed that it was not. It was a stance for social justice. So having the courage to fight for equity, fight for social justice, to get your staff on board. Because we have partnerships with the exec, the county superintendent, the NAACP, our local college, Rowan University, it's a little bit easier.

Avé: This is Avé Altersitz. And as a county superintendent, obviously, we want all of our students to have good education, a quality education, and to deserve high expectations. My journey goes back to when I first started teaching in 1978, when I taught in a school that tracked students. From tracks one to five, five being the lowest of the students. So all of fours and fives were minority students. When I moved to another district and taught basic skills, I saw the same thing. All the basic skills classes were students of color. And that got the passion started. And then I—we started an equity committee in the district where I was. And the…actually, the NAACP President at that time had children in our district. And he was part of that equity committee. And since then, my journey is continuing. And going into the county and seeing that we still have a lot to do. And working with the superintendents that have that passion also has made me understand that we have a long way to go.

Loretta: Hi. And I'd like to piggy back off that. This is Loretta Winters. And as the...looking at it from the perspective of the county and the community from the NAACP's view, one of the things that I knew was so important is that we have to be proactive and not reactive. Once it's--we're reactive to a situation, it's too late. It's almost too late. Damage has been done. So we have been proactive in the community in making sure we build relationships so that equity can go forward. You need someone of color, or someone who understands, at the table so that we can have these deep conversations and this understanding. Because we could live in the same community, go to the same schools, and still live in two different worlds.

Joe: Hi. This is Joe Bollendorf in Washington Township. Yeah. For me, and I think for many of us in our district, the work involving equity is really work engaging in consciousness. I think, in advance of some things that have occurred here that served as a wake-up call. Basically, an understanding of the need to be conscious of what's going on in our world. People, basically, subconsciously went about their day and did their work and just assumed that everything was a-okay. And, unfortunately, it does sometimes take events to you know wake us up to the other realities that I think that Loretta had mentioned.

And so the ongoing work of equity is to ensure that our district, that our staff, that our students, that our community, is remaining in that conscious element so that we can openly talk about the issues. Because in the absence of that, there's no way to address the problems. There's no way to figure out solutions for the problems. So I think it's really an important exercise in consciousness that equity is something that we talk about, and that we make as a very specific goal for each of our districts. Because, in the end of the day, if any one of us as educators talk about that we care about kids, then you've got to care about this. Because you can't care about kids globally unless you're conscious and aware of the things going on in our world and are willing to do what you need to do in order to give every kid a fair and equal opportunity.

Ken: So for this next question I really want to hear—and this can be just from both the leadership lens and also kind of the teachers lens as well— about a time in your county when equity professional learning made a difference for your schools. And think through just how other districts, other regions, can think about that and be able to, maybe, take some of those lessons that you've learned from those differences that have been made as a result of that learning.

Loretta: This is Loretta Winters. You know, that question is so deep. And we probably could spend ten hours on it, but I know we don't have that. But back in 2016, I mean the whole world, the whole nation, was really upset with all the killings that was going on, just to name a few men: your Michael Browns; your Alton Sterling from Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Philando Castile from Falcon Heights, Minnesota. All these things. These people were being, you know, killed by the police and it was causing the uproar within our communities, within our schools. And in retaliation to that, another young man by the name of Micah Johnson decided to ambush a group of police officers, and killing five of them, injuring nine and two civilians.

At that point, as a leader in the community, I just felt as though I had to something. Everyone was angry. They were upset with the other killings. And I'm like, before something explodes in Gloucester County, I have to do something as President of the NAACP. So within a short 48 hours, I put together a conversation you should not miss on justice matters. I invited, you know, the prosecutor, clergy, the schools, the different communities, black and Latino leaders, elected officials, as many people as I could. And within 48—that started, like, on a Friday morning—by Monday evening we had an auditorium filled with people who came out.

And we started off with just the conversation. That…I wanted that conversation so that we can vent. They could understand what's going on, you know, instead of just being on one side of the fence and these people on the other side of the fence, and no one's having a conversation with one another or trying to understand. We need to remove that wall, that fence. We brought them together and it actually worked. It was magical. It was, like, 10:00 at night, if memory serves me right. People did not want to leave. But by it being a Monday night, we actually had to send them out. But the conversation was deep.

But most importantly, especially in the educational community, they listened. They actually listened. And if they didn't understand, they understood that night. And changes were made. I mean, it became a passion with many of the people. I can't say it was an awakening, because they were already there at the table. But it brought it to another level, just hearing the stories from the community on both sides. And as I said before, in order to have a conversation, you have to listen. And it was not just a conversation, it was a listening session. And everything just started to unfold ever since.

Patricia: You are so correct in what you provided. You provided at that Justice Matters conference, which was in July of 2016, the opportunity for those of us who were on this journey, an opportunity to listen to different perspectives other than from a white world. And that was mostly my world up to that point. There was an awakening. It was, Loretta. It was an awakening in this white woman's world who raised a white man as her son and married to a white man for years. And I listened to one black man's story after another, and then mothers of black men stories, about the injustices that were done to them, and I just realized that I needed to personally continue on this journey but also contin—bring my staff along with me.

I was nudged gently by our Executive County Superintendent, Avé, who then contacted us a couple weeks later and said, "we can't let this die. We have to do something after Loretta's conference." And so we met. We met a couple times for meetings and then we met with the local police. And we had ongoing conversations.

So I appreciate the leadership. I don't think when you did, when you decided, Loretta, to do this, that you realize the impact it had on our district and other districts in the county. It was the spark we needed.

Avé: And I—this is Avé Altersitz—I would like to add this, because having attended the same conference, I was amazed at the stories that we heard. But to see that the heartbreak in the mothers that were talking to the police—they directly spoke to the police that were in attendance at that meeting, and there were quite a few—and going from there when we got back and talked about what we were going to do. One of the first things we do, because it was the summer of 2016 as the political atmosphere was really getting negative, we decided to have a meeting that summer with superintendents, principals, SROs {school resource officer}, about the environment and what's going to happen in September with our students and how we need to support students in that, in what the problems that were happening racially.

And then we decided to invite minority students to our round table. So we had a group of students of color come to the round table and talk to us about their experience in school. And it opened a lot of eyes. Because, many times, from districts where the students are primarily white, we hear things like "oh, we don't have that problem. That will never happen." And when they heard what these students were silently going through—one student was a senior and he said, "I have heard the n-word more in the last few months in my senior year than I have my whole other eleven years in education." So the environment had exploded racially and was causing a lot of problems for these students of color.

Later, we also brought in the LGBT{lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender} students to our round table. And they spoke eloquently to our roundtable. And I really feel like students speak to the heart, and that the biggest problem we have is getting people comfortable about talking about race. And like I was telling other people when I went to talk to the students of color, the first thing I said to them, because they were looking at me like, "why are you here?" [laughing] And I said, "I know I'm an old white lady. What do I want?" I said, "I want to make things better and I need your help." And I'll tell you what, that was one of the best experiences I've had in education with working with those students.

Joe: I'll jump in last because my path is very different. I was a newly minted superintendent in 2016. I did not attend that conference because I was probably figuring out what else I needed to do to be a superintendent. But a couple years later, in the fall of 2018, we had a fairly significant event. And one of the first people that I reached out to was Avé and then Loretta, who were incredibly important in helping us navigate that process.

In fact, on one particular day when we had a student sit-in demonstration, they both came and really spent the better part of that day talking with our kids and then sitting down with us afterwards, helping us to navigate the direction that we needed to go. One of the things that we learned through our contacts is that the first thing that we needed to do was to bring along the leadership of the district—our principals, our supervisors, our assistant principals, folks that were in leadership positions—to start examining our own understanding, our own [unclear] need to be conscious as it relates to this matter.

And we engaged in some pretty significant professional development with Brenda and Franklin CampbellJones. Franklin was the co-author of The Culturally Proficient School, and that had been, in fact, the reading that our school leadership were involved and engaged in over the summer. It really set the table.

And then we went through a series of professional development training with them, which then really catapulted the entire district into, you know, trickling down a series of additional professional development trainings that are ongoing. The creation of school groups through the Anti-defamation League {ADL} and the engagement in the "No Place for Hate" program. And the inauguration that particular school year of what I think was the first in Gloucester County, of a high school chapter of the NAACP, which is ongoing in our district. At this moment, that really is what started out journey.

But that professional development was critical because it really forced all of us, as leaders, to look inwards at ourselves and learn a lot about ourselves, things that we never really understood. And it really was incredibly important to get to that place of understanding before you could really be the motivator for change, until you could understand, in your own heart, that there were things that need attending to. It's difficult for you to lead other people in that same direction. So I think that particular professional development was the cornerstone, the most critical thing that our district has done, that has lead us into the work that is still ongoing.

Avé: I'd like to just say, one more—this is Avé Altersitz—I'd like to say something about what Joe just spoke about. Joe did have a serious issue that day that Loretta and I, he called both of us together. And it's one thing that Loretta and I like to do is go into district together and work with our superintendents. But Joe did a lot of work after that incident. And not only that, the first night of that incident he had a meeting with all the parents. He got beat up pretty good. But after that, they were able to move on because he allowed the parents to vent. He allowed them to say what was on their mind. And then they were able to move on where had community meetings. He eventually lead to him hiring that equity officer. But he worked through it and he worked with the students.

That was one of the kudos I have to give him, is those students were so happy with the way Joe and his administration worked with them and let them have that silent sit-in. And help them to evolve and have that end, of our CFPA chapter, and also to have all the meetings in between where those students were also invited.

Joe: Thanks Avé.

[end of Interview 1]

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: Community, equity, and professional learning are so essential to make sure that marginalized communities and schools are sustained and that we're able to stand in solidarity with them as educators.

Now we're going to look at what that can look like inside a district. We're going to talk with educators all from the same district about their journey and how equity professional learning has led to more equitable outcomes and a more welcoming community in their local context.

Interview 2: Hopewell Valley Regional School District

Rosetta: My name is Dr. Rosetta Treece and I'm the Superintendent of Schools for Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

Vicky: Hi. I'm Dr. Vicky Pilitsis. I'm the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and we're located in Mercer County.

Lora: My name is Lora Marie Durr. I am an art teacher at Central High School in Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

Lois: Yeah. I'm Lois Baldwin and I'm the Supervisor of World Languages and ESL {English as a Second Language} at the Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

Ken: Awesome. Thank you so much. We've been talking as a state about professional learning and about equity, specifically as it has to do with professional learning. And in our conversation today, I just want to hear about what's been successful for your school district. So how does your district approach the types of difficult conversations that are often needed during equity professional learning?

Vicky: I'm Vicky Pilitsis. This is not going to be like a "one and done." So I think it's important to rely on people who did do this sort of thing for a living. So I know that we worked with various consultants, like Dr. Eddie Fergus, who is out of Temple. We relied heavily on the Zaretta Hammond Culturally Responsive and the Brain book. So I think it's important to, you know, use all the resources that you have out there in order for it to be successful.

Rosetta: Rosetta Treece, Superintendent of Schools. So, if I can add on—because this work for Hopewell Valley started probably about seven years ago—we went out as a predominantly white school district and started to have these conversations about race/gender equity in terms of the haves and the have-nots, as most of our—we are in a [fluid] district but we have folks in the district that that don't have needs. We have students in the district that English is not their first language. And jumping into that too quickly by bringing in a consulting firm that wanted to jump right into the middle of that conversation. And really, that was a major hiccup because it brings up a lot of emotions. And we didn't enter into that with caution, right?

So, we've learned a lot over the seven years and that this work does take time, but there's also a gentle balance between taking time. Training your leadership first. Getting everybody on board. And then also holding people accountable to doing the work, even though it's uncomfortable. So it's a nice stance between, "yes, you have to take your time and continue to revisit these things, but you also need to do the work even though it's hard."

Lora: This is Lora. I'm in my fourth year at Hopewell Valley but yet this is my 21st year in teaching. And I think as an educator, what I've really enjoyed about being here is the willingness to have the conversations. Where in some other places that conversation is maybe even like more blaring and obvious that it needs to be had and it's not happening.

So I wasn't here at the beginning of the work that's been done, but the time and the care that's given to it, and with each step acknowledging that it's not comfortable, is really comforting and really sort of meets everybody where they are and acknowledges that we're not all, you know, having the same experience or at the same place in this journey of growth. So it's not just coming top down. Educators are really respected for what they bring to the table and what they have to share on the topic. And it's been a wonderful experience to get to be a part of something that's, you know ,of this kind of importance.

Lois: Thanks Lora.  Hi, this is Lois. I just wanted to add one more thing. We've already talked about the continuity, [how] important it is to have this an ongoing process. But I want to also emphasize how safe it feels at Hopewell Valley to have these conversations. And what Lora related to is we've developed a core group of people on our culturally responsive teaching committee who are really go-to people and are having these conversations on an ongoing basis, not just during PD, but in the hallways and throughout the community. So I think everyone's feeling like they have people to talk to and they have places to go if they have questions.

Ken: Awesome. And I think that really helps us transition to the next question, which is about the planning process. And it sounds like you have kind of a core group that was probably involved in this from the beginning. But could you just talk a little bit about how that genesis happened? So, you know,  equity has implications for all aspects of education, so many different student groups. And where can educators and school districts and systems start when planning out equity professional learning for their schools? How can they think about really forming that core group and what the work of that core group?

Vicky: Hi. This is Vicky. So, as Lois alluded to, we have a culturally responsive teaching and learning committee which is comprised of K–12 teachers from the whole district. And this started about, I'd say, four to five years ago. And so we meet monthly. And, as a group, we develop professional development that is, you know, district-wide throughout the course of the school year. And the one thing that, you know, through these conversations in our committee, you know, it was kind of like this abstract idea, like, equity. So how are we looking at it? So we felt like we wanted to bring it into a more concrete plan. So we adopted a framework, which is the "Ready for Rigor" framework by Zaretta Hammond. And I think that was one of the ways that kind of led our guided...our professional development. Because, like, one of her first parts in the framework is about uncovering bias. So we focused a lot on uncovering bias in several PDs.

Rosetta: Rosetta Treece. And I think it's also important you know, not only just having that group tapping those folks, those early adopters to the...where you want to go as a district, in any professional development plan. What was also important is us selecting and marrying other things in our district, like how we graded, like, how we approach instruction in different areas like language arts and math. Making sure that we're adopting policies and the way that we present our curricula, and how the curriculum looks. Marrying all that in in the conversation as well. And then, also, including the parents in that conversation. Not only do we need to provide professional development to our teachers, right? Also opening forums to the community to have these conversations about privilege and about what learning will look like as we start to evolve things in the classroom. Because it's really not ..equity [doesn't] have to mean that we water things down for students. It means that we scaffold and we get them ready for the rigor that we know that they can do if they're supported in the right way.

Lois: Hi. This is Lois. Thanks Rosetta. I think to when you start out with your faculty, and parents as well, but where we started with our faculty was really acknowledging what they're already doing to be equitable in their classrooms. We made up a list with our faculty, a list of common practices that are already being utilized in the classroom. And then building from that really empowers the teachers to want to have these conversations and keep moving forward with their practice.

And I just want to talk a little bit about ESL because I'm the supervisor of ESL. And with Dr. Treece's support, you know, we've worked really hard to bring in professionals to coach our teachers that have our ESL students in their content areas. So we have the resources and the support. And just making that a conversation, again, across all schools, across all districts. Even if you don't have an ESL student in your class, those conversations are happening. And the equity aspect [has] been inspirational to me to see how our faculty has really stepped up and  embraced that coaching, and are reaching those students and making them feel an integral part of our community.

Ken: So, as you think about, you know, the inclusion you talked about, the community. And you talked about really involving students in this work as well and making this a whole cycle that isn't just focused on simply teachers but, it sounds like, all staff, the community, students are all involved in this work. So how do you really foster that through professional learning? And ensure that all of those groups are included and that it's not just teachers sitting doing this hard work, but it doesn't really impact the  larger community?

Rosetta: So, if I can roll back and I'll talk first about the community forums that we put in place. And we we're very fortunate to work with a professor at  Rutgers University, Dr. Lauren Kelly, who's done professional development work with, not just our teachers, but she's also set up forums where we've built little diversity equity and inclusion groups in each school, and those parents curate talks for the larger community, their school community. Because we know each one of our school communities has its own unique personality.

In addition to that, we have created forums outside of the school where folks can have conversations around equity in different forums around literature, book reads, around art. We have an art forum that they're looking for ways to promote equity through how folks represent that through their art. And then also, how else could we create opportunities for folks to reach across the fence and learn about their neighbors in a way that's safe and allows them to learn, you know, in an effective way and not just making me the person of color responsible for teaching you something about me. Right? So we do that.

In addition to that, we train our paraprofessionals. I recently brought in consultants to work with our facilities and maintenance crew around equity and the way they speak to each other. So I brought in a group that specifically would work well with training them on how they can work together and make sure that that everyone's voice is being heard and they're partnering. And so we had those conversations across levels.

Vicky: Thanks Rosetta. This is Vicky. I think, just to Rosetta's point, we involved a lot of stakeholders. So just some other examples that we integrated stakeholders was, we, this summer, we are developing a diversity, equity, and inclusive strategic plan. And we had parents from the various buildings throughout the district as representatives to help develop that plan. And in past professional development workshops, like when we held in 2019, we actually had invited a student panel of past graduates just to offer that. And they were from very diverse either, whether it was racial whether it was LGBTQ {lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer},whether it was learning styles. So we offered this diverse panel of students to kind of lend their perspectives to us about their experience at Hopewell.

And this October we are having another professional development. And we are having a panel of parents talk about inclusive practices with the teachers about what worked for their kids. So I think just, you know, we're looking at it from one lens in the district. Whether, but whether you're a teacher, whether you know, whatever your role is in the district. But it's nice to kind of bring in those other perspectives so that we have like a clearer understanding of how everything kind of is intertwined.

Lois: Yeah. Hi. This is Lois. I think, you know, even to a larger extent , you know, as far including people. You know, superintendent look to, you know, bring in the mayor, bring in, you know, other big stakeholders, the community to be involved in these conversations. And it can get a little frustrating. I'm going to add that in, you know, because you always have the same players show up at these meetings, if you community forum. And so we're really working to try to bring people in that might be a little good to be part of these conversations and whatnot. So build that capacity to really reach all corners of the community. I think as districts undertake this work, you know, can seem a little frustrating, but as Dr. Treece said, you know, as we keep practicing it, more and more people are coming to the table and talking to us and sharing. So they...everyone just has to be patient because you will build capacity to do this work incredibly effectively, but I just wanted to point out that you need to be patient. [laughing]

[upbeat background music]

Lora: This is Lora. As an educator, I think, you know, it's  nice that the district also recognizes that we have things to bring to the table. It's not always about some expert from some place that has no clue what it's like to be in our classrooms and to be with our students. The fact that they are allowing and encouraging and really supporting educators who want to share with their peers is really great. Because, you know, we,. Yes, we need experts. But we also know our kids and our situations best.

[end of interview 2]


Ken: I'd like to thank you educators for tuning in and listening to the DOE Digest. This is such an essential topic for our state so that we can grow to be fairer and stronger for both students, teachers, other educators ,administrators, and our communities as a whole. I'd also like to thank my guests for joining me and Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode so that it could be accessible for all. This month's third Tuesday #NJEdPartners Twitter chat is going to be on Tuesday, October 19th, 2021. We hope that you join us to discuss equity professional learning and how you have been conceptualizing this in your local context as we look to increase equity professional learning the depth and the breadth of it in our state.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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