School equity audit to begin

Published 6:44 pm Friday, September 17, 2021

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Isle of Wight County Schools will undergo what Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton has termed an “equity audit” this fall.

According to a proposal by Dr. Valaida Wise Consulting LLC, the audit will “illuminate the school system’s history and current reality” and “make recommendations about practical, strategic and actionable next steps toward becoming an antiracist organization.”

Specifically, the three- to four-month process will involve focus groups, one-on-one interviews and gathering data on attendance, discipline, extracurricular participation and other factors likely to impact a student’s performance at school. Wise then proposes to “disaggregate the data” by race, gender, family income, English language proficiency and other demographics to uncover where any disparities are occurring.

According to IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, Thornton issued a purchase order for Wise’s services on May 20. Isle of Wight’s School Board never voted on Wise’s proposal, and, according to Briggs, didn’t need to since the expense was below the $200,000 threshold that requires board approval. The proposal, which The Smithfield Times obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, lists a total cost of $60,000 — including $35,000 for the equity audit and another $25,000 for the development of a three-year equity plan.

Thornton did, however, discuss the impending audit at the board’s Aug. 12 meeting.

“There is a difference between Black and white student outcomes here,” Thornton said.

According to Virginia Department of Education data, 80% of the county’s white students passed the state’s reading Standards of Learning test in 2021, but the pass rate was 57% for Black students. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there was a 19-point gap between the percentage of white versus Black students who passed the reading SOL in 2019.

Thornton had shared an anecdote earlier that meeting of his time as a high school principal roughly 25 years ago in a school system with a roughly even number of Black and white students, 65% of whom had qualified for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family income.

“The SOL scores in that school at the time, the highest SOL pass rate was 37% … in math, it was 5%,” Thornton said.

Thornton began auditing his teachers’ performance at that school, he said, by marking on a seating chart which students they were and weren’t calling upon to answer questions.

“In most cases on that chart they had called on mostly white students; they had called on mostly white girls, and they were totally unaware of that. …  We didn’t know that word then, but what it was was an unconscious bias,” Thornton said.

“I’ve been in poor school systems my whole career until this one,” he added. “This is the hardest job I’ve been in. You know why it’s the hardest job? Because we’re good, and everyone knows we’re good, but to go from good, which at this time doesn’t include everyone, to great, that’s the hardest work, because when you know you’re already good, you feel satisfied. There’s a certain part of our population that’s not part of that. We’re not going to be great until we include them.”

Only about 50% of Isle of Wight’s high school students are taking the courses needed to earn an advanced-studies diploma, Thornton said. The three-year equity plan, according to Wise’s proposal, will include recommendations for “promoting a more representative curriculum” and “increasing student representation in advanced classes.”

“I’m not saying that they all have to go to college, but it would be nice if they took the classes, that if they wanted to make up their mind their senior year … they can go because we put them through the coursework that could get them there,” Thornton said.

But IWCS won’t be implementing a separate equity plan, he clarified. Rather, the audit and the three-year plan Wise’s firm creates will both influence Isle of Wight’s new five-year strategic plan, which Thornton said will have “an equity lens.”

Equity in education, according to the Virginia Department of Education, involves eliminating the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, ZIP code, ability, family income or languages spoken at home. A number of parents have spoken against Isle of Wight’s equity initiatives at School Board meetings over the past several months, arguing they’re an example of Critical Race Theory making its way into the county’s school system.

Critical Race Theory argues American law and institutions have perpetuated social, economic and political inequalities among minority groups. Some parents say the concept is divisive and has the potential to set Blacks and whites against each other.

Wise’s Maryland-based firm was one of three to respond to Isle of Wight’s request for equity audit proposals. The other two, which The Smithfield Times also obtained via FOIA, were Solution Tree, an Indiana-based developer of teacher training materials, and Randolph Carter, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative.

Solution Tree proposed a “school culture audit,” which would include gathering three years of performance, attendance and disciplinary data disaggregated by grade level and demographics, as well as a review of the school system’s policies and procedures, interviews with staff and students and classroom observations. Solution Tree proposed $7,750 per school for the audit, equating to $69,750 for all nine Isle of Wight schools for that component alone — plus $6,500 to $8,500 per day for “school culture customized professional development” and another $6,500 to $8,500 per day for “school culture embedded coaching.” Solution Tree also quoted IWCS a price of $33.95 for the book “Transforming School Culture” by Anthony Muhammad and $31.95 for “Time for Change” by Muhammad and Luis F. Cruz, with quantity discounts available.

Carter, like Wise, proposed gathering quantitative data on Isle of Wight’s test scores, attendance, discipline, student presence in select courses, college acceptance and quality of teacher-student relationships, and disaggregating that data by race, gender expression and other demographics — and gathering qualitative data through listening sessions. He estimated the overall equity audit budget at $15,000.