When we think of fighting for equity and the integration of schools, names like Melvin Miller and Ferdinand T. Day spring to mind. As part of the “secret seven” – a group who fought to improve the quality of life for all in Alexandria – they were at the forefront of the community movement aimed at ensuring all children across the city had access to educational opportunities, healthcare and playgrounds in the 1960s and 1970s.
So often we think of this as a battle that was fought 60 years ago and one that ended with the integration of the high schools in 1971. But the reality is that although we have definitely made progress, there is no doubt we have modern-day vestiges of segregation in Alexandria City Public Schools.
One need only to look at the numbers to see the reality: 94 percent of white students graduate and 87 percent pursue higher education, while just 69 percent of Hispanic students graduate with just 45 percent going on to higher education. Among economically disad- vantaged students, 74 percent graduate, while 60 percent of these students go onto some kind of higher education.
While higher education does not define success, we must ensure all students have the life ready skills to contribute to our world regardless of their zip code, race or life experiences. Furthermore, we do not have enough students of color and economically disadvantaged students in honors and advanced placement classes.
Equity is about knocking down barriers. Sometimes that means changing the way we teach, respond to and support students of every learning ability level. It means meeting students where they are and not necessarily where we want them to be. Also, it means providing students with acceleration and advanced level work without lowering the standards to increase diversity but rather raising the academic bar for all.
Equity is not about taking from one group to give to another in ACPS. This year, all of our schools and departments will undergo an equity audit to enable us to take a hard look at the systems that are perpetuating inequities among our students today.
We are already taking the necessary steps to address the inequities of which we are aware and have a vision of how to address others. ACPS will be realigning some resources across schools in this year’s budget to make sure that the schools that need extra support get it. New, updated textbooks and materials will be aligned with the state standards and reflect our diversity in our classrooms.
We will be funding additional qualified staff to meet the different needs of students at different schools for academic, social and emotional supports. We have begun to identify what is needed to create a Connected High School Network to expand opportunities and equitable access for all high school students through multiple pathways to achieve academic success.
Moreover, we want to ensure that we are hiring high-quality staff who reflect our student population through innovative recruitment strategies and competitive compensation packages. ACPS teaching staff is currently made up of 62 percent white, 30 per- cent Black/African-American and 8 percent Hispanic teachers, which, 60 years after Alexandria desegregated, doesn’t even begin to reflect our student body at 36 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white and 27 percent Black/African-American.
Why is this important? Because children need to see themselves reflected in their teachers and all students can benefit from having teachers from different racial backgrounds and life experiences in our classrooms.
Equity is essential as the foundation to success. It is a fundamental part of what is holding us back as a school division from being one of the top performing school divisions in the country. If we ensure all students have equitable access to opportunities and supports, we also ensure they have a greater chance to succeed in life. Equity for all includes students with special needs, students who need acceleration or advanced learning, students who need language support and those students who just need an extra push.
It is up to us to carry the work of the Secret Seven forward and continue what Melvin Miller and Ferdinand T. Day started, to ensure that every student has the opportunity and support needed to succeed. Our students’ future is today and they can’t wait until tomorrow to have the best learning opportunities to prepare them for the world.
The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.