With a Focus on Equity, What A Difference A Year Can Make

Julia Freeman

Julia Freeman

A little over a year ago, I met with Principal Halee Vang of Hmong International Academy (HIA) to tell her that her school had been selected by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to partner with Voices for Racial Justice and pilot the Education Equity Project that includes the Pathway to Education Equity Tool. She thought this was just what the school needed.

Hmong International is a K-8 located in North Minneapolis. The school has 588 students the largest demographic is Hmong, and African American students are the second largest demographic. HIA is a community school.

Principal Vang had just transitioned from Assistant Principal to Principal and inherited all the tensions of the school. The Hmong parents and African American parents were at cultural odds with one another. The parents had marched to the District and spoke at many School Board meetings about their problems at HIA. Principal Vang, however, was committed to working for equity.

Key to that process was an intentional outreach to organize parents and youth of color and American Indian parents and youth. The process also included teachers and education specialists. Through surveys, listening sessions and 20 Equity Team meetings we were able to reach nearly 300 people, with 187 were of these 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. The majority of the people were parents or youth of color. The equity team, which included parents, youth, and teachers, sorted through the responses and identified three main priorities for action.

    1. Diversity inside our school (Cultural events and celebrations, physical space represents student population, curriculum, and language)
    2. Communication (clear and increase culturally sensitive communication and frequency, and multiple means)
    3. Teachers reflecting the diversity of the students at HIA

The implementation of most of these priorities starts in the 2016/2017 school year.

So here we are at the end of the first year of our HIA Equity Team journey some may ask what the impact has been. I would like to highlight a few changes — things we can really see. First the school climate has changed. People feel listened to. A racially and culturally inclusive school climate – in which everyone feels included and respected, where cultures are honored, and where people feel the school is fair – is important. There is now more unity at the school between staff, parents, students and the community.

Second, some changes important to parents or students have already been implemented. For example, African Americans and Native Americans in the school had felt their cultures were not included at the school, and even the Hmong families felt that more depth and language teaching was needed. Principal Vang responded by hiring an African American multi-cultural teacher, and building a class focused on the different cultures of the students at HIA into the core required curriculum. This teacher uses leaders from different cultures at the school and community cultural leaders as guest teachers. She realizes no one teacher can authentically hold everyone’s culture.

Third, The HIA youth voice is more amplified in a powerful way. Many youth joined the equity team, and began to take powerful leadership roles. This was evident when they spoke at the Minneapolis School Board meeting and shared the reports. I was very proud of them.

Fourth, paying attention to equity seems to have become a central part of the culture of the school, and may even be affecting test scores. At the last HIA Equity Team meeting Principal Halee Vang shared with us that out of the 8 Priority Schools, HIA was number one in growth for closing the gap for students of color based on MCA scores. When asked at a principals meeting of her peers she was asked how she was able to accomplish this. Principal Vang said it was all the equity work she’s been doing with parents, staff, students and the community.

What a difference a year makes working together for education equity.

Julia Freeman is Senior Organizer for Racial Justice.