MONTPELIER — A year ago, 28 Vermont educators began learning to spot inequality in the education system. The problems they’ve come to see have been made even more apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially the focus was working at the district level,” said Jamilah Vogel, a guidance counselor at St. Albans City School. “And then when the pandemic started to really shake things up and schools had to close, it became really evident that with schools closing, it was lifting the veil on the inequities not just within education but the inequities in our community.”
School were helping to alleviate some of these community inequities, but their closing made them far more apparent, she said.
Vogel is part of the Equity Practitioners Network, an initiative of the Vermont Principals’ Association.
Linda Wheatley, equity coordinator with the VPA, said the 28 now involved are the initiative’s first cohort. They are a mix of teachers, administrators, and others involved in education around the state who are learning to identify inequity in the schools and the communities they serve.
“The idea is that over time, if we were beginning a cohort every year, all school districts would be changing their language and approaches,” she said.
The initiative is trying to increase “equity literacy” in the Vermont school system, she said.
“With equity literacy what you’re looking for are deeply rooted historical biases in our curriculum, in our policies, in our culture, and in our thinking,” said Wheatley. “So it’s racism, it’s gender bias. The idea is to notice who is missing out and begin to talk to them about how to change systems.”
She said the network has written a letter to decision-makers in the realm of education with recommendations on how to address inequity. The recommendations are, essentially, that student well-being be made the focus of education during this time, that schools be recognized as important support structures, and that online learning, while good, is not a cure-all.
When schools closed because of the pandemic, Wheatley said there was a great deal of effort early on to address food, childcare, and other needs schools normally provided.
“Then, gradually, over the last few weeks as those systems have been set up and gotten a little more consistent and less frantic, the issues we’ve been noticing and that we drew attention to in our recommendation letter are becoming more clear and worth discussing, and some new concerns are coming up,” she said.
Some of the work the network members have been doing involves small-scale efforts to identify and address inequity.
“One of the things that happens is the rose-colored glasses come off and they start to see inequities in the system they work in everywhere, and so once they’ve identified some of those they’re able to pick a small project to take on,” said Mike McRaith, assistant director of the VPA, and formerly principal at Montpelier High School. “That might be adjusting language in a dress code, it might be something with bathrooms, it might be the types of authors that are represented in classroom libraries rather than just the school library.”
He said the work so far has been going well despite the usual challenges that come with new initiatives. The group has been meeting via Zoom, owing to the pandemic. McRaith said everyone has become quite skilled at video conferencing, and perhaps because of this attendance has been better than it otherwise would be.