Educators Talk about Leadership for Equity: Roundtable Interview II

Horace editor Jill Davidson met with four Bay Area educators—Michelle Lau, math teacher at Fremont’s Irvington High School, David Montes de Oca, educational strategist at Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy, Monica Vaughan, teacher-leader at Oakland’s Street Academy, and Michele Dawson, technology coordinator at Daly City’s Jefferson Elementary School District—for a roundtable discussion on leading for equity. All four are current or recent students in LEAD, the Leading for Equity, Achievement, and Democracy Tier I Admin-istrative Credential Program, a joint initiative of the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools and the Department of Educational Leadership at California State University at Hayward. More information about LEAD is available at

Horace: Let’s talk first about what the term “achievement gap” means to you and your school.

Monica Vaughan, Street Academy: We have a student body of low income African American and Latinos, mostly. Students come into my English class who have never read an entire novel or written an essay. We have ninth graders who do not know multiplication. But everyone is programmed into college preparatory classes. We do not separate students out with the exception of some enrichment classes after school which are aimed primarily at people who are needing extra skills work. The achievement gap is obviously reflected in the measurement of what they know through their testing. I see the low skills but I also see what the strengths are, which are not things that are measured. So even though I recognize that there is a real gap in terms of what they are achieving skills-wise, I also know that they have a lot of strengths, but there’s not a concrete fill-in-a-bubble-test to demonstrate those achievements.

David Montes de Oca, Urban Promise Academy: I don’t see us using that specific term, achievement gap. Our concerns relate more to expectations—it feels like the gap exists around if folks are expecting that the kids can succeed at high levels. This includes situations such as families who continue to feel the priorities for their students rest, understandably, in areas like safety. There comes a point, then, when attention needs to be turned to the classroom. We want to move our families into being more critical—just because the campus is clean says nothing about whether or not the kids are learning. We invite parents to develop their critical skills and help us to view parent involvement beyond just seeing them at school. Typically, I’ll know parents are involved if I see them here. But the data show that the most effective parent involvement is how much are they engaging with their child about school, wherever that happens.

Michelle Lau, Irvington High School: I went from a small autonomous school [last year, Lau worked at Silicon Valley Essential High School, which closed at the start of the 2002—2003 academic year] to a very traditional school. Last year when I taught, all of the students were in the same math course, and so I taught them essentially the same things. Now I teach both honors and remedial classes, so I see the perpetuation of inequity. Where I find my place in terms of what I can do for this comprehensive high school is to get to know my colleagues so that, hopefully, in the near future, we can create a space and have some safe dialogue around equity. At this point, there isn’t any. I think that what has been done is that they disaggregate the test scores and say, “Look, this group of kids are not performing and this group is doing well—we have this gap.” But in terms of directly addressing some of the deep-down causes of inequity, the dialogue isn’t quite happening with the staff.

Horace: Let’s talk about specific strategies your school uses to try to address equity issues.

Monica Vaughan: The most important thing that we do is that each of our teachers is a counselor for twenty students through their duration at Street Academy. Teachers are responsible for scheduling the student, keeping track of their records, working with the family, tutoring, dealing with any sort of punitive things that need to happen, helping them get into college. And we have two staff meetings weekly that last for two hours. It’s interesting to hear Michelle Lau talk about being at a huge school and trying to get to the point where you know other staff well enough to engage them. That’s so much a part of what happens constantly at our school. The most important thing that we do is we deal with these achievement gap issues openly as a group. But we don’t just look at it as an achievement gap. We’re dealing very openly with the fact that there’s an economic gap, and a health care cap, and an education gap. Even though we’re measured on our academic outcomes, sole focus on academics is not enough. We deal with our students more wholly. A lot of times that means not saying, “This kid needs reading intervention,” but rather, “This family needs legal resources.” That is why the student is not coming to school, that is why the assignments weren’t turned in, and that is why, when she looked at the standardized test questions, she had no idea. A lot of our students can look at the world with such a keen sense of justice. They’re not fooled into thinking, “Oh, I need reading intervention because I’m a bad student.” They know what is unfair. I have administered tests where I have seen my kids spell out F*** YOU in the bubbles, and I know they could do well on the test. But when you have such anger at the system that is testing you, it gets complicated. It becomes very important to us to have those open dialogues with the students, not to hide it and encourage them all to do great on the tests. You have to really open it up and look at the history of testing in our country, what the biases have been, and how they have been used negatively. Then you look at why you would want to do well on these tests.

Michelle Dawson, Jefferson Elementary School District: And it has to do with how you structure a school and build a community where there’s safety in having those conversations. Starting small structures with teams and houses really allows for those conversations to happen, and so does asking essential questions such as, “What is social justice?” Students come to their own answers and give evidence of what is social justice, what does it look like, where do we see it? We want to do well because we feel as a community that we value education and aim to do well. Those structures exist help students perform better academically.

David Montes de Oca: Important strategies for us include our life skills class, our leadership class, and our morning advisory. We have a gender-based advisory on Friday, and a community meeting on Friday afternoon to develop some unity before we head off for our weekends. And we have a conflict resolution program. We have made a school where kids feel safe stating their needs. What we want to do next is help them state their needs when they don’t understand what’s happening in the classroom. A lot of times they feel safe in saying, “I really felt like I was being put down by that kid when we were walking to lunch,” but often, they won’t raise a hand to say that they didn’t get the problem on the board.

Michelle Lau: Last year when we started our school, one of our priorities was to know our students well. So we met with families and created a much more meaningful context. We treat school as separate from family life. The family visits challenged me to put the two together. It was powerful to see the range of homes students came from, too.
Monica Vaughan: Often, I encounter students who feel that they have been treated as though they weren’t expected to go to college—by people at school. For example, they encounter the assumption that they’re Latina, so they’re probably going to get pregnant and drop out and have lots of babies anyway, so as they’re well behaved, it’s fine. But these students wanted to graduate and go on to college. I have encountered a lot of parents who have been treated with the assumption that they don’t care about their children’s education, that they aren’t going to be involved, or that they wouldn’t be responsive to a member of the school community. I think I’ve encountered that a lot more than the opposite.

David Montes de Oca: We talk with parents about who their child is now and what their goals are for their children a year from now. We try to lighten it, and note that they’ve probably never been asked that question before—we say, “We know that this is awkward and may take a moment because probably no one has ever asked you to do this before.” It helps us all tremendously to have those kinds of questions surfaced. (For more on this process with parents, please see “The Ideas of the Body: Parents and Teachers Create Urban Promise Academy,” Horace 18.4, Summer 2002.)

Horace: As school leaders, when you hire new teachers, what do you look for? Is it most important that teachers “match” their students ethnically, or do you look for a certain attitude without regard to race and other factors?

David Montes de Oca: It would be so much easier to say, “Hey, you’re going to be great with them! Look at you, you match.” Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. If you’re playing a role in who’s coming on board, it’s so important to have a critical way of looking at how this person defines equity for himself or herself.

Monica Vaughan: I agree with David that it’s the person, and just being the same ethnicity or the same gender doesn’t equal identifying with or being successful with students. But while being African American doesn’t make you successful with African American students, I do think if you have an African American population and you don’t have African Americans represented on the staff, that’s a problem. I think that all students should see themselves reflected in the staff in terms of gender and race and also experience people who are not the same.

Michelle Lau: Last year when we started the charter school, our target population was Latino population in Mountain View, and it was difficult to find teachers who reflected that background. So we sent our middle-aged, white, female educators to recruit Latino students, and that wasn’t effective. At the same time, I look at teachers who are effective with our kids even though they aren’t of the same background. They have the desire to identify with kids and not say, “I know you,” but rather, “I want to learn more about you.”

Michele Dawson: There’s a commonality when you have teachers of the same ethnic background. Students say, “They’re like me,” and that brings down a lot of walls. Unfortunately, that’s where we are in society right now, where the walls are up and it’s a lot easier for an African American student to trust an African American adult and not feel oppressed.

David Montes de Oca: It is incredibly empowering for kids to see at school someone who is familiar to them, who can wield the kind of power that they desperately aspire to have.