A Joint Project in Syracuse Leads Toward Equity


George Theoharis (left), professor of educational leadership at Syracuse University, with Nate Franz, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the Syracuse City School District, Syracuse, N.Y.

We’ll have two beers and a large pizza.” That’s the order typically placed at a campus restaurant every few months whenever Nate Franz, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Syracuse, N.Y., City School District, and George Theoharis, a professor of educational leadership at Syracuse University, meet for a check-in.

A happy hour in 2015 hatched a new aspect of a decades-long partnership that existed between the university and the 21,500-student school system. Franz, who has worked in the Syracuse schools since 2007, says he considers the university’s School of Education “a tremendous resource and thought partner (that) we are underutilizing.”

While there were multiple ways the district and university collaborated, glaringly lacking was a formal relationship between K-12 content administrators and teachers and the SU faculty with matching expertise in literacy, arts, math and English as a new language. By late 2015, Franz and Theoharis had activated a network of colleagues to share ideas and build relationships, leading to mutually beneficial collaborations.

In 2016, both organizations provided seed funding to invest in two-year collaborative projects involving SU faculty and administrators/teacher leaders in the Syracuse City Schools. The district’s superintendent, Jaime Alicea, said at the time: “This type of partnership is exactly what the students of Syracuse need.”

One of these projects was an equity audit.

Two Big Questions
Over the past two decades, equity audits have become key tools in some communities to create more equitable schools. These studies involve the systematic collection and examination of data to communicate how policies and practices impact different groups of students.

Our team of three school system administrators, two SU faculty and a doctoral candidate believed access to high-level academic courses is important. But, as Sarah Gentile, the school district’s supervisor of fine arts, said, “Kids show up to school for different reasons. High school is more than classes. For some, it’s band; for others, it’s soccer.”

We wanted to answer the following questions in the first such audit undertaken by the Syracuse City Schools:

» Which high school students took part in fine arts, athletics and advanced academic courses in 2016-17?

» How does participation interact with grades, attendance and discipline?

Our Audit Process
We wanted the audit to unearth opportunity gaps in enrichment activities and their impact on historically underserved populations in Syracuse. We disaggregated participation data by demographic markers and anchored equity in proportional representation. For example, if 30 percent of the student body is black, but only 10 percent of an AP English cohort is black, we considered it an opportunity gap.

First, we generated a database of all high school students, containing identifiers of name, address, age, school, race, free/reduced lunch, gender, disability classification, immigrant status, home language, attendance and suspensions.

Second, we curated enrollment/participation information for advanced classes, athletics and fine arts, compiling a participation roster.

Franz provided more than 130 printed class lists for advanced courses. Gentile collected programs/class lists of all high school performing groups/instrumental, vocal classes and theatre programs. The athletic secretary pulled athletic rosters, many with students’ names misspelled, from a physical file cabinet serving as the only record of athletic participation. Neither arts nor athletics were tracked via electronic databases. Thus, we entered thousands of lines of data by hand, painstakingly matching misspelled names with the master database to accurately identify participants. Incorrect names often impacted other items for students, including misspelled awards or scholarships. In an ethnically diverse district, misspelling many students’ names is not culturally responsive. Gathering data was messy and time-consuming, taking 10 months to complete.

Third, we merged the participation roster with the demographic database and ran descriptive statistics and correlation analyses to address the research questions.

Hopeful Progress
The collaboration of university and school district personnel resulted in some important identification of needs to boost enrichment opportunities, improve record-keeping and continue student-level, equity-based investigations.

The project’s central purpose was to examine opportunity gaps around three areas of the high school experience. Our results paint a clear picture of lived outcomes in a system that has not yet provided equity of opportunity. Most saliently, the project led to a district priority to collect this data regularly, monitor progress over time and put in place a long-term plan to address the gaps.

We also identified a rather immediate need to streamline data collection for athletics and performing arts. Handwritten rosters and concert programs begged for greater efficiency and reliability. Consequently, starting with athletics in fall 2017, the Syracuse district began integrating extracurriculars into their electronic student record systems. This improved infrastructure will allow future audits to be completed in a fraction of the time. Equally important are the culturally responsive benefits of eliminating the negative message to students about their value when their names are continually misspelled.

Lastly, the collaborative team repeatedly expressed the meaningful and professionally rewarding nature of the project. Theoharis, a principal before joining the university faculty, indicated how “inspiring it is to work with administrators who do not shy away from these difficult, messy issues.”

The Syracuse City Schools could have conducted an equity audit — one of nearly a dozen joint projects undertaken during the past year — without Syracuse University, but our partnership provided the purpose, accountability and space to do it. We have signed a memo of understanding to continue this collaboration for another two years.

MEREDITH DEVENNIE is a doctoral candidate in teaching and curriculum and an educational leadership intern at Syracuse University. Twitter: @MerDevennie. COREY WILLIAMS is a data analyst with the Syracuse City School District. CHRISTINE ASHBY is associate professor of inclusive special education and disability studies at Syracuse University.