The Will and Skill of a Board Becoming Culturally Responsive
BY PAUL E. COAKLEY/School Administrator, February 2020

Paul Coakley
Like all superintendents, my experiences, values and beliefs guide my leadership focus. Similarly, board of education members apply their unique experiences, values and beliefs to their governance role.

As the only African-American male superintendent in Oregon, I am working intentionally to build a culturally responsive school board that’s committed to addressing issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. We serve together in an increasingly diverse district of 6,100 students, where 57 percent are students of color and many recently have been dis-placed by urban gentrification.

With these changing demographics, the disproportionate disciplinary and graduation rates impact students of color. That must change.

Four Strategies
Our seven-member school board has engaged in equity work in several significant ways. I am applying four key strategies to build culturally responsive board members.

» Raise their consciousness.
Your board members may need more information or need it in different formats. Facilitate book studies and share with them perception data, discipline data and achievement data disaggregated by race. Provide shared definitions and common language for talking about equity, inclusion and diversity with the boards.

All of this can help guide goal setting, action steps and board commitments. For school districts without a working equity policy, provide the board with examples from other districts. Discuss the importance of adopting an equity policy that commits to raising the achievement of all students while narrowing the gaps between the lowest- and highest-performing students.

» Center all work on an equity mindset.
Many districts use the equity lens, a series of questions, as a guide to enter into conversations about racial inequities. This was my first step. The lens was a way to apply social justice questions to a specific practice on a case-by-case basis. However, I found that when the equity lens questions were not sitting in front of board members during a discussion, members might not know when to apply them to a decision.

By consistently using the questions, the board began to develop the mindset of examining unintended consequences of decisions for underserved groups and barriers that impede achievement and mitigating negative impacts. Members began to ask the right questions and made decisions that advanced board goals. They embedded the lens in themselves through their beliefs, values and skills as community leaders who are grounded in equity.

» Plan professional development thoughtfully.
To ensure thoughtful and meaningful professional development, you need to get to know your board. I scheduled time to meet with a few board members each month to build a deeper relationship to learn what is important to them, their goals and hopes for our students.

I gauged the board’s equity stamina and included their interests while advancing our district’s goals. We participated throughout the year in an equity cohort, creating a more inclusive school board experience, connecting and empowering board members of color and addressing inequities impacting students.

My goal was to raise the capacity of the school board to make decisions that are culturally responsive, increase student performance and eliminate racial predictability and disproportionality.

» Lead by example.
Leading by example is important for superintendents who build systems where race, gender, primary language and economic circumstances do not predict student success. Holding myself and others to high standards while leading for equity means centering the work on educational excellence, culturally responsive practices and removal of barriers that prevent success.

Strive to inspire others by believing in all students, increasing opportunities and access. Focus on your students’ strengths by using asset-rich language. Use collaborative processes that engage multiple perspectives and embrace staff, student, family and community voice.

PAUL COAKLEY is superintendent of the Centennial School District in Portland, Ore. Twitter: @CentennialSD28j