Harvesting the Garden of an Equity Audit
A joint district-university team in Syracuse, N.Y., sparks changes in access to advanced classes, athletics, drama and music extracurriculars
/School Administrator, February 2020

George Theoharis
When our university-school district research team proposed to study the opportunity gaps that exist among students in the Syracuse City School District, the district’s chief accountability officer insisted on a particular stipulation. While he acknowledged the importance of sharing publicly any inequities we unearthed, he would sign off on the data-sharing agreement between the school district and Syracuse University only if the audit findings would lead to meaningful action benefiting students.

An equity audit is a systematic examination across practices in schools and a district to understand how educational equity is playing out — where gaps and greater equity exist.

We focused on access to advanced academic courses (including Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and college-credit courses), performing arts opportunities and athletics. This required disaggregating data by a range of demographic and identity markers (race, class, gender, English language learner status and special education). We see participation in these three areas as potentially contributing to successful student outcomes, and disproportionate participation in such opportunities as an indicator of inequity.

The audit, which took place during the 2016-17 school year, resulted in plenty of uncomfortable data, pointing to disparities in how the 21,000-student district was serving students by race, family income, disability and English language ability. In the 2½ years since we began the audit, we now are realizing the fruits of this labor. We adopted a metaphor of an urban community garden to help us understand the action around the audit.

An Audit’s Fruits
We see the fruits of this labor in three aspects of the urban community garden metaphor: (1) gardeners, (2) the local produce and (3) the soil and interdependent ecosystem.

Equity audits are tools used by educational leaders. We see the gardeners as the people doing this and other equity-oriented work. The local produce is what blossoms from the use of the audit tool. The soil and interdependent ecosystem refer to the conditions in the district that contribute to local outcomes — inequitable and equitable ones.

Gardeners. Some involved in this urban garden are the members of the audit team who worked jointly on the audit. Many other community gardeners worked in concert — from the superintendent to high school principals to faculty working on equity projects in the school district. They fueled each other.

In a community garden, no one person has all the supplies. So too with an audit project. Either the district or the university could have conducted this audit on its own, in its own garden instead of a community garden. But neither did. It was the community nature, a bringing together of supplies — data, energy, experience and people power — that launched and sustained the work. The collaborative nature of the district and higher education team created the space and the sustenance in a thorough and ongoing manner. Working together pushed forward this time-consuming and uncomfortable (in the process and results) project.

A community garden has tangible outcomes: vegetables, fruit and flowers. Having tangible outcomes is part of what sustains gardeners. Completing this audit is also tangible. It takes equity out of an abstract ether and grounds it in the local community. We see the tangible nature of the audit, like the tangible nature of working the garden, as an important component sustaining the gardeners.

Local Produce. Using the equity audit tool in the urban community garden had direct impact on producing particular produce: visible steps toward greater equity. Examples of this produce included the launch of unified sports teams, courageous conversations with high school drama teachers, a multiyear student orchestra plan and increased access to advanced academics.

The audit data showed almost no participation in athletics by students with disabilities beyond students with the label of specific learning disabilities. This discovery and discomfort led the Syracuse City School District to start unified sports teams and roll implementation out across the five high schools over two or three years.

Unified sports teams yield inclusive athletic opportunities specifically designed to engage students with disabilities in sports with nondisabled peers. This is in contrast to Special Olympic sports that are intended for students with disabilities or traditional varsity sports.

The audit data also found students who were black, Latinx, Asian, low-income, English learners or who had disabilities were in-volved in school drama programs and productions in significantly lower rates than their white, middle-class peers. With this information, the district’s fine arts supervisor engaged all drama directors in candid conversations around the disproportionate drama participation findings. Each high school staff developed specific recruiting strategies to target students from under-represented groups to participate in drama.

An equity audit in Syracuse, N.Y., led to a push for wider student involvement in drama and music productions, such as this performance of “Beauty and the Beast” at Henninger High School.

In student orchestra participation, the audit data also found students who were black, Latinx, Asian, low-income, English learners or who had disabilities were involved in significantly lower rates than their white, middle-class peers. The supervisor of fine arts created a four-year orchestra plan, approved by the board of education, to provide greater and more equal access for underrepresented students by significantly investing in orchestra, beginning at all elementary schools and expanding to all middle and high schools with specific focus on curriculum, teacher development and acquisition of additional instruments.

The audit showed the vast majority of students did not participate in advanced academic classes. Those who did were disproportionately white and middle-class, spoke English as their home language and did not have a disability. This data led to an equity-based change to raise advanced academic participation at the International Baccalaureate High School. The change eliminated the practice that only select students could enroll in the IB program, a longstanding practice that resulted in underrepresentation of students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and ELL students. Now all 9th and 10th graders are automatically placed in the IB program.

Soil and Interdependent Ecosystem. The historical context and timing were key to using an equity audit and the fruit it produced. We see this as the soil and the creation of an ecosystem that are interconnected with issues of equity.

An important contributor to preparing the soil for this audit was the fact the school district was put under official monitoring by the state’s attorney general about two years before the audit began for disproportionate discipline of students of color and students with disabilities. As a result, the district engaged with the statewide equity technical assistance center that provided professional development opportunities around equity and disproportionality. A multiyear community focus about race and disproportionality prepared the ground for the audit by raising consciousness around equity and disproportionality issues.

As we worked the audit, it gave back to the soil, the conditions of the district. The audit process had revealed the lack of electronic records for athletics or drama. This led directly to the development and use of a system to collect athletic and drama participation data, furthering equity work by changing district systems.

The audit nurtured other plants in the garden by contributing to a budding equity-focused interdependent ecosystem. The audit fertilized a change in enrollment procedures for the choice schools across the district. The district moved to weighted prioritized lottery systems that focused on proportional representation — giving greater access to students who have been disproportionally underrepresented.

Additionally, the audit findings were used to support a culturally responsive education, or CRE, team to audit the literacy units for kindergarten through 8th grade. As a result, the districtwide team made four equity-oriented recommendations:

» The district must take immediate action on the most culturally destructive units, resulting in purchasing supplemental texts based on a CRE rubric of the students in the district to swap into those units;

» The district should undertake a full review of all literacy units and materials;

» All new curriculum should undergo a CRE audit prior to adoption; and

» The board should adopt a general equity policy for the district. (The board is reviewing a proposed policy at this time.)

The Next Harvest
We know the ecosystem in the Syracuse City School District was shifting toward equity prior to this audit. This did not make the work on this audit any less time-consuming or uncomfortable. However, it has borne some initial fruit.

Harvesting tangible produce reinforced for the team (consisting of an assistant superintendent, the supervisor of fine arts, a physical education teacher on special assignment, a data analyst, two university professors and a doctoral student) the need to continue working together in the next phase of the audit:

» examining four years of audit data and changes or patterns over time,

» investigating the relationship between student participation in the three areas and behavior, attendance and grades,

» digging into a cohort of students across their high school years and what participation in the three areas looks like over four years.

We hope by continuing this work to support a growing equity harvest.

GEORGE THEOHARIS is a professor in the teaching and leadership department at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. NATE FRANZ is the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the Syracuse City School District in Syracuse, N.Y., where SARAH GENTILE is the district’s supervisor of fine arts.