Stimulating School Board Action on the Equity Front

Pat Savage-Williams


Every school system leader knows the school board can help or hinder a good plan. When dealing with student equity, getting the board’s support is crucial.

Effective superintendents take the same approach to working with their board as they do working with district staff by addressing both systems and beliefs. While school boards often focus on data and policies and practices, they rarely focus on identity development.

Pat Savage-Williams, special education coordinator at New Trier High School District in suburban Chicago, has a lot of experience working with school boards. She’s served since 2013 on the eight-member school board in neighboring Evanston Township, the past six as president. She recently wrote, “Ten Ways School Boards Can Champion Racial Equity” for the Illinois Association of School Boards. She has advice for how superintendents can engage their boards in racial equity work.

“What the schools are doing to further their learning, the board should be doing as well,” Savage-Williams advises. Engaging in equity work requires board members have self-awareness of their own racial identity and other social identities that have shaped their experience. According to Savage-Williams, they need the capacity to consider perspectives different from their own to identify and change policies and practices that are negatively impacting students of color, LGBTQ+ students, English language learners or other marginalized student groups.

A white board member may not realize the ways in which her children’s experience with college counseling differs from the experience of families and students of color. This kind of self-awareness and perspective-taking are skills that can be developed and deepened through deliberate attention.

In Evanston, the superintendent has invited board members to participate in equity trainings alongside district employees and community members. Each summer, board members read a related book together with the superintendent, administrators and faculty members and reserve time for a guided discussion.

Savage-Williams recommends district leaders provide multiple entry points for board members to learn about their own racial identity. This might include watching educational movies, reading books or articles or furthering their understanding through community speakers on the subject of race.

A Common Language

As a result of these shared learning experiences, board members and district staff share priorities and language to talk about inequities. When the white, male athletic director recently presented data on student participation and a board member asked why there were so few Black students on the golf team, the director didn’t get defensive. He was able to engage in a conversation about the root causes of the racial disparity in engagement and ways to address them. When the superintendent recently designed an administrator retreat to focus on the success of Black male students in the district, the board was 100 percent supportive.

Most school board members say they support racial equity, but their commitment often doesn’t get beyond good intentions. Savage-Williams believes most board members want to learn and grow in their leadership roles. District leaders can provide important opportunities for them to do so.