Year In Review: School Board Pushed to Gain Traction on School Equity

For decades, parents of minority students have worked to document and address racially-based achievement gaps and student discipline disparities. In recent years, students in the LBGT community and their parents have pressed for more equitable treatment. Those forces combined in 2019 to make “equity” one of the most frequently used words in the School Board meeting room. 

 The conversation started early, with the School Board voting to add $200,000 to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to create a position tasked with overseeing equity issues throughout the school system. That allocation was in addition to $100,000 Superintendent Eric Williams had requested to hire an equity and cultural competence specialist. Each School Board member supported creating an equity task force—made up of staff members, parents and outside experts—to provide a thorough review of the school system’s equity practices.

In February, the school district made national headlines when teachers at Madison’s Trust Elementary School put students through an offensive history lesson—having them reenact chasing slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad. The incident got widespread media coverage and the school principal issued a formal apology acknowledging its “culturally insensitive” nature in a letter to students. Williams then joined with the Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee, the Loudoun County Chapter of the NAACP and The Loudoun Freedom Center to issue a formal statement on the issue, saying the concerns go beyond the “inappropriate and culturally insensitive” elementary school exercise.

“We acknowledge that this incident at Madison’s Trust is a symptom of a broader issue,” he wrote. “The diversity in Loudoun County is one of our greatest strengths, but Loudoun County is also a place where equity has proven a challenge for many decades. We have struggled with inequities in student achievement gaps, discipline disproportionality, underrepresentation of minority students in advanced programs and courses, and the lack of a diversified teacher workforce.”

Weeks later, the School Board voted to appoint members to a 25-seat Ad Hoc Committee on Equity, and administrators hired a consultant group to conduct a system-wide examination of equity concerns. The final appointments were made March 26 following an hour of public comments during which speakers criticized the proposed selection of new ninth-grade history textbooks that link Muslims and terrorism, and calls from members of the Loudoun County NAACP to investigate systematic shortcomings that they said have resulted in fewer than 10 black students gaining admission to the Academies of Loudoun and in gifted and talented programs generally.

Ultimately, the books were removed from consideration and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office opened a formal inquiry to review the admissions criteria at the academies.

 In May, Williams introduced Lottie Spurlock as the school system’s first equity director. Spurlock, who was serving as principal at Cardinal Ridge Elementary School in South Riding, was already working as a facilitator during the Ad Hoc Committee on Equity meetings.

The consultant’s system-wide equity assessment of the school division was released in June. The Equity Collaborative completed a series of focus group sessions and interviews at 24 schools across the county. Williams noted that the report found that school system staff members showed a low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy, and were unclear and fearful on how to participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially-charged incidents. “We must make it clear throughout Loudoun County Public Schools that we reject this painful, racist language that encourages discrimination, hatred, and violence. Addressing these needs and others identified in the report will allow us to better fulfill our mission of empowering ALL students to make meaningful contributions to the world,” Williams wrote in a statement at the time. 

 Among the first actions in response to the findings was the adoption of a policy statement crafted by the equity committee: “Loudoun County School Board and its division superintendent publicly declare the condemnation of White supremacy, hate speech, hate crimes, and other hate-based acts of violence, and any instances of hate, discrimination, and violence based on race, religion, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, appearance, and socio-economic status.”

While many members pushed to make the ad-hoc panel a permanent standing committee, a School Board majority opted to leave that decision to the next board, although the term of the panel was extended beyond the original December deadline to complete its work. 

At year’s end, the board was embroiled in another controversy, as a vocal group of parents mounted a months-long protest to some of the books selected for diverse library collections to be available in all school classrooms. At each meeting, parents lined up to read graphic sex scenes found in the pages of some of the books. Parents questioned whether the books were age-appropriate, whether they conflicted with material presented in Family Life Education classes or should be provided at school at all.

 The diversity collection totals 3,400 books, 600 in elementary school classrooms, 1,200 in grades 6 through 8, and 1,600 in high schools. Of those, the vast majority of the books—98 percent at the elementary level and 92 percent in high school—were selected to help students explore differences of race, culture, language and religion. The other two categories of books are intended to address disabilities/abilities and LGBTQ subjects. The larger of those two collections is focused on LGBTQ matters, with five books in the elementary collection, 44 in middle schools, and 82 in high schools. 

 Under school policy, the appropriateness of the books is being reviewed on a case-by-case basis once a formal complaint is made. At year’s end, some titles had been administratively shifted in grade level, but only one had been restricted by a School Board review panel.

Among the final actions of the School Board in December was to amend its anti-discrimination hiring policy to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. The change had been debated many times over several years. Critics worried that it could have the unintended consequences of changing the division’s policies regarding the use of bathrooms and locker rooms or accommodations during overnight field trips by possibly granting new gender identity rights. Supporters said the expanded protections were important to the division’s efforts to hire the best teachers available.

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