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While participating in a retreat focused on analyzing data and equity, Malden High School Principal Chris Mastrangelo noticed one of his teachers writing something on a notepad.

The teacher slid over the paper, which listed about nine different initiatives the Massachusetts high school had taken over the last several years to address equity, and asked if this data analysis was just the district’s latest attempt to find a “silver bullet.”

Two years later, Mastrangelo looks back on that moment as a key opportunity to communicate why equity requires a deep, long-term faculty commitment and a focus on overall school quality.

Students at Malden High School, in a Massachusetts school district that’s made a long-term commitment to helping all students succeed. Credit: Malden High School

Malden, a city just north of Boston, is a diverse community with many racial and socioeconomic groups. The city’s school system relies on data to understand who is being served well — and who is not. Leaning in to difficult conversations about the data served as a foundation for a broad range of next steps the school and district could take toward ensuring that every student has a high-quality learning experience.

Related: OPINION — To the rescue:  The schools we need now are community schools

Now more than ever, schools and districts across the country are striving to focus on equity, with the challenging events of 2020 illuminating countless disparities across the country. People of color and lower-income communities have experienced significantly higher rates of Covid-19 infection and mortality, along with job loss, housing instability and more precarious food access.

The impact on students and their education experience is profound.  McKinsey & Company predicted that if school closures and hybrid schedules continue throughout this school year, Black students could experience 10.3 months of learning loss and Latinx students 9.2 months — compared with six months of learning loss for white students.

Schools need to regularly measure student academic progress and disaggregate data based on race to identify barriers and redesign approaches to better support racial equity.

Such disparities are reinvigorating calls for public education to fulfill its central role in advancing racial equity. Racial equity in education means all young people, regardless of race or background, achieve at high levels. That is the ultimate measure of school quality.

When we see persistent differences in student outcomes based on race and background, this gives us important information; it tells us our schools are falling short — and that we need to do school differently.

As Malden and other thoughtful public districts demonstrate, advancing racial equity takes more than isolated trainings, readings or work by “equity teams.” It takes a commitment to bold thinking about all aspects of school that contribute to school quality.

Related: Reimagining failure — ‘Last-chance’ schools are the future of American high schools

This is precisely the work our organizations — the Barr Foundation and Springpoint — have been doing in our support of  schools across New England,  via  the “Engage New England: Doing high school differently” initiative. Since 2017, schools have designed a diverse array of high school models that champion success for all students. This helps us identify critical elements linking school quality to racial equity.

Schools that effectively serve all students have a clearly defined mission rooted in an unwavering belief in the potential of all students. The whole school community ​addresses practices, systems or aspects of its culture that do not foster equity.

At Malden High School, the city’s school system relies on data to understand who is being served well — and who is not. Credit: Malden High School

Such schools provide all students with challenging and meaningful learning opportunities, and ensure that students are supported in rigorous and relevant learning experiences preparing them to succeed in a broad range of college and career options.

Student support systems, tailored to varied needs, help create and sustain a culture of high expectations. These systems are transparent and easily accessible. Students receive personalized, ongoing feedback on their academic progress and can expect timely and responsive supports — either academic or social-emotional supports as needed.

Gathering and studying data helps both groups of students and individuals succeed. Schools need to regularly measure student academic progress and disaggregate data based on race to identify barriers and redesign approaches to better support racial equity. Students of color, English language learners and students receiving special education services are disproportionately enrolled in remedial, below-grade-level coursework that data shows is a dead end for students, and an ineffective strategy for closing learning gaps.

People of color and lower-income communities have experienced significantly higher rates of Covid-19 infection and mortality, along with job loss, housing instability and more precarious food access.

All students deserve a school where they are known, challenged and supported to be ready for a wide variety of personal, education and career options throughout their lives.

It will take an incredible amount of reflection, vulnerability and effort. We have seen how an unwavering focus on students and a willingness to have hard conversations can strengthen school quality and racial equity so that all students, regardless of their race or background, can pursue their goals.

Elina Alayeva is the executive director of Springpoint, a national nonprofit that partners with districts, charters and communities to rethink high school and empower young people to succeed. Jenny Curtin is a senior program officer for education at the Barr Foundation, where she leads the Catalyze New Models strategy focusing on transforming the high school experience.

This story about equity in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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