The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

When the pandemic struck last March, schools across the country and in my district in Grand Island, Nebraska, quickly stepped up to the challenge of providing at-home learning and supporting our students and families.

We shifted lesson plans, handed out laptops and hotspots and adjusted food distribution — all at top speed.

But another crisis has been plaguing schools for much longer than the coronavirus: structural racism and inequities that too often limits students of color from living up to their extraordinary possibilities.

The pandemic has put in stark relief the true impact of structural inequalities. Our most vulnerable students —many of whom are Black, Hispanic or Native American — are losing ground much faster than their more affluent classmates, who are largely white.

We fought through the unknown and uncertainties to get our students back to in-person learning. Now we are fighting through long-standing structural inequities — and we are seeing results as we pave the way for a more equitable future.

Nationally, by June of this year, students of color could be six to 12 months behind in math, while white students will be four to eight months behind, a McKinsey study found. That will follow students for the rest of their lives.

Education is today’s civil rights movement, and we must act boldly and with urgency to stamp out injustice.

These racial disparities aren’t new — I’ve been dealing with them my entire life: as a Black student, who could have easily been featured in the bestselling book Pushout, and also as a Black business leader and the first Black female school superintendent in Nebraska.

In Grand Island, our motto is “Every Student, Every Day, A Success.” We have 711 teachers serving more than 10,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino.

Seven out of 10 students in my district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. An effective equity agenda is not solely owned by people of color, but rather people who take personal and professional ownership of the problem and the solution. We have a predominantly white staff — and we’ve spent a lot of time examining inherent biases and privilege.

Related: OPINION: Educators have a basic but essential role in dismantling racism

Our equity work was underway at least a year before the pandemic began, but the long-needed racial reckoning in this country after the needless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others gave our work a new energy. Our community finally was talking about racial disparities in a new way, and came up with five “D’s” toward dismantling inequities:

  1. Define what equity means to your school or district — To avoid “equity” becoming a cliche, you have to define what it means in your local context and agree on actions to support it. We used community engagement sessions to develop a common understanding of equity in Grand Island, and then our school board adopted a resolution supporting that definition. Our district strategic plan includes the direct goal of not only ensuring equity and inclusiveness for all students and families, but also eradicating racial injustice in our schools. We wanted to be sure our students, teachers, staff and community heard us loud and clear.
  2. Distribute data to everyone who needs it — We collect more data than districtwide averages; we want to ensure that we know fully how every student is doing and what they need to be successful. We also make sure educators in every classroom have the student data they need to adjust their instruction in real time and that students have all the information they need to pursue their full potential. An example: We recently talked with a group of high-achieving students not enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, and many told us they weren’t taking the college prep classes because they didn’t know how to enroll. In response, we are overhauling how we give information to students about AP and other advanced classes. Data tells a story, and you have to act on that narrative.
  3. Discuss implications and complexities — We created space to fully explore the lived experiences of students, faculty and families. After the racial justice demonstrations in the summer, students formed a unity council so they would have a place to talk about these issues in a civil way. We also shifted to restorative discipline and a positive support system to help eliminate inherent biases in how our staff approaches student behavior.
  4. Disseminate resources equitably, not equally — As we are learning more about closing opportunity and access gaps, we are shifting from a culture of equal resource distribution to a formula based on student need. We are building equity-based staffing formulas to ensure that the highest-quality educators are in schools with the highest needs. And we are working to ensure a rigorous core curriculum for all students in every school so that every student gets the challenging instruction he or she needs to thrive.
  5. Develop policies with deliberate consideration and consciousness — We created our equity framework as our road map and began reviewing our policies to ensure they weren’t serving as structural barricades for our students. As a result, we worked with community partners to eliminate student costs for all dual-credit and AP classes. And, like many districts, we are grappling with how to amend our grading and attendance policies to be responsive to our students’ complex — and often difficult — lives during and after the pandemic.

With innovative approaches to learning coming out of the pandemic, school and district leaders now have the power to dismantle long-standing bureaucratic and inequitable systems and demand new rules to maximize the experiences of each and every student.

Education is today’s civil rights movement, and we must act boldly and with urgency to stamp out injustice.

Tawana Grover is the superintendent of Grand Island Public Schools. She was the first Black school superintendent — though not the last — in Nebraska.

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

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Tawana Grover states in her Opinion piece titled “How to keep our most vulnerable students from losing ground in the pandemic” that:

    “Nationally, by June of this year, students of color could be six to 12 months behind in math, while white students will be four to eight months behind, a McKinsey study found.”

    Why in the world would anyone listen to McKinsey about education and racial disparities? There’s a reason McKinsey paid nearly 600 million dollars in settlement for its role in perpetuating the opioid crisis. In a word, greed, untethered from any semblance of morals and ethics. Well, that’s several words. So why believe McKinsey’s stripes are any different when it comes to education–public K-12 education, in particular–and racial disparities?

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *