On July 20, the U of R School of Education Center for Educational Justice hosted its 17th annual summer conference virtually, facilitating a variety of conversations around equitable decision-making in education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adopting an equity-driven approach requires educators to allocate resources to those with the greatest need, helping to compensate for the disadvantages experienced by underserved student populations and providing fair and open access to opportunities. During one of the event’s panel discussions, School of Education Naslund Endowed Dean Mario Martinez and Director of the Center for Educational Justice Jose Lalas moderated a conversation among superintendents from local school districts.
In his opening remarks, Martinez emphasized the importance of the discussion: “Dr. Lalas has, for so many years, provided the avenue for us to gather our Southern California district leaders to reflect on various topics that affect us all—topics that have a common thread of influence [on] justice and equity in education.”
The superintendents’ remarks reflected three themes: finding creative ways to support students, promoting inclusiveness, and creating innovative programs.
Supporting students in their return to in-person learning
“We need to bring students back and have them feel like they’re part of our school system again, the way it was prior to the pandemic. You’ve heard me talk about having the ‘school plus two’ philosophy here in the Redlands Unified School District. We’re very much focused on ensuring that, when kids return, we’re connecting all students with two activities and two adults on campus so that they start to reengage themselves as part of the community.”
—Redlands Unified School District Superintendent Mauricio Arellano
“In bringing children back to campus, we saw that even though they were together, they were facing forward as if they had a computer screen in front of them even when they didn’t. The classrooms were quieter than I’d ever seen. Having been an elementary and middle school teacher, my class was never that quiet. We rolled into our summer session… It was designed around social-emotional and academic learning loss mitigation. What we truly looked at was being able to reacclimate our children to school and their social behaviors.”
—Menifee Unified School District Superintendent Jennifer Root
“One thing that we’ve done here is develop a new strategic plan for the next five years. A huge component of that strategic plan is the inclusion, equity, and diversity piece. Certainly, in a community like this, there are variances but [arguments about critical race theory] have been a distraction for us… We’ll continue to inform and educate our parents and community because the reality is that at the K-12 level, we don’t teach critical race theory directly in our curriculum.”
—Corona-Norco Unified School District Superintendent Sam Buenrostro
“The critical issues that we are facing are all over the board… The issue of [critical race theory] and what it actually means is something that we’ve been tangling with for some time now. We’ve been studying our institution and identifying what is important to us. One of the things that we’ve all learned from the pandemic, being in peoples’ living rooms and people being in our living rooms, was the socially constructed realities and how we can overcome those. We’ve had a lot of discussions this year—we all have our biases and we have been confronting them and asking ourselves where our blind spots are.”
—Alvord Unified School District Superintendent Allan Mucerino
Creating innovative programs
“We were the first school district in Riverside County to create our own police department. We set out with a few simple goals. One was that we really wanted the first interaction between law enforcement and our students to be a positive one. Secondly, at the other end in the upper grades, we’ve got a very robust explorer program and career and technical education courses that are centered on public safety. We were really hoping that a larger percentage of our students would consider a career in public safety of some type. I’m proud to say that our chief just got back from the National Association of School Resource Officers conference, and we were awarded Model Agency of the Year.”
—Val Verde Unified School District Superintendent Mike McCormick
“We have several partnerships within the district, and one of those partnerships is with an organization called Wellness Together. We provide mental health specialists—we had four last year, we’re increasing it to six this year—who work directly with our secondary students. They are licensed marriage and family therapists and social workers who can provide support to our students and families.”
—Oceanside Unified School District Superintendent Julie Vitale
“We want, from a very early age, to meet the needs of students in the area of literacy. This includes ensuring that as many young children as possible have access to high-quality preschool education no matter their ZIP code or income level, and furthering dual language immersion programs… We’re working with the California Department of Education on a grant titled ‘Read to Me: Any Stage, Any Age’ involving eight of our districts that will foster school-to-home literacy connection. We cultivated a partnership with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which is providing students with extended summer learning opportunities and free books. We’re excited to be in the planning stages of rolling out a program called ‘Vision to Learn’ that will provide free eye exams and glasses to students in Riverside County.”
—Riverside County Office of Education Superintendent Edwin Gomez
Learn more about the School of Education.