Panelists discuss causes of, remedies for school district’s equity issues at library event

More than 70 people attend a talk on racial equity in Lawrence public schools, “Fixing Lawrence’s Achievement Gap,” at the Lawrence Public Library on Tuesday.

Potential causes of and solutions to ongoing equity issues in Lawrence schools, were discussed — and at times debated — during a public talk Tuesday night at the Lawrence Public Library.

The title of the event, “Fixing Lawrence’s Achievement Gap,” points to a lofty goal, but one that is ultimately worth pursuing, panelists agreed. More than 70 people — among them teachers, parents, students and, notably, two school board members — packed into the library’s auditorium that night for the discussion, which was sponsored by the University of Kansas’ Langston Hughes Center, the City of Lawrence, and the KU department of African and African-American Studies.

In 2016, more than 36 percent of the Lawrence district’s white high school students were considered “college-ready” by state assessment standards in math. “The difference with African-Americans,” explained John Rury, a professor in KU’s School of Education, “is really striking.” That same year, about 12 percent of the district’s black high school students landed in that same category. And Native American and Hispanic students, Rury said, are also struggling in comparison with their white peers.

Assessment results are one method of measuring student success, but educators must also look beyond the numbers to recognize the “social and emotional needs that students bring with them into the classroom,” agreed fellow panelist Dorothy Hines-Datiri. Equity, she said, is about the opportunities granted or denied by systems — among them school systems — to students of color.

“Schools say they want equity. Schools say they want equality. But in actuality, the realities are totally different,” said Hines-Datiri, an assistant professor in the KU School of Education. “Despite our push for equity, despite our push for racial inclusion and gender inclusion, we actually still have disparities that exist across those identity categories.”

Tuesday’s event arrived on the heels of a fall semester marked by discussion at school board meetings and elsewhere of racial equity issues in Lawrence schools. Recently, the district hosted a Community Conversation meant to address these concerns, which itself followed a controversial investigation into racist comments allegedly made by a South Middle School teacher.

Willie Amison, a former Lawrence High School principal who currently serves as an academic adviser within KU’s TRIO/Educational Opportunity Center, said black students’ state assessment scores have improved over the years since he entered Lawrence Public Schools as a teacher in the early 1970s. But in recent years, they’ve started to regress, he noted, leaving him and other educators to wonder, “What happened?”

“We know students can do that, and we understand that,” Amison said. “It’s not about their intellectual level. It’s about their engagement and relationships” with teachers and others in the system, he explained.

Some who attended Tuesday’s talks emphasized that point by questioning the involvement of school board members and district leaders in the district’s work toward closing achievement gaps. Racial inequity is a “gigantic problem” that needs the help of parents and community members, Rury said.

The event’s moderator, Langston Hughes Center director Shawn Alexander, remarked at least twice about Superintendent Kyle Hayden’s absence at the event. “That’s the question you have to ask,” Alexander said. He also thanked two school board members, Vanessa Sanburn and vice president Shannon Kimball, for being there that night, but wondered why their colleagues weren’t in attendance with them.

A handful of audience members weighed in throughout the evening about the vacant spot on the school board left by Kristie Adair’s resignation last month. A few said they hoped it would be filled by a person of color, and Sanburn, addressing community concerns Tuesday night, said she was committed to that goal.

“I believe that we have a real opportunity to fill a diversity gap on our board, and I am very motivated in this process to fill that seat with someone that brings the lens that we desperately need on our board,” Sanburn said, adding that she felt her colleagues shared that perspective.

The deadline to apply for the school board position is March 6, and the school board is slated to review applications publicly during its March 13 meeting. In the meantime, Sanburn and Kimball both encouraged community members Tuesday night to continue reaching out to them.