Spokane school board adds "equity" to district motto in plan funded by Gates Foundation grant

click to enlarge Spokane Public Schools' motto is about to get a little longer. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Spokane Public Schools' motto is about to get a little longer.

For years, "Excellence for Everyone" has been the motto of Spokane Public Schools. Those three words have been attached to the district logo and plastered onto signs and the side of buildings.

But last week, the district's board decided to modify the motto by adding two more words.

Now, the motto is "Excellence for Everyone Through Equity."

The change is part of a new strategic plan that also includes an updated mission statement, new priorities and new initiatives meant to guide the school district for the next six years, such as investing in early learning opportunities for young kids.

The school district used a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the plan by hiring a consultant firm based in New York called TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.

Spokane Public Schools spokesperson Sandra Jarrard would not share the size of the grant, though the Gates Foundation website shows it gave the district a $150,000 grant in January 2021. Jarrard, in a statement, says the grant was for our "exceptional response to the pandemic" and for the purpose of partnering with "technical assistance providers to support navigating and emerging from the pandemic."

The plan continues the school district's stated commitment to equity, coming more than a year after the school board passed a racial equity resolution aimed at reducing racial disparities in student discipline and other aspects of education.

School Board President Jerrall Haynes says the overall strategic plan is "truly centered around students on an individual level." Adding "through equity" to the vision statement, he says, is just a small piece of charting a course for Spokane schools.

"They're two short, quick words that mean a whole lot," Haynes says.

Yet that might present a challenge in itself. The word "equity" has become contentious at times, with some right-leaning school board candidates viewing it as an extension of critical race theory.

And the Spokane School Board? It hasn't provided an exact definition. Instead, the board hopes the community can reach a definition of equity that works.

"We ultimately don't want to get too far ahead of the community in regards to how we are defining that," Haynes says. "Part of the issue we've experienced over the last seven months is that everybody has a different definition for it."

The Spokane Public Schools strategic plan, meant to serve as a sort of road map for the district moving forward, is updated about every six years. This time, the district hired TNTP to develop the plan because the board felt an outside group might have a better perspective.

Haynes adds that because of the Gates Foundation grant, the cost to do so "didn't come out of our pockets." The change to the vision statement represents a more visible change to the strategic plan than in years past.

During the meeting to approve the plan two weeks ago, board member Aryn Ziehnert requested that district leadership more clearly explain to the public what the new motto, "Excellence for Everyone Through Equity," actually means.

Haynes says the board as a whole doesn't necessarily have a definition yet, though members have a general idea. Board member Nikki Lockwood has said that for her, equity in education means recognizing that certain students or schools need more support based on their circumstances. A representative from TNTP explained that equity meant "making sure that every decision is made to create an equitable outcome."

The school district will work with the community to try to come up with a definition that works for everyone, Haynes says. That will involve partnering with stakeholders and getting public feedback.

"The word 'equity' has become pretty politically charged and polarizing," Haynes says. "That's why it's important to arrive at an adequate definition together as a community."

Equity isn't the only education buzzword that's included in the strategic plan.

The mission statement says this: "Every Spokane Public Schools student engages in joyful and challenging learning experiences throughout their educational journey that enable them to become lifelong learners and graduate with knowledge, skills, habits, agency and community connections necessary to pursue their passions and desired post-secondary opportunities."

The plan also contains a "graduate profile," envisioning the ideal student to make it through high school. It says students should have skills in critical thinking, empathy, learning mindset, collaboration, connectedness and life skills.

And then there are four new priorities: connected and caring school community; strong foundation; transitions and supports; and 21st century learning and career pathways.

All of this may sound like high-level educational jargon, but Haynes insists that these goals and priorities will have a direct impact on students in the classroom. The graduate profile is "very specific to our students," he says, just like the other priorities. It contains goals like increasing inclusion for special education students and improving English language development services. The next step for the district will be outlining indicators holding the district accountable for those goals.

"Ultimately the entire plan is truly centered around students on an individual level," Haynes says.

At the board meeting, board member Mike Wiser says he hopes that every staff member including teachers will understand the core elements of the plan and that some may even be able to recite it from memory.

"I really hope that in six years, when this is done again, that the board says, 'We don't need to change this,'" Wiser says.

Lockwood says she's "honored" to have been part of this process.

"I know it's just words, and we are a big system. But it feels like it's working towards building community, versus just a system," Lockwood says. "Our words and intentions do matter."

And for Haynes, the update to the strategic plan to include "equity" is a fitting end to his tenure on the board. Haynes didn't run for re-election, and the November board meeting was his last full meeting as a member.

"I've really valued being able to participate in this process, and I genuinely hope and believe this strategic plan is the next step in our district development to be able to serve all students," Haynes says. ♦

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Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.