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Firm to study equity issues at Sewanhaka

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Students and staff in the Sewanhaka Central High School District will be asked by representatives of the Equity Collaborative about their experiences in the schools later this month. On Feb. 23, district officials an-nounced that they had partnered with the national consulting firm to examine how the district could improve its educational outcomes among all students, regardless of race or ethnicity.

As part of the district’s two-year, $46,000 contract with the firm, which will be funded by a Title II grant, the Equity Collaborative will listen to students’ needs and concerns through the end of the school year, its owner, Jamie Almanzán, told parents at last week’s Board of Education meeting, and will compile their thoughts and suggestions about what district officials can change to address these concerns into a report that it will present to the school board and district officials at the end of the year.

In the fall, Almanzán said, the  Equity Collaborative will work with educators and students on “cultural competency” issues, and discuss how the school district could incorporate the competencies into its curriculum.

“This is about how do we align our work to what students need,” Al-manzán said. “It actually becomes students teaching teachers about what they need.”

That student involvement, Se-wanhaka Superintendent James Grossane said, is what convinced district officials to partner with the consulting group. The district, he said, had previously worked with the New Hyde Park-based Long Island Advocacy Center Inc. to help families obtain the educational resources they are entitled to, and LIAC representatives recommended that the district also work with the Equity Collaborative.

When district officials met with the firm’s staff to discuss its work in other districts, Grossane said, “we were particularly interested in how much they involve students in the evaluation and implementation process.”

“We believe that student voice is incredibly important in work such as this,” he told the Herald, “and believe students’ involvement will help the district’s efforts in building greater understanding of and between our diverse student population.”

In the 2018-19 school year, the district’s student body was 24 percent Black or African-American, 23 percent Asian or Native Hawaiian, 20 percent Hispanic or Latino and 33 percent white, with 1 percent identifying as multiracial, according to the New York State Education Department website.

According to state data, 95.4 percent of the district’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, 94.4 percent of Black students, 88.1 percent of Hispanic or Latino students and 97.1 percent of white students graduated after four years in 2019-20.

But state test results varied between the racial and ethnic groups. In 2019, 64 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander and 60 percent of white students in the Sewanhaka Central High School District scored a three or higher — meaning they scored proficient — on the state English Language Arts exam. Meanwhile, 47 percent of Black and 38 percent of Hispanic or Latino students earned proficient scores that year.

On the state math exam that year, 60 percent of Asian or Pacific Islanders scored proficient, as did 63 percent of white students, 32 percent of Hispanic or Latino students and 31 percent of Black students.

“We really want to think of eliminating predictability of who succeeds and who does not,” said Bettina Umstead, an associate at the Equity Collaborative, explaining that there are historic barriers that make it more challenging for minority students to succeed — starting in 1779, when Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track education system, with different tracks for “the laboring and the learned,” and extending through the Jim Crow laws that segregated schools to two 2007 Supreme Court decisions that ruled race could not factor into assigning students to high schools.

The Equity Collaborative, Umstead said, seeks to “interrupt these inequitable practices” and challenge people’s biases about who can succeed by making the teachers more culturally aware.

“We believe that culture drives performance,” the firm’s website reads, “and that taking on the difficult challenges of addressing inequality requires a significant cultural transformation for any organization that is not yet openly discussing the intersections of systemic oppression and community political realities.”

The Sewanhaka district has already taken steps to better serve its diverse community. “We always strive to meet the needs of our students,” Grossane said, “and this is another facet of the work the district has already begun.”

District officials do not account for race when hiring teachers, he said, but they do take part in diversity and job fairs at historically Black colleges and universities.

Still, Grossane noted at the Board of Education meeting, “There’s always room for improvement.”