Focus: Urban’s equity initiative aims at raising academic success for all

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Urban faculty members Sarah Levin, Scott Foster, and Rosalyn Shih write their stories on posters at a Students of Color lunchtime activity during the Multi-Culti week on Oct. 19.

Jenna Waldman, Staff Writer

On a recent October morning, Duncan Magidson (’12) stood up in the St. Agnes gym and smoothly presided over Urban’s all-school meeting as student body co-president.

It was a long way from where Magidson began his career at Urban, as a shy, nervous freshman who thought he was on academic thin ice.

“Things we do here were drastically different from the things I learned before,” said Magidson, who previously attended Roosevelt Middle School, a public school in the Richmond district. Magidson explained that the differences between Roosevelt and Urban were numerous. “At Roosevelt, walls were falling apart, there was ubiquitous graffiti, gum under the desks and carvings on the top,” he said.

Today, along with being the student body co-president, Magidson is the co-leader of Urban’s Political Awareness and Civic Engagement (PACE) club and the regent for Model U.N. But his academic struggles “lasted quite a while and put (him) at a pretty severe disadvantage,” he said.

Urban is working to improve students’ academic success through the Inquiry for Equity initiative, launched four years ago by Charlotte Worsley, assistant head for student life. This year, Urban’s freshman class is the largest in history, with more than 100 students. This growth brings in kids from all over the city who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Looking at ways of reaching out to every student is becoming an increasing priority as the school expands.

According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Division of Equity & Inclusion, a 10-year initiative launched in 2010, the goal of work around equity is to: “cultivate a welcoming and supportive environment that enhances success and advancement for all students, faculty, and staff regardless of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from differences of culture and circumstance including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, language, socioeconomic status, geographical context, and abilities/disability.”

One student of color at Urban, who asked not to be identified by name, commented on the racial component of this issue. “From my experience, students from public school backgrounds, especially students of color, feel even more isolated in a primarily white classroom setting, (and) have a hard time adjusting,” the student said.

Administrators agreed that diversity and equity are issues that need to be addressed. “Whether it’s an increase in race, an increase in boys on campus or an increase in extroverts, as a faculty we have to continuously reassess how we teach and (where) our blind spots (are),” said Ken Garcia-Gonzales, dean of multicultural life.

Suzanne Forrest, assistant head for academics, said the inquiry group is “addressing some of those deficits within the context of a pretty heavy-duty high school program, and how we can do that effectively so we can welcome a pretty broad range of students into our program.”

Worsley said equity should begin on the very first day of a student’s Urban career. “Here at Urban, we want to make sure that when you walk in the door, we’re giving everybody an equal chance to thrive,” she said. “Getting teachers to work collaboratively on equity issues is key,” she added.

Worsley was introduced to the idea of starting an inquiry group by her daughter’s public elementary school, George Washington Elementary, where Worsley learned about a program called Collaborative Action Research for Equity (CARE). “I saw it and I thought, ‘I wonder if this would work in a private school,’” Worsley said.

Urban’s Inquiry for Equity is broken up into three subcommittees. Forrest leads the subcommittee that concentrates on teaching ninth graders. The original Inquiry for Equity group, which has been together for four years, is led by Garcia-Gonzales. Worsley runs a third subcommittee, which is for administrators and instructional staff.

The groups are coached by an Oakland-based consultant named Elena Aguilar, who specializes in teaching educators how to “use an equity lens to examine teaching practices, systems and structures, curriculum, or professional development,” according to her website.

Urban’s definition of equity reflects national problems and trends. In interviews, Urban students from public school backgrounds said that the most problematic subject areas for them as new arrivals were English and foreign language, two areas that have been sharply hurt by budget cuts to public schools.

During his first weeks of Spanish 1, Magidson said, “I felt like maybe I was just really terrible at this and I didn’t even understand what was going on. Eventually I understood that these kids had been taking Spanish; some had been taking it for years.”

Lizzy Harvey (’12) attended AP Giannini Middle School and had never learned how to write an essay before she came to Urban, including creating topic sentences or embedding quotes. “I had never annotated before, ever, and nobody ever told me how to do that, so it was just kind of like ‘figure it out,’” Harvey said.

Magidson also struggled with English. “(At Roosevelt) we spent absolutely no time on interpretation, only (on) covering the plot and then doing exercises with things like vocabulary,” Magidson said.

Another difference was just speaking up. During middle school, Harvey’s classes had close to 30 students, and her teachers taught more than 200 students per day. “One of my math teachers didn’t know my name for half the year,” Harvey said. “It was weird to have to start talking in class (at Urban) and that is still an issue for me.”

But public school students aren’t the only ones who struggled when they came to Urban. “At my old school, we didn’t learn how to analyze anything,” said Lindsey Milgrom (’12), a graduate of Presidio Hill School.

While educators and other experts often link equity problems to issues such as race, culture and class, Urban is focusing more on creating pedagogies — teaching styles — that help each student, no matter what his or her background.

“This year, we made a switch, from … cultural competency, to personal growth and understanding who kids are and what differences in a student require our attention,” Forrest said. “We put a little exclamation point next to that group of kids who come in with different backgrounds.”

One way the inquiry group is doing this is through research. Forrest sat in on classes and observed students to see how they learned best, then brainstormed with teachers. “The teacher would try to come up with some ideas that would improve the relationship that he or she had with the student, and most importantly the learning experience for that student,” Forrest said.

Urban administrators say equity is a complex issue. “In the public school system, there’s documented proof that certain groups don’t perform as well,” Worsley said. “In private schools it’s a little more of a complex picture. Everything isn’t necessarily determined by gender, race and socioeconomic background.”

Kids who come from private schools also feel unprepared. In fact, characteristics such as “whether or not you are an introvert or an extrovert (and) whether you have a learning difference or not” can have a huge impact on academic achievement, notes Garcia-Gonzales. “In the way our culture works at Urban, the loud, vocal, ‘I need my needs met’ student is going to have their needs met before the quieter student,” Worsley agreed.

Garcia-Gonzales also raised the issue of how teachers assess student learning, a topic that is the subject of much debate nationwide: “Are there biases in what we value as demonstration of understanding?”

While the focus on academic equity means more scrutiny, Urban may already teach in ways that promote a level playing field. For example, according to Worsley, Urban values critical thinking over memorization.

     Magidson says that more support for students beginning in ninth grade is important. “There were some things coming into freshman year where it would’ve been really advantageous if someone explicitly told me (about them),” he said.

How to teach to every student is an ambitious task, but it’s one that Urban will need to grapple with especially if it carries out plans to expand.

“The student body is changing, the landscape of education is ever-changing, and so I think if we continue to teach or to rely on things that may have worked in the past, there is no guarantee that those are going to work,” Garcia-Gonzales said.