The Principal as Leader of the Equitable School


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  • Introduction to the Leading Student Achievement Series

    The Leading Student Achievement series is a joint publication of the Ontario Principals' Council (OPC) and Corwin Press as part of an active commitment to support and develop excellent school leadership. One of the roles of OPC is to identify, design, develop, and deliver workshops that meet the learning needs of school leaders. Most of the handbooks in this series were originally developed as one-day workshops by their authors to share their expertise in key areas of school leadership. The seven handbooks in this series are these:

    • The Principal as Leader of the Equitable School
    • The Principal as Leader of Challenging Conversations
    • The Principal as Professional Learning Community Leader
    • The Principal as Data-Driven Leader
    • The Principal as Early Literacy Leader
    • The Principal as Instructional Leader in Literacy
    • The Principal as Mathematics Leader

    Each handbook in the Leading Student Achievement series is grounded in action and is designed as a hands-on, practical guide to support school leaders in their roles as instructional leaders. From novice principals who are assuming the principalship to experienced principals who are committed to continuous learning, readers from all levels of experience will benefit from the accessible blend of theory and practice presented in these handbooks. The provision of practical strategies that principals can use immediately in their schools makes this series a valuable resource to all who are committed to improving student achievement.


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    The Principal as Leader of the Equitable School is designed to assist principals and all school leaders in expanding awareness of equity issues, nurturing a spirit of activism in addressing these issues, and developing ideas and strategies for working with others toward those ends. It is based on the premise that awareness and celebration of diversity, although important, are not sufficient to ensure that all students are well served and have equitable chances to learn and achieve. Acknowledging the complexity associated with this topic, this book presents a blend of theory and practice and provides concrete strategies for continuing the journey toward more equitable schools.

    Much of the book's content stems from the work of the OPC Equity and Inclusive Education Team. For several years, this team has been designing and implementing workshops, web modules, and conferences to assist principals in addressing issues of equity and inclusive education in their schools and school communities. It is the authors' position that this book will provide an overarching framework for considering the approaches to leading student achievement presented in the other books within the series.

    Rationale: Schools in the 21st century are complex sites. On one hand, growing diversity provides exciting opportunities for everyone to be enriched by the experiences, customs, skills, and worldviews of diverse student and community populations. On the other hand, the challenges of ensuring that everyone in this evolving context has the respect, voice, power, and support necessary for a rich and relevant education are real and pressing. Because schools reflect the society around them, students and families who are not a part of the dominant culture still face substantial barriers in meeting with success.

    The Principal as Leader of the Equitable School acknowledges the centrality of the principal's role as a catalyst and a perpetuator of change toward more inclusive and equitable school environments. It is designed to provide school leaders with the tools requisite to engage meaningfully and strategically in this process.

    The book is grounded in a number of underlying assumptions that include the following:

    • Racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and gender-based violence are still evident in our communities and—unfortunately—in our schools. “These and other discriminatory beliefs and actions should not be seen as forces to which schools must adjust or for which schools must compensate; rather schools should be leading the way and allowing society to respond to innovations in schooling and education” (Delhi, 1995, p. 21).
    • “The significant new investments in education are not reaching many of the children who need the most help because long-identified barriers to learning are not being addressed.” (McMurtry & Curling, 2008, p. 3).
    • “Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone” (Dei, 2006).
    • Students who feel welcomed and respected, accepted, and celebrated in their schools are more likely to meet with academic success, to reach their highest potential, to improve their life chances, and to contribute to a more inclusive and democratic society. There is an increasing body of research showing that students who feel connected to school—to teachers, to other students, and to the school itself—do better academically (Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002; Schargel, Thacker, & Bell, 2007).
    • In a truly equitable system, factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status do not prevent students from achieving ambitious outcomes. Our experience shows that barriers can be removed when all education partners create the conditions needed for success (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2008).

    This book is designed to meet the challenges of this sociocultural context and to contribute to its improvement.

    Audience: No matter where principals are on the continuum of understanding and actively engaging in creating more equitable schools, this book should be of use. Foundational information and activities for heightening personal awareness of equity issues will assist those who are in the early stages of considering how our schools would better serve the students and families who have been traditionally marginalized. For those well on the way in strategically addressing these needs, the reflections, case studies, and activities will provide ideas for working with staff, students, and community to further the work of actively confronting inequitable practices and removing barriers for students who have been underserved. This book would also be a valuable handbook for school equity committees, principal preparation courses, and professional development sessions on improving equity and inclusive education.

    Approach and Organization

    Although the book grounds its practical suggestions clearly in relevant theory, its main thrust is to provide concrete strategies and applications. For this purpose, it is presented as a handbook, divided into eight chapters.

    Chapter 1 addresses the essential question: Why is leading for equity and diversity important? Drawing upon current demographic and contextual (local, national, and global) information as well as a brief selection of relevant research, this chapter takes a look at the current education environment and the challenges that we as school leaders face in ensuring that equity is at the forefront of what we do to ensure optimal learning for all of our students.

    Chapter 2 looks at some of the understandings that are foundational for leading equitable schools. Definitions are provided. A brief overview is provided of the purposes of education; accountability issues and the concepts of power and privilege and their centrality to removing barriers are addressed. Characteristics of leadership that promote inclusive education and serve traditionally marginalized students are outlined.

    Chapter 3 focuses on the self and the inner work necessary to move forward on the personal journey to being more equitable and inclusive in our work. This chapter extends an invitation to

    • unearth,
    • unravel, and
    • understand personal stories of individual/group and systemic oppression and, as a result of this process, to
    • unfold reconsidered attitudes and responses.

    Chapter 4 turns to strategies for collaboratively creating a school climate that promotes equity. Central to this chapter is the onus on school leaders to develop an equitable environment and strategies for working with others to ensure that this is a priority. Community partnerships and student outcomes are presented as pivotal issues.

    Chapter 5 explores approaches to working specifically with school staff, including teachers, caretakers, secretaries, educational assistants, and all others who work as part of the school team. It addresses the difficult but necessary work of engaging staff in conversations that have traditionally been avoided in school meetings. It also suggests strategies for addressing oppressive acts and embracing a culturally relevant pedagogy.

    Chapter 6 focuses on working with students to foster greater equity and inclusive education. Central to this chapter are the questions: “How do school leaders provide space for all students to flourish in equitable ways?” and “How do we elicit students' voices and involve them in working toward socially just ends?” Inclusive curricula using the James Banks (Toronto District School Board, n.d.) and “windows and mirrors” (Style, 1996) models are discussed. In addition, this chapter looks at fostering student leadership and voice, including suggestions for student action research. It considers the importance of formally honoring the diverse student skills and contributions that are not considered to be part of the formal curriculum and assessment processes.

    Chapter 7 addresses strategies for building partnerships with school communities to enhance inclusion and to engage families in creating a vision for an equitable school. Approaches are suggested for getting to know your community, enhancing capacity for working toward inclusive education, and building communication bridges.

    Finally, Chapter 8 presents a detailed and specific tool, the Equity Walk, that may be used to assess progress within your school. This tool will be useful for establishing a “current state of affairs,” identifying gaps and setting specific goals for moving your school along on the journey toward recognizing oppressive practices and working toward a more equitable and antioppressive school environment. As such, it can become an integral part of both formal and informal school improvement planning.

    Special Features

    This book provides a variety of practical special features to assist school leaders in their quest to create more equitable schools.

    Reflection Activity: In order to consolidate and expand the content of each chapter, a reflection activity is provided for personal and/or collaborative work.

    Case Studies: Following each chapter, a case study is provided for personal reflection and/or for use as a professional development tool in working with staff. Each case study is followed by suggested questions for probing the issues raised.

    Principals' Action Steps: Each chapter culminates with three short, specific action steps, described as Self, Others, and Try Tomorrow.

    • In the Self section, leaders are asked to reflect upon a specific aspect of the chapter contents.
    • In the Others section, links are provided to short web modules that will be useful in extending discussion and providing ideas associated with the contents of each chapter. These modules are rich sources of insight by recognized leaders in the field of equity. They also provide opportunities to see what equity work looks like in the context of real schools. Reflective questions accompany each of these modules.
    • Try Tomorrow suggests a specific “to do” item for implementing a concrete, specific strategy.

    Tools and Resources: A separate section at the back of the book provides easy access to tools, templates, and activities that have been referred to throughout the chapters. The comprehensive Equity Walk Template is also included in this section.

    The Three Main Reasons to Purchase This Book

    Grounded in relevant theory, this book is a highly accessible, user friendly, and practical source for developing and extending initiatives in the vitally important process of making our schools more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable places.


    The Ontario Principals' Council gratefully acknowledges Lynette Spence, Coleen Stewart, and Poleen Grewal, the coauthors of The Principal as Leader of the Equitable School.

    Lynette Spence is presently employed at the University of Toronto at Hart House in the role of coordinator of equity and diversity initiatives. She was born in Guyana and came to Toronto via Jamaica and London, England. She has held a variety of roles within the school system, including coordinator of antiracism and ethnocultural equity. She retired, as a principal, from the Toronto District School Board. Lynette's passion for equity has led her to develop and deliver workshops on equity and inclusive education all over Ontario. Her involvement with the Ontario Principals' Council began with teaching in the Principals' Qualification Program and has extended to coordinating projects and working with OPC Protective Services consultants in mediating disputes involving OPC members. Commencing in July 2008, Lynette was contracted by OPC to coordinate the Equity and Inclusion Project. (In 2009 and 2010, this project also received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education.)

    Coleen Stewart currently teaches graduate courses in the Theory and Policy in Education Department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto (OISE/UT). She completed her PhD at the same university, with a focus on leadership for diversity and social justice. Her professional background includes a variety of teaching, resource, and administrative roles, including principalships of several elementary schools. Her involvement with OPC includes contributing to the development of equity and inclusive education workshops and web modules for school leaders.

    Poleen Grewal is currently employed by the Peel District School Board in a coordinating principal role, school effectiveness leader. In this role, Poleen has ensured that culturally responsive practices are seen as an important part of the teaching and learning process. She is also currently pursuing her doctoral degree at OISE/UT in the area of sociology and equity studies. Her thesis will focus on how system leaders (e.g., superintendents, principals) negotiate spaces for equity/diversity issues in the current student-achievement focused agenda.

    The Ontario Principals' Council also wishes to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the Equity and Inclusive Education Team: Lynette Spence, Joy Reiter, Joe Santalucia, and Coleen Stewart. In addition, the efforts of Linda Massey on the Ontario Principals' Council in coordinating the joint OPC/Corwin project are gratefully acknowledged.

  • Tools and Resources

    Equity Walk Matrix

    The column labeled “To promote learning conversations” would be the area in which you write your comments during your observations and then engage in conversation with those involved to further collective learning.

    Reflective Questions
    • Choose a section of the Equity Walk Matrix and do a “mental walk” through your school. What do you see that supports equity and inclusive education? What is missing? What do you need to check for when you do an actual walk through your school?
    • Who might you include in doing an Equity Walk in your school? Who might “see” things that you might not notice? How might you arrange for flexibility and broad inclusion in this group over time?
    • How might you introduce the use of the Equity Walk Matrix as a tool for assessing and improving equitable practices in your school? What kind of preparation might be needed in your context? What are the steps that you might take to ensure that the Equity Walk is viewed as a catalyst for growth rather than as an evaluative threat?
    • The matrix covers a wide scope. Which aspects (e.g. Public Space, Assessment, Cocurricular Activities) might be easiest or most important to begin with?
    • How might you and your equity team plan to address areas of need that are identified in your equity walkthroughs? How will the results be shared? Are there budgetary, scheduling, professional development, or courageous conversation considerations that you may need to plan for?
    Six Levels of Workplace Cultural Proficiency (Workplace and School Settings)

    Stalking Our Stories, Knowing Our Selves #1
    In Search of “Self”Have you been marginalized?
    UnearthThink back to an incident or situation when you were marginalized by an individual/group/institutionalized situation
    • On what basis were you marginalized (race, gender, …)? How did the event take place?
    • How did you feel/respond/react?
    • When did you recognize the oppression (on the spot, much later)?
    • Why did you feel/respond/react in this way?
    • How were you disempowered?
    • What were the short- and long-term effects?
    • What overt or subtle oppression was at play?
    Unfold reconsidered attitudes, responses, behaviors
    • How would you respond if this were to happen again/continue?
    • What positions of empowerment might you employ?
    Stalking Our Stories, Knowing Our Selves #2
    In Search of “Self”Have you or your school marginalized others?
    UnearthThink of a situation when you or your school were involved in marginalizing another person or group.
    UnravelOn what basis did you, either intentionally or inadvertently, marginalize another person/group? How did you think/act inappropriately?When did you recognize/become aware of the oppression? What do you think the effects (short- and long-term) might have been on others?
    UnderstandWhy might you have acted in this way (lack of knowledge, background experience, acculturation/normalization …)
    Unfold reconsidered attitudes, responses, and behaviorsHow have/might your attitudes and responses change? What different actions would be appropriate?
    Building a Cultural Profile

    The dominant group within each subculture is bolded in each category.

    Components of Cultural IdentityMy Location, Relationships, and ExperiencesInfluences on My Identity as a Person and as an Educator
    • Class
    • Below poverty line,
    • homeless, working class,
    • lower middle class
    • Middle class, upper class
    • Gender/Gender Orientation
    • Male
    • Female
    • Heterosexual
    • Homosexual
    • Bisexual
    • Transgender
    • Race
    • American Indian/First
    • Nation, Métis, Inuit
    • White
    • Black
    • Asian
    • Other
    • Ethnicity
    • Western European
    • Central/Eastern European
    • Latino
    • Asian
    • African
    • Caribbean
    • Other
    • Age
    • Child
    • Youth
    • Young adult
    • Middle aged
    • Senior
    • Language
    • English
    • Bilingual (including English)
    • English as a Second Language
    • Multilingual
    • Non-English speaking
    • Religion
    • Christian (Protestant)
    • Christian (Catholic)
    • Christian (other, e.g., Mormon)
    • Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist
    • Other
    • Physical Context
    • Urban, suburban, rural
    • Geographic region
    • Environment (coastal, mountains, prairies, desert)
    Ladder of Inference

    James A. Banks's Inclusive Curriculum Framework
    Model / LevelThe Roles of the Student and TeacherThe School's Relationship to Its Community
    Level 1 The Contributions Approach
    • Adding diverse heroes and heroines, holidays and celebrations to the curriculum selected using criteria similar to those used to select mainstream heroes and heroines for the existing curriculum
    • Role of Student: Passive recipient of informationRole of Teacher: Provider of all information; structures materials, use of resources, and time allocation
    Not engaged
    Level 2 The Additive Approach
    • Adding a variety of content, concepts, themes, and perspectives to the existing curriculum without changing its basic structure
    • Role of Student: Passive recipient of information
    • Role of Teacher: Provider of all information; structures materials, use of resources, and time allocation
    Some acquaintance with school communities as sources of information
    Level 3 The Transformation Approach
    • Changing the actual structure of the curriculum to enable students to view concepts, issues, events, and themes from the perspectives of diverse groups
    • Role of Student: Active learner
    • Role of Teacher: Facilitator of learning opportunities for students to explore multiple perspectives, major concepts, big ideas, and general principles and to apply ideals such as fairness, equity, or justice to their world
    Growing partnership
    Level 4 The Social Action Approach
    • Allowing students to make decisions on important social issues and take actions to help solve them
    • Role of Student: Active/activist learner
    • Role of Teacher: Facilitator of learning opportunities for students to explore multiple perspectives, major concepts, big ideas, and general principles and to apply ideals such as fairness, equity, or justice to their world.
    Engaged partnership
    Source: Adapted from James Banks Model, by Toronto District School Board, n.d., Adapted with permission.
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