Atlanta Public Schools hired Tauheedah Baker-Jones in November as the district’s first chief equity and social justice officer to carry out an ambitious agenda: Reduce or eliminate historic disparities between students of color and white students in measures of educational achievement, disciplinary matters and other key areas.
Baker-Jones already has begun to lay the groundwork. She has started discussions with peers in other school systems that have established equity divisions to learn from their successes and challenges. She and her team also plan to engage with staff, school board officials, parents and community members to assess priorities and discuss the district’s vision for fostering equity.
Over the long term, Baker-Jones — whose position is funded in its first year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other donors — hopes to establish a Center for Equity and Social Justice within the school system, complete with a robust staff who will create key programs and help the district measure progress around equity.
Baker-Jones has 18 years of experience in education, having worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent in Newark, New Jersey, and in Los Angeles. In May, she started working in the Atlanta school system’s superintendent’s office on efforts related to equity before taking on her new role.
The Casey Foundation spoke with Baker-Jones to learn more about her initial goals and overall vision for equity in Atlanta schools.
Q: Can you talk about your background with social justice and equity in education?
Baker-Jones: Throughout my career, I’ve always had a commitment to social justice and equity.
My Master’s degree is in social justice pedagogy and urban education. When I began teaching, I took a social-justice lens with me into the classroom. As a teacher in Newark, I revised the district’s social studies curriculum to make it more culturally responsive. I also was the founding principal, and later superintendent, of the Paulo Freire Charter High School in New Jersey — and the theme of the school was social justice and service learning.
As part of my doctorate program at Harvard, I was selected as a RIDES Leadership fellow and co-designed and taught a course on equity in action in school systems. I also served on Harvard President Lawrence Bacow’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belongingness Strategic Plan Implementation Advisory Council.
One of the requirements of my doctoral program is that I complete a residency in my third year. I wanted to work with a school system seeking to implement policy around equity in a community where I had familial roots — which led me to a senior strategic adviser role with Atlanta Public Schools’ superintendent’s office and, ultimately, led to the role I am in today.
Q: What would a fully equitable school system in Atlanta look like to you?
Baker-Jones: Ideally, an equitable school system would be one in which each student has the resources and supports they need to achieve their full potential.
Specifically, the goal of equity in a school district is to break the predictive link between students’ demography and outcomes. We would no longer be able to predict students’ outcomes based solely on their demographics, such as race, income or if they have a disability.
Q: Can you walk through some of the major disparities between white students and students of color that you think need to be reduced or eliminated in Atlanta Public Schools?
Baker-Jones: An obvious disparity to prioritize is the opportunity and outcome gaps that exist between white students and students of color around academic achievement and outcomes. Our African-American students are four times less likely to be reading, writing and doing math on grade level compared to their white peers. Far fewer Latinx students are performing on grade level compared to their white peers, too.
Although the school system has made some progress, at the current rate, it would take roughly 128 years to fully close the educational gaps between our white and Black 4th graders in Atlanta Public Schools. We must take action to accelerate the reduction of that gap.
We also need to ensure we are meeting the needs of the whole child. Our teachers report that there is a lack of school psychologists and social workers within the system, while, at the same time, one-third of our schools have a police officer. While the safety of our students is important, that dynamic suggests that there's a culture within the district of policing student behavior, rather than cultivating students’ social and emotional well-being and development. Moreover, the high rate of suspensions for African-American students in Atlanta public schools is almost certainly intertwined with this. This situation requires a serious change in mindset around discipline and social and emotional well-being.
Also: We need to ensure that our students have access to rigorous and culturally responsive coursework and quality educators. About 75% of our white high school students are enrolled in advanced placement courses compared to 16% of our African-American students and about 25% of Latinx students.
Atlanta schools with a majority white population also tend to have more experienced teachers than majority Black schools in Atlanta. Reversing these trends will be key in moving forward.
Q: What will you need to do in your first year to advance equity?
Baker-Jones: We haven’t done an equity assessment since 2014. So, our first goal is to do that: Produce a comprehensive assessment of the district to determine the degree to which inequity is a problem and what its major sources are. We are also aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated inequities that already existed, and we need to be sure to take stock of that, too.
Basically, we need to ask: What is the current state of the union as it relates to equity? Answering that will help determine what needs to change, what systems need to be put in place and what cultural shifts need to be made.
Related to that: We need to gather and examine data in the district. Currently, we don't have a centralized dashboard for equity-focused data. If you want to find equity-focused data, you must pull and comb through multiple sources of information to find the data that you need. We need to create an equity data dashboard to be more accessible and equity-guided.
We also need to build an overarching equity framework that defines what equity means and gives us shared language. This framework will also provide a theoretical guide for our divisions, departments and schools to use as a foundation for building out equity-focused initiatives and guide the additional tools and resources that need to be created and the protocols for accountability in this regard.
Q: Are there conditions beyond education that need to change for equity to be achieved?
Baker-Jones: Yes. What we're seeing in education is a symptom of something greater in our society. We need to call it what it is: Systemic racism and oppression, which manifests itself in all facets of society and its institutions, including education, policing, health care and our political system.
We are working to undo centuries of systems and structures that are built on systemic racism and oppression. None of us created these systems and structures, but we’re all responsible for doing our part to undo them so that they don't continue to adversely impact the lives and outcomes of children and others.
For us to reach this ideal as a school system, we must invite our stakeholders — both internal and external — into authentic conversations and work hand-in-hand with them to make sure we are each using our respective roles to pursue equity to the fullest extent possible.
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