Camas School District implements new equity policy

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Camas School District assistant superintendent Charlene Williams interacts with a group of students. Williams has taken a lead role in the development of the district's new equity policy. (Contributed photo courtesy of Camas School District)

A mother’s heartbreak. A child’s anger. Eventually, a call for change.

Dauda Woodruff’s life was altered after he discovered a photo of himself posted on the OfferUp app in 2017, during his freshman year at Camas High School.

“Field hand for sale,” the post read. “Needs some whipping sometimes, but has a strong back. Will make a great slave.”

Those words shocked Woodruff, who was born and grew up in Sierra Leone, Africa, before being adopted by Darren and Chrissie Woodruff, of Camas, in 2015.

The author of the post, another Camas High student, was suspended from school for five days and dismissed from the school’s soccer squad. Woodruff’s mother, Chrissie, believes that punishment wasn’t severe enough.

“It was horrific,” said Chrissie Woodruff, a teacher at Liberty Middle School. “Dauda was sad, frustrated. To see your child listed for sale, it was terrible.”

The incident is a prime example of the type of behavior Camas School District administrators hope to eradicate through the district’s new equity policy, which was adopted in October 2018.

The focus of the policy is to ensure the district is providing equal opportunity to every student.

“I think we are working on it,” said Chrissie Woodruff, a member of the district’s equity committee. “I think we’re better than we were, but we still have work to do. We can acknowledge now that not everybody has the same opportunity at the Camas School District. It’s time to do something. Doing nothing isn’t working.”

As a result of the policy, the district has reviewed its health standards; established pilot community outreach programs; pushed back the beginning of its accelerated math programs from sixth to seventh grade; increased preschool opportunities for students served by individual educational programs; and reviewed its fine and fee processes for students experiencing poverty while providing them with opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

The district also has started to focus its staff training and school and district improvement work “on seeing and serving each student with an equity lens,” according to Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell.

After the OfferUp post, Chrissie Woodruff met with school district administrators and tried to convince them to arrange a meeting with her son and the boy who created the post. That meeting never happened.

“I feel like it really fell on deaf ears,” Chrissie Woodruff said.

But she believes things in Camas are starting to change. Earlier this year, Camas High Principal Liza Sejkora sent an email to parents outlining an incident that had occurred between a white Camas student and a black Washougal High School student.

Watching Dauda’s response to the email was validating and “very powerful” for his mother.

“I truly believe it never would’ve been sent two years ago,” Chrissie Woodruff said, “because what happened to my son was much more severe, and it was silenced. In doing our equity work, I had one of the administrators who was there at that meeting (in 2017) come up to me and say, ‘Chrissie, I’m sorry. We didn’t handle that right. We were so concerned about how it was going to look on us.’ Because we’re doing this work and examining our policies and personal beliefs, it’s really changing things.”

Shaken by his experiences at Camas High, Dauda Woodruff moved to San Diego, California, before the start of his sophomore year to attend the Army and Navy Academy, where he generally had good experiences.

Today, Dauda Woodruff is back at Camas High and is “doing much better,” Chrissie Woodruff said. “He’s found people to connect with, which has made all the difference.”

Seeing, serving every student

The Camas School District’s focus on equity issues amplified in 2016, when the election of President Donald Trump caused increased tensions around topics such as race and immigration.

“We had some parents, particularly parents of students of color, who were fearful of what was going to happen because of some of the discourse or lack of discourse around things like that,” the school district’s assistant superintendent, Lisa Greseth, said.

Those parents reached out to the district’s other assistant superintendent, Charlene Williams, and to Snell, who came to one of the families’ homes to discuss their concerns, Greseth said. “While that served as the impetus for the conversation, it really evolved into much more than that, as in: ‘What can we do when we do it together?'”

As a result of those conversations, school district leaders created a series of equity forums to provide open dialogue and communication about race.

“We learned about what we would call racist or oppressive incidents that create systems where kids don’t feel safe,” Greseth said. “But what we’re learning more (about), and this is what our policy is directed toward, is the systems that perpetuate inequity for kids. When we more closely inspected our data, we found that some of the students don’t benefit to the same degree as others — some students of color, some students in poverty and students with disabilities or learning differences.”

Lyn Garcia, an English Language Learner instructor in Camas, said she was devastated after hearing about the students’ experiences at one of the equity forums held in 2018.

“(Some of them) were in tears,” she said. “They felt very isolated and stereotyped and alienated, and that kind of broke my heart. … I do think, systemically, the district is absolutely in the right place, but the student experience really comes down to the relationships the students have with their friends and with the adults in their school. That’s where I think we need to continue to focus our work, to make sure that people are having these conversations in a way that’s respectful and inclusive.”

The district established the equity policy “to serve as a lens that allows us to examine every aspect of our district and how well it is supporting the mission to see and serve each student,” according to a district report to the Camas community.

“As we were trying to get to a 100-percent (graduation rate), we realized, ‘There’s a gap here. Why is that gap here?'” Snell said. “That prompted the question of how we are seeing each of our students and what they are experiencing here. We may think if we have a 90-percent graduation rate, that’s a good job, right? Great — that looks good compared to the state or whatever. But the reality is 10 percent of your kids are struggling. Let’s uncover that and see what’s going on.”

Changes for the better

Garcia’s daughter, Catherine, is a senior at Camas High School and serves as a student liaison to the district’s equity committee.

For her senior project, Catherine Garcia interviewed a dozen students about their experiences with discrimination. She will formally present her findings to the equity committee in June.

“I’ve had interactions, instances of discrimination, and I’ve heard about instances of discrimination from my friends of color and my LGBTQ friends,” said Catherine Garcia, who plans to study musical theater at Oklahoma City College in the fall. “There’s always a huge plethora of feelings that I feel — angry, frustrated, angry, disappointed, confused. I’ve learned that there are still some students who are still scared to tell their stories, and I’ve learned how badly needed this policy really is.”

The district is now investigating equity in areas such as health and math, with Greseth leading the administration’s work on health standards and Williams taking the lead on mathematics pathways.

“The decisions we make — who gets enrolled in what, who gets picked for what, who’s allowed access to what — those kinds of things are super important in terms of stepping back and seeing what the system is and who’s allowed to thrive in it or not,” Williams said. “The policy allows us to comb through our system from the inside out to examine where we might not be serving students well, and who’s being impacted by these decisions.”

One way the district can improve, according to Catherine Garcia, is by diversifying its reading lists for English classes.

“In my four years of reading books here at Camas High School, the majority of them have been (written by) white, heterosexual, cisgender men,” she said. “I have personally chosen to read more people of color, women of color, women in general. But that’s on my own volition.”

She said she also would like to see a greater emphasis placed on minority cultures during classroom discussions.

“(We need to recognize) minority history months – Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Heritage Month. I’ve never, ever talked about that in school,” Catherine Garcia said. “I think (that would be) a really great way to integrate it into the curriculum and have a focus on the stories and the history of black people and Hispanic people and Asian people, because we very rarely talk about them in the classroom if we’re not given a platform.”

Challenges to overcome

In addition to the district’s equity committee, each Camas school has an equity team of its own.

Skyridge Middle School’s group has focused on training teachers and staff members — “adult learning first,” Skyridge Principal Clint Williams said — before moving on to the students in the 2019-20 school year.

One of the biggest challenges of the policy implementation, Clint Williams said, “is getting kids to realize that what they do affects (other) people.”

“Developmentally that’s where they’re at,” he said. “They’re right here, in the moment. Honestly, we have some kids, all friends, using some terms that probably aren’t the best for them to be using.”

He added that many students may not even realize the terms they use are derogatory or racist.

“They hear it on their music or on television or something like that. They don’t really understand what the repercussions might be. Very rarely is there an intent to (hurt),” he said.

Snell said that the district’s “focus is making sure everyone feels safe and belongs here,” a philosophy which creates another challenge.

“That might press on some of our beliefs,” Snell said, “but (we want to) talk about it. What starts all that is student voice — really trying to listen to student experiences.”

District staff members have grappled with ways to initiate what can be difficult, emotional or sensitive conversations.

“As a white person, I’ll confess it’s hard for us to talk about race,” Lyn Garcia said.

“One of the things we’ve learned in our education is that sometimes we don’t approach those conversations because we’re afraid we’re going to say the wrong thing,” Clint Williams said. “We really have to get over that, and realize we are probably going to say the wrong thing and acknowledge that up front.”

At Grass Valley Elementary School, school administrators have been examining biases and how people consciously or subconsciously act on those biases.

“We want to understand how (people) see the world and how they interact with each other,” said Grass Valley Principal Sean McMillan. “We have 18 different language spoken here, lots of colors and shades of students. We work to try to manage the dynamics of difference and promote and celebrate. Across the board we’ve seen a significant decrease in (disciplinary actions involving) negative comments about race and racial slurs.”

‘More than just the first impression’

Veronica Copeland was born and raised in New York City and moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2011.

In 2016, Copeland, then a Camas resident, took her twin daughters, Zoe and Nia, to an indoor play area.

The girls were playing when another child arrived and Copeland heard the child’s mother tell him to go play with Zoe and Nia, when the child said, “No, I don’t want to because their skin is dirty.”

“And the mom said, ‘Oh, my son is such a hillbilly,'” Copeland recalled. ” I thought that was such a teaching moment – that she could’ve said, ‘No, that’s not how this goes. Let me introduce you, let me show you.’ That’s what I think equity is; it’s giving everyone that opportunity to give you more than just the first impression.”

Copeland served as a volunteer at Woodburn Elementary School, where her daughters are finishing their first grade year, and as the chairwoman for the district’s equity committee.

Now that her family is relocating to Texas for her husband’s job, Copeland said she would still like to be involved with the district’s equity efforts, but that she will have to do so from long distance.

“The biggest reason for us leaving was I wanted more diversity in my children’s lives,” she said. “It’s important that they go to a school where they see other people that look like them.”

Copeland has great things to say about her daughters’ experiences at Woodburn, however, as well as principal Brian Graham, whom she lauded for his demonstrated ability to confront his own biases and assumptions.

But she has also seen and felt what she calls an “unspoken bias” during her time in Camas.

“It’s a little more subtle (here),” she said. “It’s very underlying. I think that’s why this policy is so great — it’s a sledgehammer to what’s happening.'”

Work doesn’t end

In addition to race, the Camas district is closely examining topics such as gender and sexual identity, special education and socio-economic factors to determine how these issues play into equity and student success.

At Skyridge, the special education population is a particular focus. Two special education teachers are on the school’s equity team, and the school launched a United soccer program last year to give athletic opportunities to differently abled students.

Skyridge’s “inclusion” classes are led by a special education teacher and a general education teacher working together with both groups of students.

“(Special education students) need to be as much into our mainstream in everything that we’re doing as everybody else,” Clint Williams said. “We’re really trying to do things that decrease that stigma.”

The district’s focus on equity has attracted the attention of other agencies. At the May 13 Camas school board meeting, Mike Nerland, assistant superintendent of the Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112 (ESD 112), and three other ESD 112 staff members lauded the efforts of Greseth, Charlene Williams and Camas School District’s director of talent development, Marilyn Boerke, for helping ESD 112 improve its equity initiative in 2018.

“ESD 112 will reap the benefits of (their) graceful expertise for years to come,” Tracy Collins, an early learning trainer for ESD 112, told the school board members. “The time and support (they) offered us was invaluable, both personally and professionally. I look forward to continuing this relationship as our agency moves ahead in this work.”

Camas administrators and staff members said they are optimistic about the new equity policy and the impact that it will have on the district in the coming years.

“I definitely think that the next African-American family or family of color that comes in will be happy to see the changes that are being made,” Copeland said. “I think that small piece will have a great ripple effect.”

The school district’s new equity policy states: “We will know we have met our goal when the factors that predict any student’s success or opportunity are no longer correlated with any group identity.”

But the people involved know that this mission will truly never end; it will simply evolve over time.

“In order to create lasting change, we have to make sure that we are deeply changed,” Charlene Williams said. “Then we move to the practices and things we can change.”