Washougal School District pushes for equity in classrooms

Assistant superintendent Aaron Hansen: ‘It's so clear to me now that we have to act’

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Jemtegaard Middle School counselor Kirstin Albaugh (left) speaks to (from left to right) students Laura Perez, Arianna Reyes-Piedra and Efrain Garcia about the College Bound Scholarship program in 2019, before the Washougal School District's "Spanish Speaking Family Night," an event focused on being more inclusive for the district's families of color. (Contributed photo by Rene Carroll, courtesy of WSD)

Aaron Hansen knows the Washougal School District can no longer wait to improve its equity policies. He’s reminded of that fact every time he watches or reads a news report about racism, police brutality and social injustice in the United States.

“We know things have been happening in this country for hundreds of years,” said Hansen, WSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources and student services. “For myself personally, seeing these events occurring in society, it’s so clear to me now that we have to act. We just have to act.”

Washougal School District leaders have partnered with the Washington Education Association to train teachers on what is known as “culturally responsive classroom management,” or the process of taking into account the vast array of backgrounds, learning styles, life experiences and cultural norms that students bring into a classroom to ensure each child has an equal opportunity to thrive.

“We have to educate ourselves and challenge ourselves to identify our own biases,” Hansen said. “We want to examine our own thought processes and perspectives as we put policies and procedures in place and make decisions. We want to look at things through an equity lens. Ultimately we want to create an environment for all students to feel safe and supported, and not make decisions or put strategies in place that leave students on the outside.”

Ben Ibale, the teachers’ union’s civil rights and equity officer, and Yelena Patish, a University of Washington professor and the original developer of the culturally responsive classroom management system, led a virtual “train the trainer” session for 16 Washougal teachers in August.

The trainers helped the teachers understand how to communicate with students and families in a more culturally responsive way and to demonstrate a cultural competence in the classroom.

“The training helps us to focus on our own implicit biases and check our privileges,” Hansen said. “It focuses on how to build hope and resiliency within students, and how to help them develop the ability to advocate for themselves and aspire to achieve their goals.”

The 16 teachers will provide 15 hours of training to all Washougal teachers this fall.

“I’m excited about 15 hours of training,” Hansen said. “That’s a lot of time and effort and money dedicated to equity, but it’s so worth it. I believe we will see results of that training over the course of this year.”

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said the district will prioritize the improvement of its equity policies and outcomes during the 2020-21 school year.

“When we put together our strategic plan last year, we developed our mission statement of knowing, nurturing and challenging all students to rise, but we asked, ‘How does one do that if outcomes and opportunities are not equitable?’ That’s why equity was adopted as one of the six pillars of our strategic plan,” she said. “Equity is not something we started work on as a district response (to current events). It’s always at the heart of our conversations.”

“We want to make sure all of us — teachers, administrators — understand how to build hope and resiliency in every child who walks through those doors,” she continued. “We’re going to offer opportunities, disrupt systems that marginalize students and work to make sure all children have equitable outcomes.”

The district will use multiple metrics, focusing on academics, college and career readiness, culture and climate, subgroup disparities, and participation rates for co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, to determine its progress.

“By looking at the data, we know we have a problem,” Templeton said. “There’s a (systemic) issue. Something is happening to cause this outcome, and we have an obligation to ask hard questions about what is happening and what is continuing to cause this. We’re trying to unpack that now. We start by asking ourselves how we interact with students, and how we’re building relationships in the classroom. That’s where the training comes in.”