SYLVA, NC – Nothing represents a community’s diversity better than its public schools. Each school is a cultural melting pot of ethnicities, identities, beliefs and social classes that intersect at a single location. The challenge for educators is ensuring an equitable learning environment for every student that is free of judgment based on perceptions and stereotypes.
School districts across the nation have traditionally developed reactive instructional models that label or group students according to abilities and limitations. However, research has consistently shown that academic performance is more positively affected by high expectations than by tracking or grouping students according to a presumed level of ability.
Jackson County Public Schools recently took steps to intentionally confront inequity with a long-term plan to transform the district through a new instructional framework developed by Integrated Comprehensive Systems for Equity (ICS) at the University of Wisconsin. The ICS process seeks to maximize the learning potential of every student by shifting from a reactive deficits-based system to a proactive assets-based system.
JCPS Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Elliott said the framework is not another program. It is a different way of thinking. “It is a mind-shift into looking at what a child can do as opposed to what a child cannot do,” Elliott said. “We’re going to travel a different road and try to refocus and reframe how we view student success.”
Dr. Jess Weiler, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Allied Professions at WCU has conducted extensive research on equity and has seen firsthand how the ICS framework can fundamentally change a district’s perspective on teaching and learning. She is confident that local students will benefit from the process.
“I think there will definitely be improvement in scores and data,” Weiler said. “But more importantly, I am hopeful that we will create environments in which students love to learn, feel supported in their learning and feel as though the expectation for their learning is high.”
Elliott is pleased that Weiler, an ICS coach, will be assisting the district with training and implementation over the next four years. “It’s a clear advantage for Jackson County Public Schools to be so close to WCU and Dr. Weiler who is leading their educational equity work,” Elliott said.
Weiler and ICS co-founder Dr. Colleen Capper led the first of several work sessions with JCPS administrators on February 17. Ongoing support from ICS will include two summer institutes and quarterly meetings with district and school leadership teams.
Elliott believes change can happen, but it will take time. “I don’t think there’s a roadmap that will get us from point A to point Z on the road to equity,” she said, “but I would like to see in four to five years every student covered by the umbrella of equal access and equal opportunity. At that point, we’ll be in a better place with equity.”