By Stephanie Harp
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, ongoing arrivals of New Mainers to the area, and an agreement with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Lewiston Public Schools is taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing equity concerns. This includes self-assessment and training on the administrative level, an entirely new format for lesson planning in all classrooms, and a restorative justice perspective to more effectively reach students.
This summer, the district’s Social Emotional Learning and Equity Resource Coordinator, Ayesha Hall, designed professional development events and materials for administrators that included intensive planning and goal setting. The process helped LPS better define “who we are, what we believe, what we want from our students,” she said. A newly written equity statement commits the district to “building an educational community in which every member has access to the resources and opportunities needed to learn, grow, and thrive.” This includes prioritizing diverse voices, experiences, identities, and contributions of every member of the community, from every different background.
“Through ongoing reflection and intentional actions Lewiston Public Schools engages educators and learners in co-creating inclusive, equitable, antiracist, and culturally responsive learning environments that serve to amplify marginalized voices, and challenge systemic imbalances of power and privilege in our schools, our city, and our society,” the statement says.
Before the end of the last school year, Hall and the administrative team discussed how to upgrade what they knew about creating equitable environments in the schools, and how to work with the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. Hall had chaired Lewiston’s Mayoral Ad Hoc Committee on Equity and Diversity that met in 2020 and 2021 to devise a citywide approach. (See Amjambo Africa, February 2021.)
“The difficult thing about talking about diversity, inclusion, and the underlying construct of race and racism is the way that it cuts across all of the different identities,” said Hall. “We need to unearth all the systemic inequities to get to the bottom of it. It’s hard to see the bottom when you’re at the surface level.” People are at different stages of consciousness about systemic racism, she said, and sometimes struggle to relate to others who are not at the same place. LPS decided that leadership would go first in a “let’s get there together” approach. “We’re all staying on the same page in that we’ve got a lot of work to do. It won’t change overnight, but we’ve got interpersonal as well as intrapersonal work to do.”
An attendance and engagement team meets weekly. The social-emotional learning and equity resource teams will help determine the tasks of new positions, specifically dedicated to equity, that will be placed in each school building. And the administration is planning to gather data through a social-emotional learning and wellness survey, and another for equity, diversity, and inclusion feedback. The administrative goals are the same as last year. “We are continuing to enhance and enrich the initiatives we started with when I came in,” said Hall, who joined the district only a few weeks before the start of the 2020 shutdown. “We want to make sure the work is happening.”
Restorative justice as first response
“What I’m hoping is to infuse restorative practices in the middle school and high school,” said James Ford, the new restorative practices coordinator for the district, who began the job in early August after also having served on the Mayor’s Ad Hoc Committee on Equity and Diversity. In his new position, Ford steps into the role that had been filled by school resource officers, or SROs. He previously was in a similar, grant-funded position at the high school level only.
His first charge is to work with the middle schools, where a team has formed a partnership with Bates College to look at disciplinary data. Ford wants to shift the paradigm to a less punitive approach, with a goal of making schools safe spaces for both students and teachers. “So if students are having a bad day, they’re able to share that with their teacher, as opposed to trying to cover it up. As they cover it up, they misbehave and then they get sent out of the classroom,” he said. “If a teacher is having a bad day, they should be able to try to talk about it. Maybe not get real personal, but be able to share with students, ‘We’re going to do something different today and this is why. I have issues going on, so let’s try to be more mindful with each other.’ ”
Ford sees this as improved communication between people. “If I know where you’re coming from, I can understand your behaviors,” he said. If a student didn’t get enough sleep, that impacts how they behave in school, whether the lack of sleep was due to parents fighting, having to care for a sibling, or some other reason. Or a student may arrive late to a classroom. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re late,’ you can say, ‘Have a seat; we’re on page 18,’ or whatever. Then the teacher can check in later, ‘Is everything OK?’ But not publicly. If you call a student out in class, you’re going to have a show. And we don’t want that. We want to just have a conversation about, ‘Are you OK?’ Maybe they were late because they were hanging out in the hall, or maybe they were late for some other reason. So don’t assume the negative.”
In one case, Ford said, a young man was sent to the office for calling the teacher a racist. Using a restorative justice approach, the teacher could have said, “What did I do? Because it wasn’t intentional,” and this could have started a conversation.
He also thinks it’s important for LPS to hire more teachers and administrators who reflect the student body. Ford’s office is at Lewiston High School, which serves about 1,400, more than one-third of whom are students of color. But only a small handful of administrators and teachers are Black and Latinx, both at the high school and throughout the school district. “Students look different now than they did 20 years ago, but teachers don’t necessarily get to know who is in their classroom,” he said. His ideas will lead to more conversations between teachers and students.
Student perspectives inform instruction
On the student level, a new social-emotional learning method is based on Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP. All staff in the district are being trained in this research-based instructional model, devised by the Center for Applied Linguistics, to address academic needs of English language learners (ELL). SIOP uses eight components such as lesson preparation and delivery, interaction, practice/application, and assessment to help teachers design lessons that are effective for ELL students.
Teachers are excited about the new approach, said ELL Director Hilary Barber, who called SIOP a “gold standard” and “the only empirically validated framework for teaching ELL content in a culturally responsive way.” SIOP is not a program but is a framework. “So it can fit into any curriculum you have,” she said. “It’s a culturally responsive teaching framework which is really important for teaching students from different cultural backgrounds – different from each other and from the teacher.”
For example, a U.S.-born teacher might use “ski slope” to discuss how to calculate a slope in math or physics. But a student from a tropical climate might not know what skiing is, and another student from a family with lower income might never have had an opportunity to go skiing. “SIOP is all about thinking of examples and content in a way that students understand, not just that the teacher understands,” Barber said. Lewiston is implementing the method system wide, not just for ELL students. “This is best for all kids. This is good teaching. The difference is intentionality, so no one gets hurt. Everybody wins.”
Adopting SIOP grew out of the LPS agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to improve content instruction for bilingual and multilingual students. SIOP includes allowing students to clarify content with partners, not necessarily using English. “We absolutely encourage students to use their first language,” said Barber. Teachers will be trained in how to give activities to students who are at different English proficiency levels. “If I’m at Level I, understanding words and phrases, I may be drawing a picture, or looking at pictures. The teacher would do some intentional grouping based on a student’s proficiency level.” Activities might use sentence starters so students fill in the blanks, giving them structures for understanding. “They’re not just pulling language out of thin air. They have a start,” she said.
Many other districts use SIOP in certain areas of instruction or with certain teachers, but Lewiston is among only a few districts in the country that are using it districtwide, said Barber. “This is how we’re going to do business from now on.” They have mapped out a five-year plan to train new hires, collect data on what works and what needs attention, and address deficits through professional development. “This is intense to take on,” she said.
Every teacher in the district receives 18 hours of training, followed by five hours of classroom support in using the framework. The district has “trained the trainers” who will help teachers in every class, from advanced placement to special education and from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
“One of the hallmarks of SIOP, in addition to content objectives, is that you would add a language objective,” said Barber. “A language objective really is what language are kids going to need in order to demonstrate the learning.” In a lesson about an historical event, for example, usually teacher training focuses on content objectives because most are designed for monolingual students. The SIOP language objective takes into account multilingual students whose first language may not be English. “So they are doing a lot of work in their brains with what language they’re going to need in order to engage in this activity,” she said.
The approach also does not assume that everyone is coming to the table with the same background knowledge, but includes background in a way that’s meaningful, making use of articles, videos, podcasts, and other resources. “SIOP is about doing it intentionally, with your multilingual students and students of different cultural backgrounds in mind,” said Barber. This helps ensure that students’ different cultural and linguistic backgrounds aren’t barriers to understanding content, whether the subject is history, biology, or algebra.
At the same time, language proficiency is not the goal in every class. “It’s about content. They have other opportunities to work on English, such as in an ELL class,” she said. Flexibility is key. “Every student, every kid, is different. There’s no single right way to do it. What worked for one might not work for another.”
Systemwide change takes time
Asked about his timeline for implementing these changes, Ford said, “A parameter I have is that there’s no time. There’s so much going on. So many things to be done. We’re now looking at how this gets woven into the work.” In the new school year, he’ll be visiting teachers and students to talk about changing the language they use to talk about such things.
Meanwhile, the goal for SIOP-style planning and implementation is to have everyone fully trained by the beginning of February 2022. Then professional development will continue each year, on an ongoing basis.
“This isn’t even a reform,” said Hall, the social emotional learning coordinator. “We’re trying to break this thing down bit by bit, and figure out how we can do better. That’s going to take a while.” Introducing social justice standards, evaluating and training staff at all levels, and helping students understand the goals of the anti-racist, culturally responsive approach is a large task. “This is about cultural change,” she said. But now Lewiston has a roadmap and is taking things step-by-step, knowing that nothing this big can be achieved overnight.