Westonka school leaders have started on a new initiative for the coming school year that will attempt to decrease disparities between its White and BIPOC students at at time when the district is seeing its population of BIPOC students increasing.

The district first made public at this year’s May school board meeting its intention for a “diversity and inclusion focus” in the coming year that officicals said will help ensure equal access to resources and “work towards the elimination of racism in our schools.”

The Westonka school board signed off on the “Cultural Competency Plan” June 7, approving the overarching framework that will guide more specific, school-level planning around staff development, school policies, curriculum and other programs going into the fall.

The district is still working through what specific changes in the classroom will look like and as yet has offered only a general set of “guiding principles.” For instance, included in a high-level overview of the competency plan is a commitment by the district to “implement curriculum based on Minnesota standards that is diverse in terms of rigor, subject matter and cultural perspectives.” But exactly what curriculum changes would be made in order to meet these criteria haven’t yet been decided.

Mark Femrite, Westonka assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, has acknowledged that the topic of race or diversity as it intersects with education can be a difficult one to approach and that the current culture around it is very polarized. “It can get pretty heated really fast,” he told board members in May.

Ideally, he said, changes would come from conversations had out in the open—and without getting political.

Going back to last September, school officials had begun meeting with students and parents for perspectives that could then act as a jumping off point. Femrite said the new effort has also been a data-driven project that began with a review of historical and current demographics and disparities in student academic performance.

SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

Westonka’s demographics have shifted, albeit slowly, over the past 10 years, and the most recent academic year reflected the district’s most diverse student body in the past decade.

Not just the raw numbers but the proportion of BIPOC students has increased, from 5 percent of Westonka’s student population in 2008 to an estimated 13.9 percent in 2020 (estimated because final enrollment numbers are not generally known until fall).

The greatest changes have been in the number of Hispanic students and students identifying as two or more races.

Analytics from the Minnesota Department of Education show that in 2008-2009, Westonka’s classrooms had just 36 Hispanic students or 1.6 percent of all Westonka students. That number trebled to an estimated 114 or 4.7 percent of students during the 2020-2021 school year.

The population of students of two or more races was 146 in 2020, a 25-student increase just since 2015 and now comprising 6 percent of Westonka’s student population. No data is available on this population from the 2008-2009 year.

The district has also seen a sizeable increase in its African American population, from 31 African American students enrolled in 2008 to 50 in 2020.

Conversely, Westonka has seen a sizeable loss in the number of Asian students enrolled, from 43 students in 2008 to 23 in 2020.

But even as the makeup of its student body has changed, staffing in the district has remained mostly white, Femrite told board members during that first presentation in May.

Among the goals outlined by school officials is one to “review and implement hiring practices” that would employ qualified individuals who “reflect in their ethnic background the diversity of our student body.”

The district is also looking to pursue professional development that would teach its staff “how to engage with students in topics that relate to diversity, equity, inclusion and current events” as well as how to eliminate barriers to academic and other opportunities and how to ensure a “welcoming and inclusive” environment for every student.

USING THE DATA

The first stages in developing the competency plan were ones of assessing where things stood and where things could improve, said Femrite back in May. Now it’s about taking that information and developing specific action.

The district isn’t done listening, leadership say, nor is it imposing a blanket program across the board. Going into late summer and fall, staff at each of Westonka’s schools will be narrowing focus and determining which areas, specific to their campus, most need addressing.

Part of that process will be reviewing different disaggregated data points: standardized test data, attendance, grades, course participation and co-curricular participation through a new student achivement dashboard.

Multiple academic indicators—standardized testing, pre-ACT scores and information about who is taking Advanced Placement exams (and what their average scores are)—have already shown administrators that Westonka’s BIPOC students have consistently had poorer outcomes than those attained by their White counterparts.

This disparity has shown up in a persistent 10 percentage point difference in state math scores and a 2-point difference in pre-ACT composite scores, neither of which difference has budged in the past five years.

It also showed up last fall.

Benchmark math testing through FASTBridge showed that the proportion of White students at Westonka considered to be at “low risk” for needing extra intervention was the same—58.6 percent—as the proportion of Black students whose scores registered them as being at “high risk” for this same intervention. By another comparison, just 12.3 percent of White students were considered to be at high risk.

Officials are seeing the new diversity focus as a continuation of work already begun and reference existing iniatives like personalized learning instruction, transition programs for the grades moving between school buildings as well as the high school’s WIN (“What I Need”) Time that partitions off a chunk of the school day for students to get extra help or retake tests.

“We’re working hard to do this work in a very thoughtful way, a very respectful way, and create an environment where all differences of opinions are valued as we forge ahead,” Femrite had told board members.

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