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Ann Arbor School Parents Intent on Racial Equity met virtually with members of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education Tuesday evening to discuss the district’s equity plan and what parents said were its flaws in protecting Black and brown students in the district. 

AASPIRE is a group of parents, caregivers, community leaders and educators who advocate for racial equity within AAPS. They work to eliminate the achievement and opportunity gaps and to improve the educational experience for Black and brown students in the school district.

The AAPS equity plan, released in January 2019, contains five main areas of focus: perpetuating systems of equity and opportunity; promoting equity-centered leadership; systemic transformation of culture; equity-centered school and classroom practices; and family and community empowerment. 

Tuesday’s meeting comes after numerous allegations of racism within AAPS surfaced earlier this year. Pioneer High School faces allegations of racial hostility after an AAPS student sent a letter to the district through the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, a Michigan Law student-run clinic. The letter, which listed three demands to dismantle institutional racism in response to the racial hostility multiple students faced at Pioneer, prompted AAPS to offer multiple statements promising to begin an investigation to address these allegations.

“The stories of the indignities they have suffered at Pioneer because of their race are heart-wrenching and disturbing,” the CRLI letter reads. “We write this long letter to amplify their voices and to strongly urge you to redress the systemic racism at Pioneer. Black Lives Matter.”

AASPIRE criticizes the equity plan, calling it a performative act for racial equity. They said the plan puts the blame on Black and brown children for their performance at school, fails to specify accountability measures or assign responsibilities, does not offer a timeframe for completion and does not state the problem it is trying to solve.

Board members Bryan Johnson, Jessica Kelly and Krystle DuPree were present at the meeting. When asked what BOE’s role was in constructing the equity plan, Johnson said though various AAPS stakeholders contributed to the equity plan, they are responsible for setting guidance for the superintendent and steering the district strategy that captures the values of the district.

“There were members of the cabinet and teachers and other equity teams across the district that put in a lot of work to create an equity plan,” Johnson said. “They then send it to the Board of Education to talk about it and look to see if there are things that were missing, and to approve it for a public unveiling.” 

When asked about the timeline for implementing the equity plan, Johnson said the pandemic has slowed the process. They are currently revising the plan, according to Johnson. 

“In terms of the rollout, when the community could be engaged, that was actually going to be in March of 2020, with the 2020-2021 school year as the goal to roll that out,” Johnson said. “Just as we were doing that, that’s when we had a new reality, which was COVID-19.”

Jordan Else, a member of AASPIRE and Ann Arbor resident, said she would like to see an increase in urgency regarding the rollout of the plan and said the superintendent needs to lead the implementation. 

“Our concerns come in the fact that this is taking time,” Else said. “We really would like a greater sense of urgency. When we talk to other districts … the things that we hear are that we need urgency and that we need this to come from the top down.” 

One major critique of AAPS’s equity plan was its lack of specifics, according to Else. She said through AASPIRE’s investigation of past successful equity plans in other school districts, they found common themes. 

Successful plans properly defined the problem schools were facing and provided specifics on accountability, which is something the AAPS equity plan lacks, Else said. One of the successful equity plans was the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools in Chapel Hill, N.C. 

“Through this problem identification and looking at the data, successful plans, every single one, include specific measures and accountability,” Else said. “When we look at the best practices, they all included all stakeholders at the beginning of the plan. Not having teachers, not having students and not having parents in this plan is almost sure to set it up where it is not going to meet everyone’s needs.”

Stacey Ebron, a member of AASPIRE and the mother of two boys at Lawton Elementary School, discussed how identifying the problem is a key step in proper implementation. 

“You really need to have an understanding and acknowledgement of the ways that the school system is set up to benefit white children and disadvantage children of color,” Ebron said. “When we look at Chapel Hill’s problem statement and AAPS’s equity plan, what we are missing is the understanding of the problem. The mission statement is to increase equity, but there is no explanation of what the problem is, the goals and the objectives.”

Angela Guy-Lee, a member of AASPIRE and mother of three AAPS students, discussed how AAPS’s definition of equity does not address the responsibility leadership holds in solving equity problems in schools. 

“When everyone is responsible, no one is actually responsible,” Guy-Lee said. “This is a game that institutions play, and what they say is ‘All of us have a role in fixing this, but all of us don’t have power to implement change.’ Equity at its core is about power. You can’t even create a power statement that doesn’t address the power differentials. This kind of statement sounds good, it’s performative, it’s fluffy, but it doesn’t actually hold anyone who’s getting paid to do this work accountable.” 

In response to AASPIRE’s critiques, Johnson said it is important to note that the plan is only a draft.

“We are still in somewhat of a starting point,” Johnson said. 

AASPIRE also researched the equity plans forJefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, which included specifics such as quantifiable goals and timeframes. On promoting equity-centered leadership, JCPS included specifics such as funding and a racial equity analysis protocol that was used to review the entire district’s school policy.

Ebron reiterated the importance of speeding up the process and having more community representation in tweaking the equity plan.

“It’s past the time that parents and children and community members should be at the table helping to improve the equity plan,” Ebron said. “We realize that we are in a pandemic, but we can’t wait any longer because our children are still suffering in the Ann Arbor Public Schools systems.”

Regarding further partnership between AASPIRE and the BOE, Ebron said they hope the information presented at this meeting would be brought to leadership in order to implement changes sooner rather than later.

“What we hope is, since you are not going to let us have access to Dr. Swift (AAPS superintendent) or the district leadership team, that you will take these concerns back to that team and bring them up as part of your board’s responsibility in governing this equity plan,” Ebron said. “We hope we have given you some fruitful thought that you can act on, because that is what this group is all about.”

Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the AAPS equity plan was released on January 2021. The plan was released in January 2019.