The Kern County Superintendent of Schools hosted its first Power of Equity in Education Symposium Thursday to discuss with county educators best practices to ensure that all students are provided with equal opportunities to succeed.

Nearly 350 local educators and community partners took part in the inaugural day-long event. Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow explained data provided by the California School Dashboard showed disparity of outcomes for certain student groups across the county and the symposium was "absolutely necessary" to begin systemic and ongoing work.

"With our theme — looking in the mirror, looking through a window — it's about being reflective. First about ourselves and really understanding our background, experiences, values and beliefs that affect how we look at the world, people, other student groups and how we interact with one another," Barlow explained. "We needed to start there and then look at our own systems within our classrooms, school sites and districts to really intentionally see if there are barriers to providing access and opportunities and expectations that all students will be successful."

Barlow said Kern County almost mirrors the state in terms of disparities and educational outcomes for certain student groups. Trends in Kern County include: students with disabilities are not succeeding at the same rate as students without disabilities; African American students are not seeing the same outcomes as other student groups; foster youth are not performing at the same level as their peers; and low-income students, regardless of race, ethnicity and gender, are less likely to see the same educational outcomes as their peers.

No clear cut answers were given as to how local educators can change practices in their classrooms or school districts. However, keynote speakers and breakout presenters shared advice to help make the educational setting more inclusive and better able to serve all students.

Keynote speaker Monica Washington, who was named the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year, told educators it's hard to change the way people look at others and the world around them, but it's necessary work in order to improve classrooms.

"It's human nature to do that," Washington said. "It doesn't mean you're a bad person because you have a bias, it means that you probably may not be growing in the way that you should if you don't ever stop and check them. We have to check them."

Some biases could include a teacher who never calls on their male students or feeling a certain way about history versus math teachers, she explained.

She shared five ways educators can take action in pursuit of equity: do internal work to identify biases or practices that might not be fair to all students; see students as who they are and where they come from; polish the culture so classrooms and schools are spaces where students' voices are heard; polish curriculum; and polish policies.

"Equity begins with your eyesight and ears," she added.

Afterward, educators filed into breakout sessions that covered topics such as supporting equity by engaging all families, how to create civically empowered classrooms and ways to recognize unconscious bias.

Heather Richter, with KCSOS, discussed meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Her daughter has a disability, and she had to fight to have her join her high school's choir because she loves to sing.

She played an audio recording of her 24-year-old daughter doing a vocal warmup that she picked up from choir.

"When our (special education) kids, even our severely handicapped kids, are given an opportunity to engage with others, they learn," Richter said.

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