An Unwavering Advocate for Racial Equity in Schools
- Expertise: Equity for Students
- Position: Chief Equity Officer
- District: Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Ky.
Anyone who listens to John D. Marshall, the chief equity officer for the Jefferson County, Ky., school district, will eventually hear that word as he advocates for students of color, those who are homeless, and the disadvantaged in the 101,000-student district.
He feels empowered to ask for—even demand—what those students need.
“You are speaking for those who might not be able to speak up,” he says. “I’m the inside agitator who is never satisfied.”
Marshall, who has spent nearly his entire life in Jefferson County Public Schools, is one of few district chief equity officers in the nation. It’s a job designed to ask uncomfortable questions and raise prickly issues about why some groups of students struggle when others thrive. Marshall does this with conviction—though not always with the utmost diplomacy—in this river city community that has a history of confronting racial inequities in its schools.
Lessons from the Leader
- Lead Without Fear: Tell the truth, even when it’s controversial or people don’t want to hear it.
- Have Conviction: Be inclusive, but be fully prepared to stand alone.
- Use the Data: Data tell the story and present the strongest argument for changing policy and practice.
Jefferson County Public Schools and the city of Louisville, which sits within the district, “lean into those conversations,” says Superintendent Donna Hargens, who created the cabinet-level position and hired Marshall in 2012. “We don’t back away from it, and that’s a strength.”
But Marshall, 43, and the disparities he highlights, are often the prompt for those conversations. He relies heavily on numbers.
“The data speaks for itself,” he says. “When you have a school in the West End—the more impoverished area—with two AP classes and then one in the East End with 26, what are you saying to the kids in the area with only two?”
The linchpin is the district’s annual equity scorecard, which Marshall helped create in 2013. The data dive puts the spotlight on equity issues across the district in four areas: discipline, college-and-career readiness, school climate and culture, and literacy.
Some statistics in 2016’s scorecard point to an improvement for the students Marshall focuses on. For example, the proportion of students in extreme-poverty schools—those where at least 81 percent of students come from low-income families— considered career- and college-ready went from 21 to 50 percent from 2013 to 2016.
But Marshall is unsatisfied with much of what the recent scorecard revealed. Students in high-poverty and extreme-poverty schools comprised 77 percent of out-of-school suspensions, compared to 23 percent in low- and medium-high poverty schools. Low-income black students made up 62 percent of district suspensions, while low-income white students made up only 18 percent. And particularly rankling to Marshall: Black students overall reported less of a sense of belonging at school than English-language learners.
A Profound Impact
These data—and the insights they have revealed—have played an important role, both in the district and in the city of Louisville, says Mary Gwen Wheeler, the executive director of 55,000 Degrees, an organization that works to boost education levels in Louisville. “The scorecard has had a profound impact on the conversation in the community,” she says.
The numbers often lead Marshall to other issues. This school year, the district set out to overhaul its code of conduct, in part after determining that students of color were disproportionately being suspended and cited for disruptive behavior.
At a public meeting, Marshall told the school board that the current code of conduct “perpetuates racism and maintains a level of inequality that we must stop.”
Not everyone saw it that way. The efforts to revamp the code prompted concerns from some quarters, including some educators and parents, around safety and security.
Educators also objected when they initially did not have a seat at the table during the revision discussions and staged a large protest, says Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.
Over time, Marshall and others continued to explain the rationale behind the changes, and a working group that included teachers proposed more nuanced categories of student disruptions, linked to varying consequences. In July, the board approved the new code of conduct.
“Dr. Marshall was very direct,” on the issues, says then-board chair David A. Jones Jr. “But he forced discussion around a painful and difficult issue that had to be grappled with.”
Marshall knows his comments around the topic were strong and may have rankled some. About that, he has no regrets.
“I don’t mince my words,” he says. “If we’re going to change an urban school district like this, there’s going to have to be a whole lot more tenacity and a lot less glad-handing.”
But this approach can be an affront. “His style can sometimes be abrupt,” says Marco Muñoz, who as the district’s director of priority schools oversees the schools that consistently rank in the bottom 5 percent in state rankings and fail to meet goals. “But he’s impatient. He knows what the situation is for minority kids. He was one of them.”
Commitment to Diversity
On the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville claims Kentucky bourbon as its drink and the Kentucky Derby as its official party. It’s a city with neighborhoods that some say are still mostly distinct—the West End made up primarily of poor black families, while East End residents are overwhelmingly white and well-off.
Just over half of the Jefferson County district’s students are black and Hispanic, and more than 60 percent are low-income. It’s a district with a long history of grappling with inequities.
In 1975, in a federally-mandated effort to desegregate, the Louisville school system, which had been primarily African-American, merged with the majority white Jefferson County system, says Gary Orfield, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-director of The Civil Rights Project based at UCLA.
It was an explosive situation early on, but over time the community came to embrace the idea, which resulted in a high level of integration.
Since then, efforts have ebbed and flowed. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the district’s voluntary integration plan, but “both blacks and whites were strongly in favor of the district remaining integrated,” Orfield says.
Today, the district still places a high value on the concept: its strategic vision is “Excellence with Equity.” The district uses a “diversity index” to make sure school populations aren’t homogeneous and places students accordingly.
Marshall’s own education in the Jefferson County district took place against this backdrop. He graduated from Seneca High School, and after college, returned to the district as an English teacher, where he was known for his African-American literature class.
He coached, served as an assistant principal and then moved into the chief equity officer slot, just as he finished his Ph.D dissertation on teacher engagement and its impact on African-American males. The job of overseeing equity issues had been left vacant under a previous superintendent, but Hargens made it a priority by making it a cabinet-level position.
Marshall brings his own student experiences to the job. On the cusp of middle school, Marshall was identified as a gifted student and moved into an accelerated program with few African-American students. Socially, Marshall sometimes hung out with friends and peers from his West End neighborhood, and he struggled to unite those two sides of his life.
“There was this dualistic dance I did,” he says. “It took a long time to get comfortable with not apologizing for being black and being in gifted and talented.”
He always knew he’d become an educator. His mother taught in the school district, then moved to a district-level curriculum job. Marshall’s wife, Tiffany (who also attended Jefferson County schools), is an elementary school principal there, and his twin brother is an elementary school teacher. The Marshalls’ three daughters attend district schools.
Because he sees himself in many of the students and the teachers, Marshall says he is particularly passionate about addressing issues they face.
I don’t mince my words. If we’re going to change an urban district like this, there’s going to have to be a whole lot more tenacity and a lot less glad-handing.
A few years ago, working with Muñoz, and looking at racial imbalances, Marshall moved about 200 elementary-school-age Latino students into the advanced track in their schools, even though the students had just missed the test score criteria for entry.
There were some complaints, particularly from parents of other students whose children received simiilar scores but didn’t get moved up. No educators complained, though, Marshall says.
“Don’t tell me you want to diversify classrooms and then object,” he says. “The data and research says these kids are capable if they have culturally competent teachers.”
To get educators to a place where they can understand and connect with students of color or disadvantaged students, Marshall developed a range of programs. His department publishes a monthly Envision Equity newsletter highlighting stories about Muslim students or issues like the impact of standardized testing on African-American students.
In collaboration with the University of Louisville, Marshall created a course to prepare educators for teaching diverse students.
Marshall helps organize an annual Equity Institute, drawing hundreds of educators—this year’s focus was male students of color—and he’s expanding minority hiring programs.
Equality Is Not Equity
He’s also developed a laundry list of programs and projects to connect with students and their families. “Take What You Can Tote,” allowed district students and families to collect free clothing. The Menaissance program helps African-American male students make connections between books like To Kill a Mockingbird and music. There’s Coding at the Beech (in reference to a West End low-income housing project named Beecher Terrace), and literacy programs paired with everything from chess to robotics.
One of Marshall’s most ambitious projects yet is a school solely for male students of color with educators attuned to their needs.
Despite controversy, the board approved the next step to explore the idea.
“This could be a school that demonstrates cultural competency from a multicultural lens, and the use of those strategies for males of color,” Marshall says.
But the idea has drawn some of the same objections that often crop up when he’s proposing a program with new resources for a specific population. On this, Marshall returns to the idea that equity does not mean equality.
“People struggle with the notion that if you give something, it means you’re taking something away from another,” he says. “But equal has never been something we’ve accomplished, let alone equity.”