Waging a Fight for Equity Amid Affluence
- Expertise: Closing Opportunity Gaps
- Position: Director of Equity and Graduation Success
- District: Bellevue School District, Bellevue, Wash.
Shomari Jones grew up 2,000 miles and a world away from Bellevue, Wash., where he now oversees the school district’s work to ensure that its low-income, nonwhite students have the same opportunities to succeed as their more privileged peers.
Raised in the predominately black community of Gary, Ind., and a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama, Jones took a winding path to become the director of equity and graduation success in Bellevue—a district whose students are primarily white, Asian, and affluent.
But Jones’ upbringing and education—which he describes as deeply affirming—informs his work daily to support and lift up the black, Latino, and Native American students who persistently fall behind in Bellevue.
“You see leaders who look like you,” said Jones, who is 44, of his childhood in Gary and his experience at an historically black college. “You are told the authentic and true story about your past and your history, and you have the opportunity to be much more fully immersed in your culture and be aware of the successes your culture has contributed to the world.”
During his nearly five-year tenure at Bellevue, Jones has developed a multitude of initiatives aimed at closing stubborn achievement gaps—from empowering students to advise district leaders on bias in the history curriculum to educating teachers about how to recognize and address their unacknowledged prejudices.
The Bellevue school district’s intense focus on closing achievement gaps between white and Asian students and their black, Latino, and Native American peers is notable because the latter groups of students comprise a small portion of the district.
Ten percent of the districts’ students are Latino, and 3 percent are African-American. The majority of students are either Asian, 36 percent, or white, 42 percent. Nine percent are multi-ethnic.
Lessons from the Leader
- Identify Key Supports: It’s paramount to have buy-in from decisionmakers in your organization and key stakeholders among the communities, families, staff, and students you serve. Build a unified movement, inclusive of multiple perspectives.
- Keep Students at the Center: When making decisions about how to bring more equitable opportunities to underserved youth and students of color, you must invite and include them in the conversation.
- Beware of Your Blind Spots: Find strategies to examine your individual bias and implicit associations that may unconsciously result in damage to the very groups you’re seeking to support. Set your intentions and find partners to help hold you accountable.
“I don’t think people think about Bellevue as being a district that has some of the issues and challenges that require equity to be at the forefront, but we are an incredibly diverse school district,” said Ivan Duran, Bellevue’s superintendent. “I think we have over 94 languages spoken in the district. In our last count we had 125 birth countries. We are a microcosm of the larger world.”
Haves and Have-Nots
The district mirrors the diversity and changing demographics across the city. In the 2010 U.S. Census, both the city of Bellevue and the district were majority white, but that has been slipping ever since. Nearly 40 percent of the population was foreign-born in 2017, according to the Census Bureau.
And while the city is a tech hub and wealthy suburb of Seattle—the median income is over $121,000 a year—17 percent of the district’s students are low-income, and around 300 are homeless.
In a school system that includes the extremes of the haves and have-nots, making sure all students are getting what they need presents unique challenges. The district has a four-year graduation rate of 91 percent. About three-quarters of Bellevue schools’ students are doing well academically, said Duran, as measured by test scores, enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, and SAT and ACT scores.
But that can obscure the fact that achievement gaps between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers remain deeply entrenched, making it difficult to convince the broader community that aggressive action is necessary to address those gaps.
Eighty-two percent of black and Latino students graduated on time in 2018—that’s 10 percent lower than the district’s white students and 12 percent lower than its Asian students. The gaps in college enrollment among graduates is much starker: 56 percent of black students and 53 percent of Latino students who graduated in 2017 enrolled in college compared to 76 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students. Equally large disparities crop up in the state’s English and math test scores as early as 3rd grade.
Bellevue is among a small but growing number of wealthier districts that are investing heavily in closing achievement gaps, said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. And it’s a movement he sees being driven at the district level by local leadership much more so than by state policymakers.
“If you ran a hospital, but you were only known for serving people who are healthy, well, then you wouldn’t be a very good hospital,” he said. “You have districts that for a long time, they took pride in being able to serve affluent children well. Well, serving affluent children well is no great accomplishment because they already come with a lot of support from home.”
The primary focus of Jones’ work has been to make predominately low-income black, Latino, and Native American students in the district feel visible and valued by the school system as part of a broader strategy to get more of them graduating and moving on to college. His efforts have been ambitious and have touched every part of the system—from the central office, to the schools, to the students.
To help achieve this goal, Jones created positions called “graduation-success coaches.”
Assigned to the district’s four high schools, the coaches’ jobs are to identify students who are not on track to graduate or who are at risk of dropping out of school and provide them with individualized academic and social-emotional supports. The coaches’ caseloads are far smaller, around 50 students, than the typical school counselor, who may work with hundreds of students.
Jones has also led the development of several initiatives to help Bellevue’s majority-white teaching and administrative staff understand the systemic barriers minority students face in their academic and family lives. He launched a voluntary evening speaker series for district and school staff that features speakers from different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Parents are also welcome to attend.
On that front, Jones has also been active in engaging the district’s parents. He created various parent groups for black, Muslim, and immigrant parents. He’s working on establishing one for Latino parents.
Shaped by Students
But Jones is most energized by his work with students. He spearheaded a program called SOAR, which stands for Students Organized Against Racism. Groups of high school students are formed to advocate for ways the district can better address issues of prejudice and bias. That might mean pushing for changes to the history curriculum to include different minority perspectives, hiring more minority teachers, or responding to racial incidents.
“I think it’s just absurd to be deemed a leader within an organization that is responsible for serving kids that makes changes year after year without the inclusion of the youth voice,” said Jones.
Perhaps his most visible endeavor has been the creation of two all-day events—held each year—for struggling minority middle and high school students.
BOOM, which stands for Breaking Out Of the Margins, takes place in December for young men, while SHOUT, Sistahs Having Outstanding Uniqueness Together, takes place in March and is for young women. Held at the local community college and set up like a conference, the events enable students to attend sessions featuring speakers of the same racial and ethnic backgrounds talking about race, culture, leadership, and self-empowerment.
At the BOOM event this past December, a Latino program manager for Microsoft, headquartered nearby, talked to students about how he used to believe he did not have the potential to work for a leading technology company. A descendant of Pacific Islanders gave a talk about how his ancestors navigated the ocean. He used that as a jumping-off point to discuss how ethnic and racial minorities have to navigate society. Other sessions examined issues ranging from the accessibility of higher education for nonwhite students to toxic masculinity.
The goal, said Jones, is for students not only to gain tools for academic and professional success but also to get high-octane doses of inspiration and motivation from community leaders who look like them.
“It really does matter to see people who look like you in positions of success,” said Jones. “I am overwhelmed by the amount of students who are dismayed by the fact that they were born into the skin that they are in … I hear it daily.”
Jones said it can be particularly isolating for students when they belong to a very small minority group. In Bellevue, it’s not unusual for a black student to have no other African-American peers in their classes.
Although the events are targeted at the district’s smaller and struggling minorities, all students in grades 7-12 are welcome to attend.
District officials say it is too early to determine how much the efforts led by Jones are moving the needle on graduation rates—most of these programs have been launched in the past five years. But early data show black and Latino students in some schools are reporting higher levels of belonging, said Duran, which research has shown to be an important element for engagement in school and academic success.
But Jones said he’s most convinced of the need for his work from the feedback he hears from students.
Jones is the grandson and stepson of pastors, and as such it’s probably no coincidence that he found his calling for working with children of color at church. His current role in Bellevue started with a chance meeting at the large Seattle church where his stepfather is the pastor.
There, Jones got to chatting with another congregant about their experiences attending historically black colleges, and Jones was offered a job on the spot running an enrichment program for 10th grade African-American males affiliated with the University of Washington.
That fortuitous meeting gave Jones his start in working with students, and he hasn’t stopped since. Jones majored in math at Tuskegee. His only prior experience in education was teaching English to students in Japan.
“Education chose me,” he said. “It became the greatest passion of mine to become a servant to help students who look like me. And to demand policy transformation for people who have been marginalized.”
It really does matter to see people who look like you in positions of success.
Jones later went on to become the chief operating officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, where he now serves on the board, before making the transition to district administration.
Superintendent Duran describes Jones as the rare central-office administrator who students not only recognize but also connect with.
“If I walk into a school with him, the kids know him—they see him as an advocate,” Duran said. “If you could see Shomari working with students, you would really understand what a great human being he is and how important his work is.”
Navigating a Wary Community
But the work Jones was hired to tackle has also caused friction within the Bellevue schools community. Jones and the district have struggled at times to get buy-in from some of the district’s wealthier families.
That’s not an uncommon problem, said Noguera of UCLA. “If people perceive an effort to further equity as something that will lead to lower standards, or mediocrity, they’re going to fight it,” he said.
The BOOM and SHOUT symposia, as well as the broader equity initiatives, generated a lot of pushback from families and community members who felt the efforts excluded white and Asian students. Those concerns were particularly strong among Bellevue’s large immigrant Chinese community.
Huaxia Zhao was one of the parents who was worried that Asian students were being left out.
“The most noticeable one is that the conventional (racial) equity has a deep root from the historical black [versus] white context,” Zhao wrote in an email to Education Week. “Many Asian parents suddenly found they are recognized as a ‘white’ just because [of] high test scores.”
Zhao said the equity initiatives ignored the historical subjugation of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in the United States, and in particular Washington state, such as the widespread internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. law to ban all members of a particular nationality from immigrating to the country.
That pushback initially caught Jones by surprise, then led him to realize he had his own preconceived notions about the Chinese immigrant community.
“It took me a minute to discover what the hell is going on. This is not a group of people who in your mind you naturally think of as … agitators or folks who are willing to stand on the front lines against the movement,” Jones said.
“When you get down to the root… they are sitting firmly in this deeply entrenched fear space of having things taken away from them based on a communist society and [the Chinese] Exclusion Act.”
Listening is key to his work, Jones said. He and Superintendent Duran responded to the concerns Zhao and others raised by putting together an equity advisory group made of community members from various racial and ethnic groups. Zhao now sits on it as a representative of the Chinese community and feels that the school district is working to address his concerns. “Shomari [made] significant contributions to this and we regularly meet with him to discuss the recent progress,” he said. “I strongly believe our current work with Shomari and the equity team will not just contribute to our school district but also [the] strength of the whole equity movement.”
Jones said he doesn’t see it as his job to try to forcibly change people’s minds about his equity work—rather it’s his role to offer a different perspective and give people information to come to their own conclusions.
“We’re not trying to take away something and give it to someone else,” said Jones. “There are systemic barriers in the way for lots of people, and my job is to remove them.”