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Rep. Talarico proposes bill for educational equity officers; AISD is a case study

Thursday, March 25, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Earlier this month, Rep. James Talarico, who represents Texas’ 52nd District, filed a bill aimed at tackling equity issues within the state’s education systems. Specifically, the bill would require school districts to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion officer. According to the bill’s text, each officer would need experience working with students with limited English proficiency or enrolled in special education programs, and should “hold an approved certification in diversity, equity, or inclusion.”

One of the main goals of these diversity officers would be to “ensure that each student receives the necessary opportunities and resources to meet the student’s unique needs, abilities and aspirations.”

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Rep. Talarico said that state policymakers “are the closest to the district level. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to start making change at the macro level.”

How equity officers would be selected and what their exact responsibilities would be remains mostly up in the air at this point, but over the past few years, a helpful case study has unfolded in Austin.

In 2019, the Austin Independent School District hired its first equity officer, Dr. Stephanie Hawley.

Before coming to AISD, Hawley had served as associate vice president of equity and inclusion at Austin Community College. In an interview from August, Hawley said the AISD equity office runs on a “capacity-building model,” meaning that the office works with district leadership “to help them develop their race equity lens.”

It didn’t take long for this model to be put into practice. Immediately after being brought in, Hawley and her team took on one of the most contentious topics in local discourse: school closures.

In a 20-page report released in November 2019, Hawley said she had the “privilege of conducting and sharing a research-based, student-, staff- and community-informed equity analysis of the school closures proposal process.”

The report, which detailed the community engagement process behind the district’s school closure plan and accompanying recommendations, ultimately determined that “school closures and consolidations are not equity strategies.”

The document went on to raise concerns about the methodology behind which schools AISD selected for closure. Hawley observed that the “lack of clarity about the methodology used to identify schools for closure created anger and outrage” among community members.

Just a few days after that report went out, the AISD board voted to close Brooke, Metz, Sims, and Pease elementary schools – but not before Hawley claimed that the closures were “what 21st-century racism looks like.”

Through the coronavirus pandemic, Hawley has continued her advocacy.

Near the end of March last year, right before AISD closed schools indefinitely, Hawley published a piece addressing the following question: “How can we ensure equity and inclusiveness are inescapable during this pandemic?”

Last October, AISD reported a 70 percent increase in students failing classes – a spike that’s heavily tied to remote learning in response to coronavirus restrictions. Around that same time, Hawley was advocating for sending children back to school based on community concerns.

Speaking about vulnerable and younger students heading back to school, Hawley said that the district’s work around equity “is actually growing exponentially in the middle of a crisis.”

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