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Intergenerational Stewardship in Action

The Story of DuPage High School District 88

Not long ago an event took place at DuPage High School District 88 that has become all too common: A high schooler posted a video on social media in which the student uttered a racial slur. Rather than the typical response — suspending or expelling the student from school — this student’s suburban Illinois high school took a different approach, one that had been years in the making.

Disappointed and angered by the post, the principal convened a team of staff members and students to find out how they thought the incident should be handled. Their answer: They wanted to hear from the people who had been hurt by the insult through a listening circle conversation and then to re-engage with the student who had caused the hurt.

This was a member of our family. This was something that happened. We’ve got to deal with it. But we’ve got to deal with the hurt first. And then we can start to talk about how we bring this person back into the family.

As Dan Krause, long-time principal of Willowbrook High, explains, “This was a member of our family. This was something that happened. We’ve got to deal with it. But we’ve got to deal with the hurt first. And then we can start to talk about how we bring this person back into the family.”

The processing of the hurt and pain lasted months. During that time, George Floyd was murdered, Black Lives Matter became a force for political and social change, and a divisive presidential election was coming to a head. But still, the listening circle continued its work of processing feelings.

Finally, those involved were ready to undertake steps to reconciliation. The staff and students chose a small group to meet with the student and the student’s family.

“It was amazing,” Krause marvels. “The family understood that this was not about consequences or discipline or right and wrong. This was about people who were hurt. And this was an opportunity to process together: How do we deal with it and how do we start to move forward?”

Previously, Krause notes, the emphasis would have been on “consequences and discipline and dismissal.” While many of the staff and students would have been fine with that kind of response, he acknowledges, others convinced them it wasn’t the right way to go.

“This person still lives in the community,” says Krause. “This person is still going to come to school. This person is someone that we value.”

They weren’t ready to give up on the student.

A Systemic Approach to Equity Transformation

This particular situation at DuPage High School District 88 wasn’t simply a case of people showing patience and restraint in the face of a trying event. It’s one example in a much broader story.

The bigger story has two facets. One is about bringing students into school decision-making, especially around inclusivity and equity issues. The other is about helping people — both students and adults — learn how to form authentic and effective relationships across differences. This powerful, intergenerational approach to creating inclusive school climates has helped DuPage 88 gain positive student outcomes related to school engagement, academic achievement, and reduction of discipline referrals. And especially now, it’s a story worth paying attention to as education leaders across the country strive to hold their schools and communities together and address the traumas their students, staff, and families continue to suffer due to the pandemic.

Forming Authentic and Effective Relationships Across Differences

DuPage was able to form those authentic relationships across differences because of its journey into systemic equity transformation. That journey began with the help of the Deep Equity and Youth Equity Stewardship model and Corwin’s certified consultant team.

Dr. Jean Barbanente, who was assistant superintendent of DuPage at the time and now superintendent, led the effort to put together an equity task force and identify a professional development process for implementing systemic equity work among the adults. The team was cautioned from the very beginning that doing the PD right could entail a 2- to 3-year process, a warning that didn’t dissuade district leaders.

“It was clear we had an issue,” recalls Dr. Barbanente. “There were real disconnects in staff and student perceptions on both achievement and discipline that were really glaring.”

When the task force turned to the Deep Equity and Youth Equity Stewardship (YES) model as a potential approach to systemic equity transformation, they found several aspects of the model aligned with the district’s vision and needs.

“With the majority of our staff being white, middle class, growing up in homogeneous environments, not realizing how different their backgrounds are compared to where some of our kids were coming from, the Deep Equity approach was to try to keep everybody at the table, even if it was the one time in their lives that they were marginalized or not part of the dominant group,” Dr. Barbanente says. “It was OK to come at this work from wherever we are, because we’re all on this journey.”

Bringing Students into School Decision Making

On the student front, YES (Youth Equity Stewardship) provides mechanisms to enable kids’ voices to be consistently heard at the building level and the district level in ways that will help schools incorporate that input into policy and decisions on all aspects of school operation. While the adults in the district were growing their capacity for equity transformation through the Deep Equity program, the YES work helped students and staff together develop their equity literacy and stewardship skills in having deep intergenerational conversations. The fact that Deep Equity and YES are built around the same conceptual framework and use many of the same engagement strategies helped facilitate and support greater intergenerational collaboration between adults and students.

The YES students participated in sessions where they came up with ideas for improving the school culture for specific groups of students, addressed questions teachers had that may have been awkward or embarrassing, offered situational case studies to help teachers practice responses, and presented at teacher workshops and meetings, to provide a student perspective to all of the work they undertook.

As a result, the impact of YES “skyrocketed immediately,” Krause asserts. “It has redefined every aspect of what we do. We’ve created a culture where the staff is informed by the students as to what’s working and not just having another adult from the outside saying, ‘Here are some things that worked in a different place 10 years ago, and we think you should implement it now.’ It’s been a focal point for us, specifically, to make sure that we’re consistently adapting our practices to meet the needs of the students we have today, with the staff we have today. YES has been the launching pad for everything else.”

Seeing the Impact

In the words of Deep Equity creator Gary Howard, educational equity is about “good people doing hard work.” The leaders and teachers at DuPage had certainly put in the work, and they have seen the impact of their efforts on school climate and student outcomes. There have been dramatic reductions in discipline referrals and the number of students suspended across the demographic board, an area that most excites Dr. Barbanente.

“Coupled with restorative practice work, we’re getting away from traditional consequences,” says Dr. Barbanente. “We’re looking at what kind of restorative work we can do to change behaviors and provide interventions for students without having long separation. So, we have more in-school options and ways to keep kids connected, even if they have to have some kind of consequence.”

Willowbrook High School’s response to the social media incident was just one example of the shift in mindsets and practices within the district. It’s these tangible changes that motivate the staff to continue their work.

“We talked to districts that used other approaches that were also valid, research-based, and had great curriculum. But we had seen districts right around us derailed in their equity work and were concerned about potential backlash,” says Dr. Barbanente. “Yet here we are, many years in, and we have been able to stay the course.”

To learn more about the equity journey at DuPage High School District 88, read the full case study here. Learn more about the Deep Equity model at www.corwin.com/deepequity.

Written by

Wade Antonio Colwell is the co-founder of Youth Equity Stewardship (YES), an arts-based, experiential and inter-generational process of collectively uplifting our learning environments. His professional journey includes roles as national consultant for Deep Equity/Corwin, co-founder/producer of pioneering academic hip hop duo Funkamentalz, lead restorative practices educator with New York City’s Counseling in Schools, and curriculum specialist & founding poet laureate of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department. Benjie Howard is the founder and executive director of New Wilderness Project, a wilderness based education program on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. He is the co-architect of Youth Equity Stewardship (YES), an arts based inter-generational process preparing youth to be full partners in the work of school transformation. Benjie is the managing Deep Equity consultant with Corwin. 

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