Bensalem School District Holds Equity Summit, Frames Pursuit of Equity as Unifying Goal

By Vincent Montoya-Armanios

Last night, around 80 people attended Bensalem School District’s Equity Summit, a showcase of surrounding school districts’ efforts to promote racial equity. The viewer count on the stream hovered around 60 people for most of the night. 

The superintendents of Pennridge, Pennsbury, Abington, and Bensalem School Districts (all white men) touted the progress that had been made toward equity and the road ahead. Racial inequity was the primary focus on everyone’s mind, but the language used by speakers was often inclusive of other social and economic inequities.

The evening was kicked off by Bensalem School Board Member Vanessa Woods, who opened with some statistics about Bensalem’s diversity: Bensalem School District is “the third most diverse school district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” she said. 

“Equality means giving everyone a shoe. Equity means giving everyone a shoe that fits,” Woods said, asserting that equity is a unifying objective, not a source of division. 

This “unity” theme is situated within a national and often sensational dialogue about “critical race theory,” which returned in the Q&A and in one speaker’s presentation.

Bensalem middle school students Alex Parilo, Hala Sayed, and Charlize Seaford presented a resolution for racial equity and offered their reflections on the national reckoning around race. 

“The public response has highlighted the racial trauma that the black community has faced for centuries and still face today,” one student said. Another added, “We must understand that racism is systemic… We must look at our own policies through a race-conscious lens.”

The keynote speaker, Valda Valbrun, presented after the students’ remarks. She is described on her website as an “established Educational Leader known for passion toward inclusive, research-based and data-driven pedagogy.” 

When she was a middle school principal, Valbrun recalled she was the only adult of color in the entire building. She showed us a picture of her class in elementary school. She was one of three Black students in a class of 33.

Valbrun offered pointed criticism towards the remarks on race offered by Bensalem Superintendent Sam Lee and others throughout the night, noting that while some officials tout facts and figures about the diversity of their school district, diversity isn’t an achievement in itself. 

“Diversity is a reality… the real challenge is getting to inclusion,” Valbrun said, pointing out that some districts are satisfied to appoint a consultant of color and “check the boxes.” 

Instead, Valbrun called for both schools and districts to “become more equitable environments for learning by pushing the conversation from equity and inclusion to social justice and intentional anti-racism,” emphasizing that the language of “responsive pedagogy” has failed to make the necessary shift to explicit anti-racism.

Valbrun further advocated for an intersectional approach inside and outside the schools to address inequity. Poverty, prenatal care, government, judicial system, housing, healthcare, and other external systems all affect student learning and unequal access to success, she said. Inside the school, “hiring and staffing, student engagement, early tracking, grading, consequence/reward systems, intervention structures, and parent engagement” converge to affect student outcomes.

After laying out her holistic approach to education, she took to addressing what individuals in the room could do. She explained that we need to identify our privileges and be willing to give up privileges for the liberation of others. She advocated for “liberatory thinking,” which challenges us to reimagine “our assumptions and beliefs about others and their capabilities by interrupting internal beliefs that undermine productive relationships and actions.”

She shared the following slide on the screen as homework to the audience, asking attendees to evaluate who is involved in conversations about strategy and equity.

A somewhat off-balance Superintendent Lee then introduced Jeff Fecher, Abington School District’s Superintendent, who has worked in the school district for 14 years. 

Fecher shared the successes of Abington’s approach to equity in concrete terms. 

39% of students in Abington School District are “racially diverse,” 13% are in special education programs, and 23% are on free and reduced lunch programs. 

The district created two levels of classes, honors and college prep, replacing the old track approach. Honors and AP classes were made open to enrollment for all students. Special education students were placed in college preparatory courses, and were offered additional support in humanities, mathematics, and science. 

The school district also offered professional development to staff, but it’s unclear from the presentation what exactly that professional development entailed. 

The Black and IEP performance gap shrunk significantly as these reforms were introduced in 2005, as shown in the graph from last night’s presentation below. 

Superintendent Fecher noted that the improvements have plateaued and new reforms are needed. Again hitting on the theme of “equity uplifts all,” he emphasized that AP test results have improved for the student body at-large since these reforms were implemented.

Superintendent David Bolton of Pennridge School District then spoke about Pennridge’s commitment in 2018 to reviewing all of their curriculum within 5 years, following a vague reference to a “transgender incident” that ignited reforms. 

40 of the district’s curricula have been reviewed, and the district is on track to complete their review by 2023, according to Bolton. For the 2020-2021 school year, he identified “holding a community forum to encourage education and conversation regarding diversity and equity” and attracting nonwhite candidates to the district as additional goals. Currently, 2.5% of teaching staff in Pennridge are people of color, he said.

Dr. William Gretzula, the Superintendent of Pennsbury School District, talked about the detracking that Pennsbury has undertaken, similar to Abington School District. In a moment of candor, he mentioned that Pennsbury brought in a consultant trying to make changes from the outside in, which didn’t work for them. He argued that people inside the school district were capable of leading reforms, including students.

“That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you,” he added, referencing Bensalem School District’s decision to hire a consultant to lead its equity reforms. 

Gretzula also highlighted the school’s equity report, which included some figures that he was “not proud of.”

The following chart from the equity report demonstrates an achievement gap between Black and white non-hispanic students of greater than 20% in elementary school PSSA results.

Pennsbury Equity Audit, April 2021

Pennsbury hired a Director of Diversity and Education, Dr. Cherrissa Gibson, who spoke about how achievement disparities compounded for students who were members of multiple marginalized identities. Gretzula highlighted ongoing efforts to expand clubs and affinity groups for marginalized groups, as well as to provide opportunities for education in students’ preferred language. He also argued that “it’s not okay” that students are funneled into an array of tiers based on their achievement level, which makes it difficult for students to move up into higher tiers once placed lower.

Gretzula said Pennsbury School District would be rewriting their curriculum under the “culturally responsive framework” and representing students in the curriculum. Unprompted, he stated “it’s not about critical race theory.” He mentioned that every time there’s a presentation, members of the public argue the district is trying to push critical race theory.

Some local reactions to the Equity Summit and conversations about race in education cannot be understood outside the context of the culture war waged by Fox News and other right wing media sources. Fox News published 8 articles about critical race theory in just the first two days of June.

These organizations have been sounding the alarms about critical race theory’s insertion into public schoolchildren’s curricula under pressure of radical leftist influences. The right wing caricature of critical race theory paints the concept as marxist, affirming of racial supremacy, and “a religion of secularism and guilt” intent on instilling fear and suspicion. 

At the end of last night’s event, these sentiments were parroted by two question askers at the Bensalem Equity Summit. One asked the superintendents to explain what critical race theory is and how it’s being integrated in the childrens’ curricula. 

Tucker Carlson on Fox News, June 3, 2021

One member of the panel argued that critical race theory is just about understanding that race matters in the history of this country, and that the education system has failed to confront the history of racism in the United States. 

“How many of us learned about the Tulsa race riots in school? I certainly didn’t,” one panelist said. 

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