Michigan School Administrators’ Journey Toward Increased Equity and Inclusion

By Robert Low

AASA Leading for Equity: Michigan’s Journey to Create Social Justice Leaders Through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion edWebinar recording link


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Work on developing culturally proficient communities during the previous decade has now led to the creation of a professional learning program designed to increase equity and inclusion during the 2020s, in collaboration with the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators.

The origins, rationale, and content of the professional learning program were discussed during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network. Presenters included Dr. Sarena Shivers, Deputy Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA), Dr. Shayla Griffin, Co-Founder and Facilitator of the Justice Leaders Collaborative, and Dr. Brian Davis, Superintendent of Holland Public Schools (MI).

Preparations for Proceeding

Dr. Shivers explained the initial work on creating culturally proficient communities grew out of the consolidation of two school districts into a single one that encompassed a diverse range of students. She worked with Dr. Griffin on the development of what became a professional learning project designed to prepare educators to engage with students in deep dialogues about race and other equity issues.

The project leaders identified seven key principles of cultural proficiency, which included building relationships with students and families, developing critical-thinking skills through involvement with issues such as equity and race, and creating a shared sense of responsibility as a community of learners. Another principle Dr. Shivers considers especially important is being socio-culturally conscious, which is defined as “awareness that a person’s worldview is not universal but profoundly influenced by life experiences.”

The resulting program was designed to last five years, with annual pre- and post-year evaluations, two days of professional development at the start of each school year, and staff meetings focused on developing cultural proficiency. Relationship building with students was a priority in order to increase achievement and reduce discipline and attendance issues.

The cultural proficiency program grew into a statewide MASA project designed to build equity and social justice from within school districts and create equity leaders across the state. The organization also provided support to district leaders when issues arose because of their equity work.

Starting the Journey

Dr. Davis identified some key steps needed at the start of an equity journey, using his work with the diverse Holland Public Schools as an example. He explained there are more than 35 languages spoken in the district, and more than half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but it is located in a conservative area that is also the home of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Some of the steps needed at the beginning of the journey are more personal, such as finding a thought partner, expecting opposition because people are passionate about these issues, and remaining calm when faced with opposition. Dr. Davis also emphasized the importance of listening to conversations at all levels, from school board meetings to individual classrooms and student forums, and noticing what conversations are not taking place as well as what happens during the conversations that do take place.

At an organizational level, he recommends consideration of an equity audit, looking in particular at data on the makeup of advanced placement and remedial classes and what types of students and other people are represented in the curriculum and media center resources. Careful listening and data analysis can then lead to a strategic diversity plan that includes prioritizing resources, creating multicultural goals, and developing aligned professional development.

The Path Forward

Continuing her work with Dr. Shivers, Dr. Griffin and her colleagues have developed an 18-month series of professional learning courses about equity and social justice. After starting with individual work, the next phases cover district assessments and audits, designing a district plan, and then providing support and coaching during the implementation of the plan.

To help with this work, there is also an Educational Justice Assessment and Transformation Tool, which can help educators evaluate and improve key aspects of a district plan, such as relationships and climate, student behavior and discipline, policies and procedures, and teaching and learning. Essentially, the courses and tool help administrators and educators identify best practices and determine whether or not those practices are being used.

In regard to relationships, there is consideration of a variety of different types, such as adult to adult, adult to student, and student to student, as well as relationships with families and communities. Policies and procedures are evaluated as to whether they are socially just, data informed, and research based, but also whether they are fairly applied, trauma informed, and restorative.

Within the teaching and learning category, one goal is to make sure the curriculum is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Another is to ensure the pedagogy is engaging, fosters critical thinking, and includes multiple methods of learning. And equally important is determining all the assessments and grading are free of bias and accurately reflect student mastery.

Through all these aspects and methods, Michigan administrators and educators in diverse districts now have a roadmap for proceeding with their equity journeys.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

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About the Presenters

Dr. Sarena Shivers has been an educator for nearly 30 years. She has served as an elementary teacher, elementary assistant principal, elementary principal, director of curriculum, director of school services, transportation director, assistant superintendent of achievement and five years as the superintendent of Redford Union School District No. 1, in Southeast Michigan. In July 2020, Dr. Shivers became the deputy executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators.

Dr. Shivers received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Morgan State University, master’s in administration and supervision from Ball State University, and doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Dr. Shivers’ key areas of expertise and professional accomplishments are curriculum and instruction, program development and alignment, program evaluation and opening innovative and award-winning secondary school programs (alternative high schools, early college, and honors programs). She has steep knowledge of teaching and learning and has led key initiatives in the areas of school change, adolescent literacy, writing, mathematics, STEM, cutting-edge instructional technology (augmented reality and artificial intelligence) and school leadership. For over a decade, Dr. Shivers has led work regionally and across the state of Michigan in cultural relevancy, cultural proficiency, equity, social justice and diversity in education.

In addition, Dr. Shivers has been an external reviewer for AdvancED national accreditation institution, a national consultant for The College Board in their College Readiness Division, a “Data Teams” trainer, and trained to be a restorative practices facilitator. Dr. Shivers teaches doctoral-level coursework at Madonna University. She has also been a guest lecturer at Eastern Michigan University since 2005 teaching a pre-service teaching course on assessment/evaluation and currently a graduate-level course in culturally responsive teaching.

In September 2014, Dr. Shivers received the SL Roberson Community Leadership Award, the highest award the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office bestows on a civilian. She was chosen for the honor because of her work in helping to develop and train over 4,000 staff in active shooter/threat procedures known as A.L.I.C.E.

In 2017, Dr. Shivers taught in the professional learning series overseas at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing, China. She currently serves as a regular contributor, partner and/or consultant for Hanover Research, The Futures Institute, The Flying Classroom, National Superintendent’s Advisory Council and HWC Executive Leadership Institute. In 2021, Dr. Shivers became a leadership coach, mentor and consultant for Huling and Associates.

Finally, in 2018, Dr. Shivers received the Redford Community Foundation Service Award and in 2019, she was named to Michigan’s Crain’s Notable Women in Educational Leadership. She has four children and currently resides in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan.

Dr. Shayla Griffin received her Ph.D. and MSW from the joint program in social work and cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor and her B.A. in African American studies with a minor in Spanish from Spelman College—Atlanta, GA. Her work focuses on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, especially in K-12 schools. Dr. Griffin has extensive experience in dialogue facilitation, social justice education, coaching and consulting, and youth programming. She has worked with thousands of P-12 teachers, high school students, and college students, from more than 15 school districts around issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. She has also served as a social justice consultant and trainer with a number of non-profit organizations.

Dr. Griffin has taught courses on race, social justice, and diversity at the University of Michigan for the Program on Intergroup Relations, the School of Social Work, and the Department of Anthropology. She has been the recipient of a number of research grants and fellowships including the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellowship in Humanities, and a postdoctoral fellowship with the University of Michigan School of Education’s Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context. Currently, Dr. Griffin is the education justice consultant for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District where she is tasked with providing professional development to educators across the county in order to help them improve their practice in the areas of teaching and learning, relationships and climate, images and celebrations, behavior and discipline, and policies and procedures.

Dr. Griffin is the author of Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and co-author of Race Dialogues: A Facilitator’s Guide to Tackling the Elephant in the Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2019). She also developed the Education Justice Assessment and Transformation Tool (EJATT): A Vision for Classrooms, Schools, and Districts, which a number of teachers, schools, and districts are using to create more socially just education systems. Dr. Griffin serves on the State of Michigan’s Advisory Council on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing and was on the Advisory Council of Detroit Disability Power. She resides in Detroit, MI with her spouse and three children.

Dr. Brian Davis is the current superintendent of Holland Public Schools. He is completing his 13th year as Superintendent in the district and nearly 30 years in K-12 education. He has worked in urban, suburban, and rural districts as an elementary/middle school teacher, middle school counselor, elementary principal, and assistant superintendent of instruction.

Dr. Davis was named by the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators as the 2011 Michigan State Superintendent of the Year. Since this acknowledgment, he has had the opportunity to participate at the state and national levels in assisting in shaping education policy and school reform efforts. He currently sits on the Executive Council of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA) and the Middle Cities Education Association (MCEA). He is also a member of the MASA Professional Growth and Leadership Committee currently developing an equity model of professional support for superintendents across the state and co-developed the MASA Mentor Coaching Cadre Model. He served as a school leader as part of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative to address the base funding needed in Michigan to provide equitable education and services aligned with the Michigan Standards and Top 10 in 10 initiatives. He has also served on multiple Michigan Department of Education committees.

Dr. Davis has a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University in educational leadership, research and technology; an Educational Specialist degree in K-12 leadership from Michigan State University; a Master of Arts in K-12 school counseling from Eastern Michigan University; and a Bachelor of Science in education from Central Michigan University.

His passion lies with ensuring that each child not only has access to, but receives high-quality, engaged and meaningful learning experiences with the supports necessary that prepare them for an ever-changing world.

About the Moderator

Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

Join the Community

Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.

Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with edWeb.net to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.

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