Making Access and Equity a Reality for Diverse Students

By Robert Low

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Large school districts in different parts of the United States have now developed systematic ways to increase diverse students’ access to advanced courses, and the districts are also providing other important aspects of an equitable education that prepares the students for 21st century careers.

During a recent edWebinar hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, Dr. Christine Johns, Superintendent of the Utica Community Schools in Michigan, and Dr. Ann Levett, Superintendent of the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools in Georgia, explained how their districts were achieving better outcomes for their student populations and offered recommendations for other district leaders.

Dr. Levett noted that the processes being used by the Utica and Savannah-Chatham districts are parallel in many respects, though a number of the specific policies reflect the unique circumstances and types of students in each district.

Advanced Learning in Michigan 

The Utica Community Schools, located near Detroit, have close to 30,000 students, with a Caucasian student majority. About one-third of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches and just over 10% are English learners, including students from Albania, Iraq, and other countries.

To achieve equity, access, and excellence, the district has been enabling more students to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses successfully, with the preparation starting with K-3 literacy and readiness. Students attend full-day kindergarten and receive personalized support that includes learning in small groups and the use of customized apps. Coding is taught across the K-12 curriculum, and there are programs that encourage reading at home and summer learning.

To evaluate access to AP courses, the district did an “equity audit” and found wide disparities in the number of courses being provided at different high schools. The number and type of AP courses have since been increased and equalized, with the district providing professional development that helps educators identify students who should be taking the courses and then prepare the students to succeed in the courses.

Another key step has been the use of student “insight cards,” based on survey results, which identify the aspirations of individual students and the barriers they may face. This data helps the district place students in cohorts that develop the confidence, study skills, and writing abilities needed for them to succeed in the courses that are right for the students. This type of preparation can be especially important for under-represented student populations.

Dr. Johns believes that school districts need strong policies that hold district leaders and classroom teachers accountable for all their students’ achievements, and through audits and professional development educators will become more aware of barriers and help to eliminate them. At the same time, educators need to identify students who can benefit from advanced courses and then provide outreach that will build awareness of the opportunities available, including information about the types of jobs advanced courses can lead to after high school or college.

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Overcoming Barriers in Georgia

The Savannah-Chatham School District started the new school year with over 40,000 students, more than half of whom are Black. The district’s graduation rate has been continuing to increase in recent years, and a key goal is to prepare every student to enroll in post-secondary education, enlist in the military, or become employed.

The policies being used to achieve the district goals include an emphasis on preschool, achieving improved K-12 literacy outcomes, and providing expanded wrap-around services, as well as transforming schools and improving facilities to make them 21st-century ready. There is also a focus on numeracy in the early grades which has led to greater math attainment.

As in Utica, Dr. Levett’s district looks closely at student career interests and aspirations, and has found that a division emerges in regard to occupational expectations. Many students do not believe they can do what they would like to do, in part because of familial and societal barriers. Many also have a desire to give back and do not perceive STEM careers as a way to do that. Other challenges include a lack of professional networks, not enough career counseling or funding for higher education, and limited access to role models of the same race and gender.

In response, the district is increasing access to counselors in middle school as well as high school, building its STEM capacity, and expanding its apprenticeship and intern programs with local businesses. Funding is also being provided so that students can serve as paid interns for the school district itself in order to gain experience and develop the behaviors needed for 21st century careers.

In these and other ways, diverse students in different districts are finding increased equity and access while they are in school, which better prepares them for whatever lies ahead.

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

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenters

Dr. Ann Levett has served as Superintendent of Savannah-Chatham Public Schools (SCCPSS) in Georgia since 2017. Formerly, Dr. Levett served as Deputy Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of SCCPSS from 2013 to 2017. Under Dr. Levett’s leadership, Savannah students are afforded an extensive array of programs to prepare them for career and college. The youth apprenticeship opportunities have been featured nationally as a model program.

Dr. Christine Johns has been Superintendent of Utica Community Schools in Michigan, near Detroit, for 14 years. Formerly, Dr. Johns served as Deputy Superintendent for Baltimore County Schools. Dr. Johns has led Utica to national recognition by promoting outstanding academic achievement for all students and creating a career- and college-based culture. Utica Community Schools is Michigan’s second largest school district with a student enrollment of nearly 30,000 students. UCS students have the opportunity to enroll in advanced programs such as Utica Academy for International Studies, Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology and the Utica Center for Science and Industry.

About the Host

Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as Assistant Executive Director. She is responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience as an educational leader in roles of superintendent, chief transformation and technology officer, principal and teacher, 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.

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Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on 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 to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.