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How a Focus on Equity and Inclusion at the Morris School District Improved Academic Achievement and Behavior

Nashaira Ofori
Nashaira Ofori
How a Focus on Equity and Inclusion at the Morris School District Improved Academic Achievement and Behavior



Morris School District "What do we see when we look at problems and solutions through an equity lens?"

At the Morris School District (MSD) in Morristown, New Jersey, this question has led to candid, data-driven dialogue about equity, inclusion, and school climate. It helps administrators and educators address issues head on by anchoring conversations in data and student voice.

In fact, equity and inclusion has been at the center of the Morris School District's strategic plan since 2014. From the leadership level to the building level, there's a deep belief that focusing on equity will move the needle on academic and behavioral outcomes for each and every student.

We recently had the chance to sit down with Superintendent of Schools Mackey Pendergrast, voted the New Jersey 2020 Superintendent of the Year, and Debora Engelfried, Supervisor of Social-Emotional Learning and Information Management. 

We talked with Mackey and Debora about the Morris School District's approach to equity and inclusion, how to build adult capacity around culturally responsive pedagogy, and the positive outcomes they're seeing from this work. Here’s what they shared.

"Since beginning this work in 2014-2015, reading and writing scores on the New Jersey ELA Assessment have gone up dramatically. We've seen a dramatic decrease in behavioral referrals, suspensions, and detentions, and an increase in participation in co-curricular activities."

mackey-pendergrast–Mackey Pendergrast, Superintendent of Schools

Why is equity and inclusion a focus for Morris School District -- and why now?

MP: I don't know that we chose equity and inclusion as a focus; it chose us. The Morris School
District is a unique public school district in that we were created almost 50 years ago by a court order that put two separate school districts together for the purposes of racial integration and racial harmony.

Today, our student body breakdown is very diverse. About 50 percent of our students are white, 35 percent Hispanic, and about 10 percent are African American. We also have a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds of our students. So, diversity and inclusion is pretty much baked into the cake in the Morris School District.

We have a pretty simple principle that we try to abide by: that each student will ascend. We realized early on that we had to double-down on our commitment to equity and inclusion to realize that goal. 

What are your measurable goals around equity, and how did you go about setting those goals?

MP: Four years ago, we conducted a root cause analysis of our various achievement gaps. The first gap we noticed was what we call a climate gap. In both our middle school and high school, we saw a high number of behavioral referrals.

So we had to be honest with ourselves. Did we have a punitive culture based on fear, or a culture based on positive, empowering relationships? How much could we close academic achievement gaps unless we first closed some of those other gaps and created a culture of empowering, positive relationships?

MSD Reading Averages

When we looked at the educational reading gaps among various subgroups, there were stark differences in achievement. We wondered how these metrics would look if we could positively change our school climate. Our hypothesis was that a more positive school climate would dramatically impact achievement, as our community believes deeply in the power of human relationships.

So we really wanted to be ambitious about our goals. We set the bar high by stating that each student group would not only rise to the level of their peer group, but would perform at the New Jersey "all students" average for reading and writing. For some student groups, that would mean improving by 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, or higher. It was ambitious to set the goal, but the parents and our community were very, very clear. They wanted the bar set extremely high, and they wanted their children achieving that mark.

How did you build a district-level action plan with those goals in mind?

MP: We knew that things would not just magically happen or materialize by setting a goal. We knew we had to craft a careful, deliberative plan that would outline the steps. So we took a whole year to create an Equity and Inclusion Action Plan. We held multiple meetings with students, community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, and board of education members. We took all the different ideas and feedback and input and synthesized it.

MSD Equity and Inclusion Action Plan

As a result, our plan is comprehensive and clear, and we realize that we have to do multiple things, in multiple areas, over multiple years to move that data along. We focused on everything from curriculum, to HR, to professional development, to operationalizing relationships within the school and beyond, and developing social networks and social capital.

We also reorganized our central office positions, including creating a Supervisor of Social-Emotional Learning and Information Management, as well as a Director of HR and Equity. It was really critical for us to align our administrative positions around our district goals.

Looking at your goal of building positive, empowering relationships, how does your partnership with Panorama support that goal?   

MP: One of the most fundamental components of design thinking is understanding the end user's experience. In this case, the end user is our students. We understood very clearly that there was no way we were going to reach our ambitious goals unless our students had a powerful voice and agency in this process. That's why we jumped at the opportunity to use Panorama's Equity and Inclusion Survey to gain an understanding of how our students actually experience diversity, equity, and inclusion every day in our hallways and classrooms. 

We also knew that the right kind of change will never happen unless an action plan becomes actionable. Change really has to happen at the point of delivery, not in a committee meeting or board of education meeting -- in this case, directly between teacher and student. So we also relied on Panorama to enhance our faculty and staff members' cultural competency and pedagogy. Their expertise in understanding the equity and inclusion data was critical and sustained a healthy dialogue that has been critical to our progress in this.

DE: We deeply value our partnership with Panorama. It's been transformative in allowing us to do the work we needed to this year, especially because of the actionable resources they provide us. The Panorama platform is super easy to use, and makes it easy to gain insights from student data at a macro level, subgroup level, and then prioritize a focus area.

During the Panorama-facilitated professional development, they provided various frameworks to help us take action. For example, what are our students telling us? What might that mean they are asking us to do? How might we respond to their requests? Panorama's Playbook also provides recommended strategies that staff can easily turnkey in the classroom, driving the change at the point of delivery. Our teachers can select the strategies and activities that best fit their students' needs.

"We deeply value our partnership with Panorama. It's been transformative in allowing us to do the work we needed to this year, especially because of the actionable resources they provide us."

deb-engelfried-morris–Debora Engelfried, Supervisor of SEL and Information Management

Can you talk about the main takeaways from your student survey data? What were students saying about their experiences of equity and inclusion at school?

Morris School District - Culture ConversationsDE: As a very diverse district, we saw that our students had fairly diverse experiences in their school. They felt that staff and students treated each other fairly regardless of race, ethnicity, and culture; and 74 percent of students said that they spend time at school with students from different races, ethnicities, and cultures.

However, our students had a desire for deeper engagement. 33 percent of students said that they are frequently encouraged to think deeply about race-related topics at school. As educators, we have an opportunity to support them with conversations around race.

The students also thought it was important to talk with people that had different points of views from theirs, but that we -- as adults -- need to create more opportunities for them to have these conversations.

As Mackey said earlier, human relationships are at the center of everything we do. Students need to feel connected to peers and to caring adults in their community. Through the Equity and Inclusion Survey, we found that some students were having a different experience than others. We needed to work on creating connections with each and every one of them. For example, our African-American students had a different experience than some of the other students in our schools.

MSD Belonging and Connectedness


Having good data is one thing, but building staff capacity is another when it comes to this work. How have you approached professional learning around equity?

MP: We wanted to focus on building capacity around culturally responsive pedagogy. But we knew that having a PD day with one speaker and 500 people was not going to create the change that we would need. Deep learning and sustained change would require our teachers and counselors to be at the forefront of this dialogue. We knew this was too important to get wrong -- and we may not get a second chance -- so we decided to do a tiered, three-part rollout.

Professional Learning Equity -MSD

We started with training at the district leadership level. We created an Equity and Inclusion Leadership Team with representatives from each school and administrators. With that group, we created district guidelines for what healthy dialogue looks like, and we reviewed our data to prepare for a professional development day with school leaders in February of 2019.

For the second phase, our school leader PD, we focused on the idea of better understanding our students' experiences in our schools to understand how to move forward. The Panorama Equity and Inclusion Survey allowed us to plant a flag in the ground and say, we have an issue in our district we need to address. It wasn't something happening in Washington, D.C. or something that we read in an article or research report. The data was right here, in our district, from our students. It crystallized certain problem areas. In our district, we always talk about how important it is to see things the way they are and not as we want them to be.

The third step after the school leader training was for our school leaders to go back to their schools and engage their own staff around the data.

What's the impact of this work so far? Are there any correlations you're seeing with academic and behavioral markers?

MP: We've been taking specific action to build “social capital” by enhancing student participation in co- and extracurricular activities. For example, we created a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at both our middle school and high school, as well as Girls Who Code. In both cases, we've seen a rise in applications for our STEM Academy for both groups. That’s certainly not a mistake or accident; it's the result of students being engaged and having social capital.

We're also seeing other positive signs and trends. Since beginning this work in 2014-2015, reading and writing scores on the New Jersey English Language Arts Assessment have gone up dramatically, and we’re seeing the largest growth in our African-American students, Hispanic students, and economically disadvantaged students. Many groups are hitting that "all students" average.

Academic and behavior data in MSD

In addition to the academic data, we've seen a dramatic decrease in behavioral referrals, suspensions, and detentions, and an increase in participation in co-curricular activities. This is a trifecta. The behavior data is going down, and the participation data is going up. We try not to make many assumptions about how one thing impacts the other thing, but we believe this is a cause and effect relationship at some level. It seems that the greater a student feels they are understood and valued, the greater the academic progress. We feel the data is proof of concept.

Download the Panorama Equity and Inclusion Survey to learn how to measure student perceptions of equity, and inclusion in your district.

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