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Success Stories

2020 NJ Superintendent of the Year on Dismantling Inequity Piece by Piece With Panorama

Lara Fredrick
Lara Fredrick
2020 NJ Superintendent of the Year on Dismantling Inequity Piece by Piece With Panorama




Like many districts, the Morris School District (MSD) in New Jersey has been on a journey to dismantle the systemic inequities facing its students over the past several years. 

Small yet diverse, the MSD serves 5,700 students across 10 different schools and is made up of varying ethnicities, genders, religions, and economic backgrounds. The district, formed through a court order in 1971 in an effort to create educational integration, has a current student population that is 47 percent White, 38 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Black, 4 percent Asian, and 3 percent Multiracial. This diversity, however, does not guarantee equity and inclusion, says Mackey Pendergrast, superintendent of schools at the MSD. 

Pendergrast, the 2020 NJ Superintendent of the Year, is leading the district’s work to create an inclusive educational environment that creates equitable opportunity for all students. While breaking down barriers is daunting work, Pendergrast feels “systemic racism” can be an empowering term: “What it says is, you can change the system. Systemic inequity can be dismantled piece by piece.” 

In a recent webinar, Pendergrast shared how the MSD is using objective data, Panorama Student Success, and student voice to gain a full understanding of every child and take data-driven action to help learners achieve their potential. 


Defining Systemic Racism at MSD

The term “systemic racism” describes the compounding factors that create a system which fails to treat all people equally. Pendergrast sees systemic racism in education as being a combination of several different opportunity gaps that students face during their journey through school.

Below are examples of different ways these gaps may manifest in schools. 


Do teachers hold every child to the same expectations? Are those expectations clearly communicated and objectively measured?


Is the student in a positive environment? Do they see students that look like them being lifted up? Does the student feel like they belong?


Does the student have mentors with whom they can identify? Do they see people that look like them in mentorship positions?


Does the student have home access to the technology they need to succeed?

Navigating School

Is the student receiving guidance on how to get into gifted and talented programs, how to reach out to counselors for help, who to contact if they have a problem, or how the grading system works? Is the student given equitable access to enrollment in honors classes, extra-curricular clubs, and athletics? 


Does the student believe in their ability to do the work and succeed?

According to Pendergrast, just as systems can be designed to perpetuate inequity, the opposite can also be true: systems can be intentionally designed to center equity and inclusion.


“Ambiguity is the Enemy”: How the MSD Is Getting Started Dismantling Systemic Inequity

Pendergrast and his team have created the concept of a “Learner Positioning System” (LPS). Much as a Geographic Positioning System, or GPS, uses data from satellites to help us navigate physical roads, the LPS uses data points to help students and educators navigate the path through school. 

The goal is to have a seamless, 360-degree data picture of each student, including academic performance measurements such as grades, standardized test scores, and benchmark assessments, as well as information about a child’s social-emotional learning (SEL), like inclusion and participation, self efficacy, and growth mindset. 

Easy access to objective student data is the first step to dismantling inequitable systems. “Ambiguity is the enemy,” says Pendergrast. “You have to create objective criteria for programs and practices that you have in place.” Subjectivity may lead to unclear expectations for students and allow for unconscious bias that negatively affects students from marginalized communities.

That’s where the Panorama Student Success dashboard comes in. With Student Success, educators in the MSD are able to instantly access data on student coursework, attendance, behavior, and SEL. “With the Student Success dashboard, you can filter all that data in Panorama’s system by demographics and other assessments,” says Pendergrast. “Even trending; you can press buttons to see kids who are trending up, kids who are trending down, which makes it really seamless.”

Comparison between ELA and PARCC scores of Non-Economically disadvantaged 8th Grade ELA students at MSD

Source: Morris School District

For example, the MSD used Student Success to explore whether or not students in the middle school were experiencing a high expectation gap. Using the dashboard’s demographic filters, the district compared the English-Language Arts (ELA) course grades to PARCC English test scores of eighth-grade students in economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged groups. They found that students’ ELA grades correlated closely to PARCC test scores for both student groups, suggesting that teacher instruction and expectations were closely aligned with student ability.

"With the Student Success dashboard, you can filter all that data in Panorama’s system by demographics and other assessments. Even trending; you can press buttons to see kids who are trending up, kids who are trending down, which makes it really seamless."

mackey-pendergrast–Mackey Pendergrast, Superintendent of Schools

Learn more about building a data story that leads to action and change.


A Whole-Child Approach: Student Voice on SEL, Equity, and Inclusion

While the data on attendance, behavior, and coursework are helpful, they don’t tell the whole story. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a meaningful piece of the puzzle and provides important insight on how a student views their strengths and well-being. 

The MSD also partners with Panorama to administer the Panorama SEL survey, gathering students’ self-reflection on topics such as Growth Mindset, Social Awareness, Sense of Belonging, and Self-Efficacy. District leaders found that these results were actually predictive of a student’s success in school. For example, in one middle school’s SEL data, they discovered that student coursework scores correlated closely with SEL responses.

SEL predictive metrics MSD middle school

Source: Morris School District

To take action on this data, the district tries to intervene quickly for those students reporting few strengths in SEL. Intervention strategies include involving caregivers more closely, getting the child engaged in mentorship programs, and participation in extracurricular activities. 

The SEL survey has also provided valuable information on how students have been coping with the “twin pandemics” of racism and COVID-19. Black and Hispanic students, as well as students receiving free or reduced lunch, reported low levels of Growth Mindset, Self-Efficacy, and Social Awareness. This led to the district bringing this group of students back to school for in-person learning as often as possible, hoping that increased face-to-face interaction between teachers and students would help. 

MSD student SEL responses by race

Source: Morris School District

To create an even more complete picture of the community, students also take Panorama’s Equity and Inclusion Survey. The data showed that students were feeling powerless in the face of racism. In response to student feedback, the district has taken several actions, including a district-wide professional development session on micro-aggressions given by the MSD’s Equity Student Council and developing an Equity and Inclusion Action Plan


Realizing Potential

A whole-child data story can lead to positive, system-changing action that can help individual students and entire districts realize their great potential. The work at MSD offers hope that, over time, responsive strategies can work to dismantle a racist system—and rebuild a system that is rooted in equity where every student is seen and celebrated.

“We call our school district ‘a community of communities,’” says Pendergrast. “You don’t have to give up who you are to be a part of a whole. You keep your unique qualities; you don’t have to change. You are valued, and what everybody brings to the table creates a unique whole. And we think it’s that uniqueness that prepares kids for life.” 

Ready to build an equity action plan for your district? Get started with an equity audit using these seven questions.

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