By Naomi Norman, Interim Superintendent of Washtenaw ISD
Edited by Haley Jones, MASA
The rural Upper Peninsula upbringing Naomi Norman experienced planted the seeds for a passion around equity and access to education. She is from a small town on the shores of Lake Superior and home of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Tribe. Today, she is the Interim Superintendent at Washtenaw ISD.
Upon entering the University of Michigan as a freshman, she learned that her high school education, while engaging, didn’t prepare her for the rigor of a top Michigan university. Why would the rigor in a small rural school be different than schools in Southeast Michigan? The sense of injustice pulled her into the education profession. That began her quest to figure out how Michigan’s education system could be strengthened in ways to ensure every child had access to a rigorous education.
Through her work, Norman has developed several Equity Principles that she uses daily at WISD. These principles include traditional and non-traditional ways we think of equity such as historical context, socioeconomics, special needs status, and cultural norms. Most of all, these principles drive Norman and her district’s leadership to listen and learn every day.
Norman recently gave an EdTalk at the MASA Midwinter Conference where she responded to one of the top thoughts shared by members in a Thought Exchange exercise: “Ask and listen to students. We need to understand what students are thinking and feeling about these issues and not just assume that we know.”
The underlying equity point in this statement – the idea of engaging the people who are most impacted by your decision-making – led her to share her own experiences and her equity principles. Read more about her work below.
Equity Principle #1: Context matters, historically and culturally. While we have individual ambitions, our lived experiences and the people and communities in our lives lift us into the spaces we inhabit. Share your story and listen to others’ stories about who they are and where they are from.
Jumping forward, one of Norman’s leadership successes was the co-founding of the MAISA GELN Early Literacy Task Force, which has gone on to develop instructional resources, leadership resources, and professional learning models for early literacy. This initiative, with funding to bring literacy coaches to every ISD and school in Michigan, addressed the challenge of setting and supporting high-quality instruction in every corner (and peninsula) of the state. It showed that it was possible for ISDs, educational organizations, districts, and MDE to work together to set a high instructional bar, coordinate, and deliberately support educators.
Equity Principle #2: Relationships matter. Working in a community, together through our differences, is essential. We need to span boundaries between individuals, groups, organizations, and regions if we are going to address our deepest equity challenges.
Working in Washtenaw County at an Intermediate School District, the gaps and differences between different subpopulations of students are made apparent. With three universities and three major health systems in its service area, there comes tremendous privilege and expectation for a quality education system. The community is willing to invest its deep tax base into educational endeavors. Just two miles away in the community that provides the low wage workers who maintain the day-to-day operations of these systems, the funding equation looks vastly different. It is not that they won’t tax themselves to create better opportunities for children, families and residents – because they do. It is that the taxable value of the property is so much lower. So deep, political, structural inequities play out in the education system. They run along with income, race, geographic, immigrant status, and educational level lines. The deep history of the county and how the subregions were defined by redlining, the placement of the I-94 corridor and the US-23 highway, and the hub around the major universities and health systems impact the education system to this day. With this historical and cultural context, it is absolutely essential that educational efforts consciously attend to the reverberating patterns of inequity.
Equity Principle #3: Look past the successes and the privilege to the patterns of who is left underserved.
Norman’s first ISD role occurred during the summer while she was in college. She was responsible for finding braille materials and books on tape for students with visual impairments. This expanded (much later after years of teaching and a master’s degree) to eventually being the director of the ISD lending library of materials for all the educators supporting students in the least restrictive and inclusive environments, as well as supporting the assistive and instructional technology efforts in the county. Addressing inclusive educational approaches for students with disabilities is a foundational effort of Washtenaw ISD. The specific issues of educational equity for students with disabilities – which often center around holding high expectations and finding inclusive and personalized approaches – are exemplified in the community-based approach to serving young adult students with disabilities in Washtenaw County in near-peer environments close to home (rather than in a center-based program). With classrooms and teams located at Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, and in local communities such as Chelsea, Dexter, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor, students with disabilities are living and learning in inclusive spaces.
When Norman started using data tools to look at the education system, one striking pattern continuously showed up: students of color performed worse the longer they were in the educational system while white students improved. This pattern was reiterated by parents of color who said that matched their experiences. When MDE came out with the metric for achievement gaps several years ago, nearly half the schools in the county had some of the greatest gaps in the state. The county is now being called out for disproportionality in discipline and attendance for students with disabilities by race.
The stories of disproportionality and achievement gaps that Norman was learning about led to her quest to understand how race is at play in our educational systems, in our schools, in our classrooms, and most importantly – in herself. Looking back on her years in high school, while she may not have had the rigorous academic experience she needed for the University of Michigan, she did have the invaluable experience of learning about the history of the indigenous peoples in the Upper Peninsula and heard from classmates who knew the stories not from a textbook, but from their own ancestors and tribal culture.
“We learned in-depth about tribal history because the descendants of those tribes were in our classroom. They were represented and had a voice,” Norman said.
Equity Principle #4: Race matters. Every single one of us represents a race and all the historical and cultural norms that come with the color of our skin. It shows up in how we are socialized and how we navigate the world. We must attend to it as educational leaders.
Washtenaw ISD has adopted an educational equity policy that includes five questions that are asked of any major policy decision.
- What is the policy/decision under consideration? What are the desired results and outcomes?
- What is the data and what does it tell us?
- How have stakeholders, partners, and communities been engaged? Are there opportunities to expand engagement?
- Who will benefit or be burdened? What are strategies for advancing racial equity or mitigating unintended consequences?
- What is the implementation plan?
- How will you ensure accountability, communicate and evaluate results?
Norman found that when the voices of the folks impacted by decisions were at the table, the perspectives, understandings, and ultimately, the decisions were shaped in different ways. It has helped Norman understand and value the many multiple perspectives that exist in her ISD and around every issue. It is also highlighting the uniquely different perspectives of the people of color in her organization. Leading in a space that values multiple perspectives means that there isn’t one right way to approach issues. It means that it is not so much about defending her own position as it is about listening to someone else.
“It isn’t about the numbers or the words, it’s about the people,” Norman said. “It is about sustaining community even when multiple perspectives make decisions and engagement more complex.”
Equity Principle #5: Lift voices. Each person has a different lived experience and each of those perspectives is valuable when making decisions. Find ways to lift and value the voices most impacted by a decision.
As an ISD assistant superintendent and now interim superintendent, Norman has discovered that much of her work is to unlearn many traditional leadership practices and instead learn how to use leadership to challenge some of our educational norms with a focus on equity. It means genuinely working to understand how her experiences have shaped the ways she shows up as a leader – especially in ways that might follow typical racial, historical, and cultural patterns. So by ensuring geographic equity but missing racial equity, Norman said she has perpetuated a historical and cultural pattern.
“My journey has been painful and joyful, enlightening and frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting – but no matter what, each step has brought me to a more inclusive, more responsive, and more racially equitable space as a leader,” she said.
Equity Principle #6: Do your part. Every day. Equity leadership matters more than we ever will know.
As educational leaders, equity-focused leadership matters, especially in how you lift voices. No decision on how to design a statewide literacy effort, or spend pandemic relief money, or address pandemic learning challenges, or draft new broadband access policies matters if we aren’t including ALL voices at the decision-making table.
“MASA, and all of us collectively, have the power – it is in our hands – to transform our education system as we come out of the pandemic and do it in a way that values each and every child in Michigan, but only if we can see, hear and honor the experiences of all folks in our system – including the voices of our black and brown families and educators,” Norman said.
You can watch all of the equity-focused EdTalks from the 2021 Midwinter Conference online now.