Interview with Allison Buzard
Equity and Diversity Coordinator
Metro Nashville Public Schools
Nashville is a refugee resettlement city. Within the last 17 years, the demographics have shifted dramatically and there’s been an increase of immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs). Before this shift, teachers did not have to work with a translator in schools. They did not have to consider what school was like in their students’ country of origin, how families engaged and interacted with schools or the impact of resettlement.
Demographics of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS)
MNPS is comprised of students from Nashville County and Davidson County. MNPS is one district with 87,000 students, 168 Schools, 11,000 staff and over 140 languages. 17% of students identify as english language learners. 30% of students come from families where the primary language spoken in home is not English. 51% of students are economically disadvantaged (however the real number is likely closer to 75%-78%). 43% of students enrolled identify as black. 29% of students enrolled identify as white. 23% of students enrolled identify as as Hispanic/Latino. 4% of students enrolled identify as Asian. 75% of teachers are white.
How did you get into this work?
I am not from the education world. My background is in social work and the first 12 years of my career were spent in living rooms in different parts of America. I worked with youth and families in juvenile justice, mental health and foster care. It was during those interactions that I understood that families are the key levers for impact with youth. Throughout all of the different systems, education has been the common denominator.
When I moved to Nashville to focus on equity within the school system, my first role was to work with 13 schools as a Family Engagement Specialist. In that work, I found that families cared deeply about their child’s success, but really desired a relationship with teachers. When I spoke with teachers, I learned that they valued relationships with family, but didn’t have the training to engage with them in a meaningful way. As a result of those conversations, and learning more about Dr. Karen Mapps Dual-Capacity Framework at the 2014 National Family and Community Engagement Conference, I developed Family Engagement University, recently re-branded as Equity and Diversity University (EDU).
In MNPS, the Office of Professional Development did not exist before this year. Without a clear district focus, there was an organic decentralization and departments realized that there were many gaps; Family Engagement was one of them. Since the district does not control what specific professional development teachers need, we surveyed teachers to get a sense of what trainings they wanted. Two years in a row, teachers responded that they desperately wanted the type of training that Equity & Diversity University provides (i.e. explicit conversations around implicit bias, racism and systemic oppression, culturally responsive classrooms, family engagement strategies). 99.4% of teachers said that family engagement is critical to student success, however, only 45% of MNPS teachers felt like they had any theory or practice education to prepare them. Only 41% had any professional development currently on the topics of family engagement, some of which is a result of some of the sessions we have been offering.
What is Equity and Diversity University?
Modeled after Parent University (catalogue of workshops offered to families in the district), Equity and Diversity University (then called Family Engagement University) was launched in 2014 and has provided over 400 trainings to 12,000 teachers. EDU seeks to build upon the knowledge, skills, perspectives, and practices of MNPS educators so that all students and families have access and opportunity to an excellent educator. Sessions cover topics around Cultural Awareness, Equity and Diversity, Family Engagement, and Cohort-Based Learning. Together, in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Parent University and Equity and Diversity University build the capacity of families and educators to partner together for student success.
Two-thirds of the trainings were developed internally, but we also partner with community experts and cultural brokers to contribute and fill in the gaps around subjects such as refugee resettlement and its impact within the classroom.
Understanding that there are limited professional development opportunities, our trainings can be implemented on professional development days, before or after school, luncheons, during grade-level planning, etc. All of our trainings fit into the academic calendar and take into account adult-learning best practices.
What’s the structure of Equity and Diversity University?
Equity and Diversity University started internally with a needs assessment where we identified a few things:
• Who is our Nashville community?
• Who are our students and families?
• Why are some family populations engaging in traditional ways, (i.e. joining parent teacher organization) and some families not?
• Why are we having trouble engaging them?
• What really is family engagement?
Although we had collected data and knew that the teachers needed training, we had to think about what expertise we had as a team and where there were gaps. Next, we moved to asset mapping and identified what we had available to us. At the time, we had a team of 12 family involvement specialists that were working deeply in their schools and we knew that we had specific community partners that either had grants or had the capacity to be experts and create workshop sessions. From there, we built a framework that identified our main focus areas. It was important that we were clear and intentional about what those focus areas were and to identify what we meant by family engagement in order to define our mission.
Sessions had to meet the following focus area criteria:
• Must be about welcoming schools,
• Must identify specific family engagement strategies
• Must strategically align community partners
• Must include equity and diversity.
We recognized that cookie-cutter approaches would not work, so we developed sessions around engaging families tailored to the many family cultures that exist within our district and to have an abundance of sessions that different schools could choose from and request. We wanted schools to be able to tailor their professional development programs to their school’s needs.
Finally, we gained a better understanding of adult learning theory and how we can use it to engage families and our team. We didn’t use existing workshop sessions and tailor them to their school. Instead, we built the programs around our needs and assets. By pulling research from experts, such as Dr. Karen Mapp, Anne Henderson and the Flamboyan Foundation, we packaged the information and created authentic ways that made sense for our district.
Equity and Diversity University also offers advanced-level, cohort-based learning opportunities. How is that structured?
Our FACE Leader (Family and Community Engagement) cohort consists of five full-day sessions. Participants determine what their “big question” is regarding family engagement, and they then get to direct their own research. No matter what their question is, they must:
• Listen to families – either through focus groups, surveys or individual meetings;
• Listen to teachers and school staff they work with to identify what family engagement means to them;
• Listen to community partners to identify if they are strategically aligned with school improvement goals and family engagement.
Next, they synthesize their finding and research about their school of choice and present it to the larger group. Once participants complete this stage, they have a set of recommendations and insights to inform and guide their current work.
Our FACE Teacher Cohorts (Elementary and Secondary) each meet six times throughout the school-year, built around the academic calendar and focus on relationship building, academic partnering, and communicating with families. Both Leader and Teacher cohorts talk about family engagement through a strength-based, equity-focused lens.
Many districts find that there isn’t funding for programs like an EDU or FACE Institute. What resources and connections have you made to make this work sustainable?
Nashville is unique because we are a hub for nonprofits, faith-based organizations and philanthropic community partners. We have community partners that are cultural brokers, ex Conexión Américas, and that’s a huge resource to our Latino families. Several refugee resettlement organizations and youth serving organizations that are deeply focused on anti-racism and anti-bias all want to be engaged in the schools and have partnered deeply for years. Some of these organizations are partners at the district level and some have partnered with specific schools. As I got to know them, we started dreaming and scheming together.
Additionally, DC Public Schools has provided a “friendtorship” relationship to Metro Nashville Public Schools and we have been learning with and from them. Their big question/focus is, how to get in the bloodstream of the district so that no matter what happens organizationally, teachers and families feel so empowered to be partners that you can’t disband the office because it’s not an office it’s a movement.
What advice do you have for other districts?
Start having conversations with partners already in the schools. Ask organizations that are partnered with a specific school if they’d be willing to take their work bigger and broader. Even now, we are still growing our community expert pool of those who would be willing to offer sessions.
One thing to remember, is that when working with organizations who are offering to provide free services, the relationship has to be beneficial for both parties. Make sure you ask how you can support and promote their work and events.
Also, what has made our partnerships deep and rich is that we have been very strategic and specific about what it is we are working on. You have to be very clear about your vision, focus and who aligns with that already, so you’re not managing 100 partnerships.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
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