NORTH PROVIDENCE – The North Providence School District has partnered with a local nonprofit to conduct an equity audit, reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the town’s elementary schools.

The goal of the Equity Institute’s program is to develop solutions that “cultivate culturally responsible schools,” Supt. Joseph Goho said during a recent School Committee meeting.

The Equity Institute began roughly four years ago as a grassroots effort to create more equitable classrooms, and earned nonprofit status in December.

What does an equitable classroom look like?

Equity Institute Founder and CEO Karla Vigil said an equitable classroom reflects an inclusive environment representing a variety of cultures and identities.

“There are different strategies being used in the educational system all the time, and every few years we get a new buzzword and we think it’s going to be effective. Many times it can be, however we believe that any work we do needs to be grounded in understanding what equity sounds like, looks like and feels like,” Vigil said.

While schools are pushing for “personalized learning” practices that focus on the needs of the individual student, Vigil said to be successful in those practices, districts need to better understand the identities of the students they serve.

“Our experiences, home life, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and language are things that intersect and make us who we are,” she said. “We want to empower youth in classrooms by recognizing their identities and creating classroom plans that really engage students, connect with who they are and build trust.”

They’ll start with an equity audit of North Providence’s elementary schools to assess which elements are working well in the district and to identify areas of improvement. They then zero in on three areas: classroom culture, curriculum and instructional strategies, and community and family engagement.

“We think it’s powerful to start with this approach you can really navigate what interventions to implement in your district,” Vigil told the School Committee.

Vigil said they look specifically at the district’s policies and data in terms of student suspensions, disciplinary and hiring policies, and expand into classroom culture and instruction.

“We want to make sure that the different learning styles in the classrooms are being met and that the backgrounds of the students are being empowered,” Vigil said. “We also believe that the students’ cultural characteristics and identities should be driving how you are developing units and lesson plans.”

The nonprofit intended to begin the three-month process in March, but Vigil said she is unsure how the closing of schools due to coronavirus might impact the process.

The process is intended to include the families of the students involved, as well as elementary teachers.

Goho said he is looking forward to “building positive energy through the process itself” and using the Equity Institute’s findings to “provide opportunities for intentional impactful change to support the academic and social/emotional success of all learners.”

“As our population and our community continues to evolve, we would like to just have an expert, someone with the expertise of (Vigil) to guide us in our efforts to meet the needs of all students and families – be it religion, be it sexual identification, be it race – we would like to have the eyes of the Equity Institute review all aspects of our district, show us where our areas of improvement are needed and then provide professional development for our staff over the next year or two in a very intentional way,” he said.

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