Reflections from the Standards Institute: Relentless Rigor & Racial Equity by Freda Smith

September 18, 2018

The Standards Institute was life-changing for me. My mind keeps returning to the image of “Shiloh,” working at Foot Locker, who forms the basis of the pivotal scene of Lacey Robinson’s keynote address. What I realized is in spite of the fact that we are passionate educators that love our children and know education is the pivot point to reach the next generation, we nonetheless still simply do the best we can with what we know. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit we have so much more to learn, even when we look like our students.

I left San Diego stunned with what I learned. I also left with a deep yearning to commit to the Five Charges:

  1. Adopt an aligned curriculum.
  2. Attend to the language of the standards.
  3. Talk about race systematically.
  4. Examine bias and its role in our work and learning.
  5. Commit to adaptive change within the shifts.

Currently, I serve as principal of Medard H. Nelson PreK-8 Charter School in New Orleans. I was delighted this summer to seize the opportunity provided by the State of Louisiana and New Schools for New Orleans, to learn from UnboundEd’s amazing facilitators and speakers on instructional and racial equity. Our charge is to come back to Louisiana and ensure that we’re the vanguard of that type of change.

After Institute, we are relentless. We want to make sure the Shilohs we have in our schools are not only prepared but believe in their own talents and potential to realize their dreams. At our school, we are folding into our fabric three new instructional practices to hold ourselves accountable to our students and ourselves.

1. Be radical about rigor

Our lessons now call for students to grapple with complex texts so they can make their own meaning and build their knowledge base instead of us providing leading questions and cognitively undemanding tasks. I was privileged in my Houston public school student experience to be challenged academically; I now see that I didn’t always provide these same opportunities for my own students as a teacher. I certainly experienced cognitive struggle at Institute; it was both productive and personal. The sessions were mind-changing. So much so that I kickstarted the school year with my staff with a new frame of mind; our responsibility is to be steadfast in providing standards-aligned instruction because our students deserve what other students across the country are getting.

Being in NOLA, this stuff sounds radical. We now understand we must reflect on our own biases and how they play a role in our work. We’re trying to help our children by reading to them, at their level instead of what’s grade appropriate. It’s radical to change that. My staff is taking the bull by the horns and thinking in ways they haven’t in a long time. It’s exciting for my team and our scholars who get to benefit from the challenge of this radical cognitive lift. And, it’s just the beginning.

We want all children to achieve at higher heights. The “how” had not always felt as crystal clear. Many states, including Louisiana, approved rigorous standards and adopted aligned curriculum; now it’s our charge to go with it and stop lowering expectations for the kids we love. It was mind-blowing for me. It really helped shift my practice on delivery and more so on beliefs. Literally holding the line on rigor could be the saving grace for some of our youth.

2. Be relentless about racial equity even when everyone looks like the students

We came back hitting the ground running right after Institute. What bite-size pieces of what we learned at Institute should we incorporate into our school this year? Equity isn’t something you talk about once and get over with. We need to talk about race systematically, as the charges ask of us.

We’ve talked about race and bias with our staff in the past. To do that with a school like mine, made up of 98 percent African-American students, is still important. Even the majority of staff are African American. This poses an interesting question: How do you discuss race when everyone looks the same? I didn’t need to learn that within our own community there are skin complexion biases, I knew that. What wasn’t obvious is that once you hire a staff that resembles the students, the equity and bias challenges still play a role because it’s possible for all of us to bring biased perceptions into our everyday actions until we’re confronted with it.

Like Dr. Christopher Emdin said in his teaching at Institute, the radicalness it takes to have racial dialogues with people of the same color servicing the same struggle is real. The kind of honest thinking that he imparted to us is urgent and necessary. We have to get with the program.

We can’t blame white people for not teaching our children grade level material because it’s also us–brown people–doing it because we didn’t know any better. We need to give it to them and trust their brilliance and ability to work through the rigor with guidance, as necessary, along the way. Having the racial discussion was difficult and liberating. Thankfully, the staff was so receptive. They realized we are the system.

3. Be real about learning as a community

Ongoing, the expectation of rigor and access to equitable instruction will never waver again. I’m clear when I come into a classroom that I’m going to see standards-based assignments and activities; that’s the new norm. We are training teachers to extend their learning so this urgency doesn’t die. It’s now a daily practice to continually revisit race, rigor, and equity. Especially when there’s turnover, we have to continue to practice and learn. And equity is not something you talk about once; it’s ongoing learning for us as a staff.

We are embarking on this rigor and racial equity work as a learning community. My hope is that the more leaders who get trained in equitable instruction, the more children are set up for success nationally and globally. That’s my dream, my wish. I will forever be grateful to Shiloh and her struggle for inspiring a radical and relentless change within our hearts and practice toward rigor and racial equity.


About Freda Smith

Freda Smith brings 12 years of experience to her educational leadership in New Orleans. Both of her children attend schools in New Orleans.