What’s the best way to help students succeed in the classroom? Educators have been exploring this question for centuries, and one piece of conventional wisdom often stands out: No two students have the same learning style. Moreover, no two students come from exactly the same background or start with the same amount of knowledge about a subject.
Last year, the St. Louis Park School District launched a program to help address the achievement gap—the disparity in academic performance among groups of students, especially defined by socioeconomic status or race—and to improve educational equality in its schools.
In schools with relatively diverse populations, says equity coach Arika Mareck, it can be a challenge to meet the needs of every student. “Teachers are busy,” she explains. “They don’t necessarily have time to do research or read books to improve their teaching, because they’ve got full classes and papers to grade.” That’s where equity coaches come in, she says. The coaches help provide teachers with the tools they need to equip themselves for reaching underserved students.
The equity coaching program began in September 2013 at St. Louis Park High School. According to Kari Ross, director of teaching and learning for the St. Louis Park School District, “Teachers learn strategies for closing the gap, especially in the areas of reading and math,” Ross explains. “With a diverse urban population like that of St. Louis Park, there are students at a lot of different levels and from many different backgrounds.”
Last year, teachers at St. Louis Park High School decided that they could be using their grant funds from an existing Quality Compensation (Q Comp) initiative more effectively. “These teachers wanted to try something new and innovative, specifically with a focus on equity,” says Ross.
Who are the equity coaches? They’re teachers who have moved from traditional classroom duties to this full-time position.During the program’s first year at the high school, two equity coaches met with most teachers at least three times a year to work on professional development. Coaches also observed classes, evaluated teacher performance and created materials.
At the beginning of the 2014 school year, the program expanded from two coaches at the high school to three coaches for the entire district. “The program was a great success in the high school,” Ross says, based on teacher feedback. “We’re working on expanding what worked [at the high school] in hopes of similar success district-wide.”
Before becoming an equity coach, Arika Mareck was an English teacher at St. Louis Park High School and the non-traditional academy coordinator. A group of high school teachers worked with the Equity Collaborative to develop the coaching program as it stands today, and Mareck and Joy Esbolt, another high school teacher, were hired as the program’s first coaches.
“The job consists of a lot of listening and supporting,” Mareck says. Coaches research best practices of equitable teaching, create lesson plans, and even sometimes co-teach in the classroom.
“I think that teachers work really hard,” says Mareck. “It can be a challenge to find balance in the classroom and meet the needs of each student. We have a very diverse population, so there is a wide variety of needs that must be met. As equity coaches, we try to help teachers meet those needs as effectively as possible.”