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Column: Building a district of one student --18,600 times

Keith Jacobus is the South Washington County Schools superintendent

This month we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If Dr. King were alive today he would be 89 years old.

I think about the wisdom the world lost in the nearly 50 years since his death. I think often about the courage and leadership skills possessed by King and other civil rights leaders of the time. I marvel at their tenacity and brilliance in shaping the narrative regarding how all people should be treated. The work and goals outlined by King and others during the civil rights era of the 1960s continue to be an important focus for society as a whole, and for the education of all children.

In our school district, we serve 18,600 individuals who come to school with unique cultural backgrounds, unique life experiences, unique hopes and dreams, unique skills and challenges, and unique perspectives on life and learning. Every one of these students deserves, and should expect, an environment that is welcoming, safe, supportive and designed to help them achieve at their highest potential. Each one of them deserves not just equality, but equity.

Equality is designed to ensure every student has the opportunity to participate in any and all academic and extracurricular activities. Having an opportunity gives students the possibility that they might succeed or make the team. It is an important element in every educational system, but it is not enough. In our district, we are working to develop a system based on the foundation of equity.

Equity focuses on giving each student what he or she needs, when they need it, to enhance the probability of success, not simply the possibility. I like to say we are not a district of 18,600 students, we are a district of one student 18,600 times.

Our focus on equity is the basis of our strategic plan and the goals we set for the work of our Department of Equity and Integration. Our strategic plan has two objectives:

• personalized learning and

• enhancing the culture and climate for students and staff.

These objectives complement each other and are meant to close our achievement gaps between student groups, help all students succeed, and extinguish harassment and intolerance of others within our school system. We are proud of the strides we have taken to achieve our academic, and social and emotional goals for our students. As a core value, we encourage and cultivate ways to incorporate our student voices and opinions into our decision making. We look to enhance their thinking and problem solving as they help enhance ours as well.

Through our equity and integration work we have been providing professional development for teachers on culturally responsive teaching techniques. By learning how to understand and utilize the unique cultural aspects our students bring to the classroom, we can maximize their learning and critical thinking through enhanced engagement, understanding, and meaning of the concepts taught. We have also begun to work with our student leadership groups at the high school level to develop school assemblies designed to teach students about the history of derogatory and racial terms that undermine our focus on a positive culture and climate and lead to continued harassment of various student groups. The reaction and thinking of our student leaders has been impressive.

As a student at Morehouse College, Dr. King wrote in 1947 that "the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically." He also wrote "intelligence plus character; that is the goal of true education."

I believe our current priority, helping every student in our school district succeed through a focus on equity, is the right goal. We are working to achieve intellectual rigor, and to cultivate superior critical and creative thinking skills in our students. These goals support King's view on education and will continue to help us develop and promote a strong positive culture and climate for all of our students.