WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The important issue of equity in Palm Beach County schools is taking center stage on Wednesday as school board members discuss the district's newly created and controversial Equity Statement and Definition.
According to the School District of Palm Beach County, "equity means each student—regardless of race, ethnicity, poverty, disability, language status, undocumented status, religious affiliation, gender identity, and sexual orientation—will have access to the opportunities, resources, and support they need to imagine, nurture, and achieve their dreams."
That is, every Palm Beach County student should have equal access to learning resources, regardless of their backgrounds.
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School board members approved a new Equity Statement on May 5 that outlines the district's goal of "dismantling structures rooted in white advantage" and "elevating under-represented voices, sharing power, recognizing and eliminating bias, and redistributing resources to provide equitable outcomes."
Officials said the new statement was created, in part, because of "glaring disparities" in student performance, suspension rates, attendance, and more.
According to data from the School District of Palm Beach County, 28% of Black male students and 16% of Black female students failed one or more classes in ninth grade in 2020, compared to 12% of White male students and 7% of White female students.
In addition, 7% of Black male students got suspended in Palm Beach County elementary schools in 2020, compared to 1.4% of White male students.
In middle schools, 20.5% of Black male students got suspended in 2020, compared to 5.6% of White male students.
In Palm Beach County high schools, 12.7% of Black male students got suspended last year, compared to 4.9% of White male students.
The issue of equity particularly came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic when the School District of Palm Beach County was forced to suddenly switch to distance learning in March of last year.
Officials said many minority students fell behind because of poor Internet access at home, as well as a lack of technology to complete their coursework.
However, members of the community have taken issue with the "white advantage" phrasing in the newly created Equity Statement, bombarding school board members with phone calls and emails, arguing the terminology is racially insensitive and counterproductive to the district's mission.
"It is evident that a few of the words are not helpful and, in fact, are harmful," School Board Member Karen Brill said at a May 19 meeting. "I do not believe that the language in the Equity Statement was intended to be divisive and polarizing. It should not make anyone feel disenfranchised."
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As a result, the school board is holding a workshop on Wednesday to potentially revise and amend the "white advantage" phrasing in the Equity Statement.
"It's been gnawing at me, because I don't want to have divisive language," Brill said. "I do think that words like 'dismantling structures rooted in white advantage,' it's dividing the community."
If the board decides to move forward with amending the Equity Statement, a formal vote will be held at a special meeting on Wednesday following the workshop.
"I want us to move forward, but I don't want it to be divisive," Brill said.
The School District of Palm Beach County's full Equity Statement and Definition reads as follows:
"The School District of Palm Beach County is committed to dismantling racism and other systems of oppression and inequity. We will create equitable and inclusive schools that ensure students have what they need to be successful in school and life.
Achieving racial equity requires proactive and continuous investment in historically marginalized groups who have endured centuries of systemic oppression. The School District of Palm Beach County is committed to dismantling structures rooted in white advantage and transforming our system by hearing and elevating under-represented voices, sharing power, recognizing and eliminating bias, and redistributing resources to provide equitable outcomes.
The School District of Palm Beach County will take ownership for students’ academic mastery, emotional intelligence, and social-emotional needs by creating environments where students, families, staff, and communities will develop agency and voice.
The School District of Palm Beach County acknowledges the existence of—and will eliminate—systems, processes, and mindsets that perpetuate race, ethnicity, poverty, disability, language status, undocumented status, religious affiliation, gender identity, and sexual orientation as predictors of achievement.
The School District of Palm Beach County will embrace, celebrate, and honor our students, families, staff, and community members and their unique cultural histories, while ensuring each student achieves personal and academic success."
"We need to discuss this and take out the words that are incendiary," said School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, adding that the statement has unintentionally become a "Black and White issue."
"All the other good stuff we had in the Equity Statement, with that one line in the middle, 'dismantling structures rooted in white advantage,' has turned it into a racial statement that is not going over well with the public," Barbieri said.
The School District of Palm Beach County has already taken major steps to improve equity among all students, including spending more than $20 million at the start of the 2020/21 academic year to make sure every child had a laptop who needed one, whether for distance learning or in-classroom instruction.
In addition, the district has partnered with Palm Beach County and local municipalities to create the WiFi Mesh Network to deliver free high-speed, high-quality Internet to roughly 25,000 students in need.
"Equity is about giving each child what they need to get to this mark or above," said School Board Member Dr. Debra Robinson. "I knew when we voted on [the Equity Statement] that some people weren't gonna like that statement."
To see the full presentation for the school board's equity workshop on Wednesday, click here.