Equity through the eyes of one principal: “It is incumbent upon us as educators to open that door.”

Dr. Andree Osagie with cheerleaders

At Holdsworth, we embrace equity as one of our core values. We believe all students no matter their background deserve access to high-quality educational opportunities.

But what does equity look like in the day-to-day life of an educator? What does it feel like to a student? What does it sound like in the principal’s office?

Three years ago, Dr. Andree Osagie became principal at Terry High School in our partner district Lamar CISD. He knew things needed to change.

Test scores were low, few advanced classes were offered and extracurricular programs were suffering from low attendance. On the first day of school, Andree walked in to find some of the bathrooms closed and the vending machines shut down.

Three years ago, Dr. Andree Osagie became principal at Terry High School in our partner district Lamar CISD.

Three years ago, Dr. Andree Osagie became principal at Terry High School in our partner district Lamar CISD.

When he asked why, he was told that if they opened the bathroom, the kids would mess it up. If the vending machines were turned on, they would sneak out of class to buy food.

Andree had much higher expectations and believed his staff and students could do better.

He opened the bathroom, turned the vending machines back on and got to work changing the mindset of every adult in the building. He brought articles with evidence showing that if you raise expectations for disadvantaged students, they will rise to meet them. He pushed for teachers to increase the level of rigor in the classroom and offer more AP classes, for coaches to recruit more kids into sports even if they had never held a golf club or thrown a baseball.

To start moving the needle, Andree had countless one-on-one conversations and coaching sessions with faculty and staff to ensure they were aligned on the strategy of setting high expectations for all students, no matter what. They did literature reviews and Andree showed video clips of schools with successful turnaround stories.

As Andree made inroads into changing the Terry’s culture, the wins began to roll in.

After the first year, the percentage of students passing the state standardized test in math went from 55 to 80 percent. Enrollment in AP classes went through the roof, as did the number of students sitting for AP exams. The golf team went from five students to 50. During lunch, students started a DJ club and played music over the loudspeaker.

“For a long time, there was a negative cloud over the school. Nothing was going well,” Andree said. “We had to do a positive publicity campaign. Now every good thing that happens, no matter how small, we shine a light on it like we won the lottery and blast it on social media to reshape community perception.”

Dr. Osagie with students on a trip to China.

Dr. Osagie with students on a trip to China.

The wins were hard fought. The difficult conversations with adults drained him of energy, to the point that he had to plug into the students and their excitement about the revived sports, clubs and classes to recharge himself every day. Not everyone bought into his vision, and many of them ended up leaving.

“That was the struggle that I had to fight. My upbringing and personal struggles have led me to say no, that is unacceptable. I don’t take no for an answer,” Andree said.

Andree Osagie grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. For him, education meant dilapidated buildings, outdated textbooks and few resources other than teachers who truly cared and believed that knowledge would help them transcend poverty.

His dream of coming to America was denied six times by the visa office. After years of trying, he eventually made it to Boston on a scholarship. Not knowing what to expect, he landed in New York in December without even a jacket. He couldn’t leave the airport until his connection ran to the store to buy him a coat.

Unable to acclimate to the bitter North East cold, Andree gave up his scholarship to move to Houston and finish his studies in a warmer climate. He worked constantly to pay out-of-state tuition, graduated and got a job teaching science. He worked his way up to administration and earned a doctorate in education. He spent 11 years as an assistant principal before landing the job at Terry.

Dr. Osagie at homecoming.

Dr. Osagie with students at homecoming.

His unwavering commitment to success has served him well, and now he focuses that energy on ensuring students at Terry have every opportunity to succeed.

“If I could come to the U.S. as a foreigner and be successful, there is no excuse for a child born on this soil to not have the opportunity. It is incumbent upon us as educators to open that door,” he said.

While Andree’s story is inspiring, it raises troubling implications about how much work there is yet to do when it comes to providing an equitable education for all students regardless of demographics or background.

According to the 74 million, a recent review of 17 state’ plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act found that less than half “promote equity as a clear focus in their school turnaround plans, only two require districts to show how they’ll address the achievement gap, and just four ask districts to tackle inequitable distribution of key resources, such as challenging curriculum and well-qualified teachers.”

At a recent session, we invited Dr. Pedro Noguera, a renowned researcher and equity advocate who leads UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, and David LaRose, an educational consultant, to talk to our participants about how to define equity and make it a sustained focus of their work. Hear more from them in the video below.

 

If you are interested in a deeper understanding, pick up Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Student Achievement for Every Student. Pedro released the book in 2016 with Alan Blankstein, an author and educational leader who founded the HOPE foundation.

You can also access Pedro’s 10 practices to promote achievement for all students on the AVID website.

In a Q&A about his 2016 book with Education Week, Pedro gave a great example of equity in action that is similar to Andree’s approach:

“One of the districts we feature in the book is Abbington, Pennsylvania.  The chapter is written by Amy Sichel, who has been superintendent for about 15 years (She was also elected President of the American Association of School Administrators).

Abbington shows us that the effort to reduce race/class disparities in achievement resulted in all students making significant gains over time. This was made possible by raising standards, increasing rigor and providing support to students in challenging AP and honors courses.

Abbington also shows us how to navigate the political opposition that arises from parents (usually affluent, well-educated parents), who are likely to perceive any efforts at expanding access to rigorous courses as a threat to their kids.  Abbington avoided the zero-sum trap by showing that it was possible to serve all students well, and by generating concrete evidence that this was indeed occurring.”