Interview with Dr. Valaida Wise

As part of College Prep's ongoing commitment to centering the work of racial justice and equity across all aspects of school life, Dr. Valaida Wise was selected to conduct an Equity Audit. We had a conversation with Dr. Wise about her experience in education, what an Equity Audit entails, and her excitement about working with College Prep.

Dr. Wise received her Doctorate of Education in Education Leadership from George Washington University. She also holds a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education from Trinity College. She has served as the Head of School at the National Child Research Center in Washington DC, The Harbor School in Bethesda, MD, and Henson Valley Montessori School in Prince Georges County MD. She is currently on the faculty at John Hopkins University, Baltimore in the School of Education. She is the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Creative Minds International Public Charter School in Washington DC, and sits on the board of other schools and institutions in Maryland. You can find out more about Dr. Wise through her website.

Q: You have an extensive background in education spanning more than 25 years. What compelled you to do the work that you are doing today?
A: Actually, it goes back farther than my professional life. My father was a civil rights lawyer during the late fifties and early sixties and was one of the lawyers for the Justice Department that was investigating the Klan. I remember him at the dinner table, having conversations about what he had to do in order to hear the stories of those folks who had been persecuted by the Klan, and to bring the Klan organization to justice. I remember his passion and the challenges that he had to go through when I was a little girl. So that was part of my DNA, this idea of social justice, the idea that everyone has a right to feel their identity. He was what I used to call a maverick because he did things his own way. He was a passionate advocate for equal rights, for civil rights, and for social justice. I got that bent from him––this desire to help people understand the importance of those rights, and also help organizations to move toward that––not just to talk about it, but to do it.
Before embarking on this work, I went into education. I love teaching kids. When I stepped into leadership roles in independent schools­­––I also went to independent schools as a kid––I realized that no one looked like me. None of my teachers ever looked like me. None of my school leaders ever looked like me. Back in the nineties, I was the first woman of color in our area in this role. I experienced people not recognizing who I was or why I was there. But all in all, I felt like this was important work. Not just being a leader, but helping individuals recognize the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion on the benefits of educating children.
Q: As a school leader, where did you see the greatest gaps in regard to equity?
A: When we talk about equity, one gap is that governing bodies don’t understand the importance of their impact, and the fact that they have a responsibility. I've been on many boards. I'm the board chair of two schools right now. What is typically lacking is the board recognizing its role and leadership, and understanding how important it is for them to be part of this process, as well as diversifying leadership itself. Understanding that the whole organization has to have the same vision going forward is critical. Another gap has been the leadership pipeline, making sure that the individuals coming through, especially from marginalized groups, have the support they need to be successful. What we hear a lot now is the school wants a person of color or someone from a marginalized group to be a school leader for them, but they haven't set up the organization to support them when they get there. So people wonder, well, why isn't it working? Because the school hasn't changed. Helping communities see the benefit is my calling.
Q: During your Town Hall last fall with current College Prep parents and guardians, you spoke about generative conversations as a critical part of the audit process. Can you speak a little more about how these conversations are framed?
 A: One of the roles of my firm is to help all of the stakeholders feel like they have a part in this process and we start by helping the school develop a task force of 10 to 12 individuals. What’s lovely was that College Prep was already thinking about how the school can engage its stakeholders, and Alexandria (Osei-Amoako, Dean of Equity and Belonging) has done a fantastic job in getting them involved. Then we start bringing the task force together to talk about what to ask in our focus group to make sure that we're getting to the lived experience. Living day-to-day within your organization, you know what you need to find out, and you know the kinds of questions that are going to generate really good conversations. We hope that these conversations across the school community create energy so that we can talk about this thing called belonging. And, let's talk about this thing called social justice. What do these mean to us and how do we feel about it? What do we believe in and how does that fit into our framework? This is part of how we can get to the vision.
Q: What is your method for auditing equity that is specific to independent schools? Can you further describe what an audit entails within the scope of equity and belonging?
A: At their core, most independent schools want all of their students to feel great about being there and to be their best selves. They recognize that in order to do that, you have to remove barriers. An audit is a multi-pronged approach and it is really different for every organization, every school, because each school is unique. We recognize that you can't go in with a framework that says we do it this way all the time, but there are aspects of it that we still do the same way. Once we’ve established and worked with the task force, we hold a variety of focus groups where we ask questions that we hope will spark conversations. We also interview a variety of people within the school to determine what else we can find out by asking: What's the best way forward for College Prep? What are the things that the school needs to do immediately? What are the things that are long-term? From those conversations, we generate themes. The themes help us determine our next steps. We create a survey that triangulates the information we found in our focus groups and interviews.
We also look at documentation. We're doing a curriculum review right at this moment, and it's so interesting to see some of the creativity that's part of College Prep. That's been very, very exciting. We also review a lot of the data, such as discipline over time, and do statistical analysis to see where there are any trends that are positive, or ones that are negative and need to be addressed and thought about. From all this material together––interviews, focus groups, surveys, data, and policy–– we create a document that we call our equity audit report.
That report tells us what we found: those themes that have risen to the top and recommendations from administrators, teachers, and parents that can help guide the organization going forward. Then we help the organization develop its own strategic plan around diversity, equity, and belonging that includes actionable goals that are measurable and have specific timelines.These findings are shared with the community, which we believe is going to be helpful in starting to move the organization forward.
Q: What are some of the key metrics that you will be measuring for our audit? How are those metrics evaluated and how do they translate into real-life transformation of equitable practices?
A: We look at strategic plans and reports, human resources, retention of staff, retention of students. If the school has it, we'll look at academic retention, we'll look at referring out. We look at the website, at the curriculum, and we look at all of those because stories come out of that information. We have the narrative theme from our focus groups, from students and alumni, and our surveys and our interviews, but stories also come out of hard data. For example, and this isn’t necessarily related to College Prep, let's say there’s a discipline policy around Black girls and dress or maybe it's LGBTQ+ and being able to wear what they feel comfortable wearing, or transgendered students being able to use the bathrooms they feel comfortable with. Then we start talking about what are the policies and procedures we can put in place that will help so that there isn’t the exacerbation of kids of color or our transgender students being penalized because of how they dress.
Q: In your data collection, how do you ensure that the individuals you are collecting information from feel comfortable enough to share their experiences around equity and that you are receiving an authentic sample of responses?
A: Well, that's one of the reasons why just about everyone who is a consultant in my group is a qualitative researcher. Many of them are in the social sciences focused on psychology or they are counselors. So we understand how to create that safe space. But in the very beginning we also help everyone come to an understanding of shared norms in this process. Then we remind everyone that every single thing said is going to be anonymized, we will take out anything that feels like it might be able to identify an individual. We will change places or names or take them out completely. Once we've pulled the theme, we destroy the data.
Q: Over the past decade, have you seen a shift in the attitude of schools being open to this kind of an audit?
A: Yes, many schools had DEI plans and they might have had a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there was no urgency. Right now there seems to be urgency. The reality is we know we're making progress because we're getting significant pushback. That's how you know the work is happening. As uncomfortable as it can be, the fact that people are reacting negatively sometimes means that we're doing the work. We're making changes and change is hard, but what I hope is that as we do this, we are messaging it and making sure that the community understands that we want everybody to be heard and be part of this so that the whole organization can grow. We're trying not to leave anybody behind. It can be a little disconcerting, but this is an incredible social experiment. This idea of multiculturalism is an amazing thing. You know, being able to celebrate all of our identities, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable, will make us so much stronger as we bring all of these experiences together.
Q: What aspect of the partnership with College Prep are you most excited about?
A: I really loved walking around campus and meeting the students who are all smart and thoughtful. I sat in on a couple of classes. They were phenomenal, and I had such a great time. Just the energy around this work is so gratifying, but I think the part I most look forward to is watching as the organization grows as a result of this work. I’m excited for what happens at the end of our project as College Prep embarks on this next trajectory of their vision.