How some San Diego County educators are learning about equity

The San Diego County Education Office has been training school staff in equity. Here’s how they approach it


Schools’ efforts to combat racism and improve diversity and inclusion came under fire this year from parents and political groups who accused schools of propagating critical race theory, a university-level discipline that analyzes how the law has perpetuated institutional racial discrimination.

One effort that has come under attack is the San Diego County Office of Education’s equity department, a four-year-old office that has worked with 95 schools and a dozen school districts, training them in equity efforts. Among them are Coronado Unified, Del Mar Union, Encinitas Union Elementary, Lakeside Union Elementary, Mountain Empire Unified, Poway Unified, San Dieguito Union High and Solana Beach Elementary.

Fabiola Bagula, senior director of equity at the San Diego County Office of Education.
Fabiola Bagula is the senior director of equity at the San Diego County Office of Education.
(Courtesy of San Diego County Office of Education)

Fabiola Bagula, the county office’s equity director, said the goal of the equity training is to address disparities in educational outcomes, especially when it comes to high school graduation.

Latino, Black, low-income, English learner, special education and homeless students all have significantly lower graduation rates than the countywide average. About 40 percent of San Diego County’s high school graduates fail to meet admission requirements for California’s public universities.

Bagula said the county’s training is not one-size-fits-all but is tailored to each school and district’s needs and student demographics and to what the school or district wants to improve.

“We just want to make sure they know that they can change, that they can improve … so that each student graduates with a meaningful diploma and choice-filled life,” Bagula said of schools.

The department also trains state leaders and staff in other county education offices, Bagula said. The Union-Tribune asked her about what the training involves.

What happens in the equity training?

Bagula: There is a lot of misinformation about what we do and what we don’t do. One piece of misinformation is that it’s divisive. That’s not true, it’s actually leaning into our humanity, leaning into understanding each other — how might we work together for the best positive conditions for students.

We do an activity about the importance of saying someone’s name correctly. Our name is important to our identity. Children need and like to have their name properly pronounced; it’s a way of how we see them as a whole child.

There’s another activity we do about 14 definitions of equity. I don’t get in the weeds of writing or revising a definition, but instead we offer all 14 of them. There’s many different perspectives; we talk about which ones do we agree and disagree with.

I had a school community this past week, about 85 participants, talk about how when we welcome students that arrive from China, we make assumptions that their parents are professors at UCSD ... and when we receive a new student from Guatemala, we make assumptions that their parents work in the fields, and how we welcome those students (is) different. We need to think about how we welcome each child with joy.

There’s a lot of those kinds of pieces and pieces about mindset. In education, there’s an elaborate labeling system that happens, like with acquiring language, grades, scores, whether they have a (special education plan) ... and then all the labels that we have immediately create a mindset for the educator. We try to talk about what is your mindset when you get a roster? How does that mindset sometimes get in the way? How do we see who (students) really are and maybe not this label that was given to this child in the second grade that doesn’t serve them?

How can schools address disparities in education outcomes?

Bagula: When I work with schools I ask, where are your systems of support ... for students, not looking at them with a deficit lens, but an asset lens. For staff, it would be taking the time to actually study their data and to look at and leverage each others’ strengths. That needs to be done during their working hours to say, how are we being successful with some but not other children? For students, it would mean things like acceleration, things like drama and theatre, that bring joy, that can help bring language acquisition.

What misconceptions do you hear about your training? How do you address topics that are controversial?

Bagula: The first is that it’s divisive and shames and blames people. We’re not in any shape or form trying to blame or guilt any one group of people. What we’re trying to do is have radical love for our schools, radical love for our students.

There are certain words that immediately trigger systems and beliefs. One of those was implicit bias. We take research on our brain and talk about it from the standpoint of these are proven behaviors we all have. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people; it doesn’t mean we’re racist. My favorite that I always fall prey to is hyperbolic discounting — we choose the sooner reward rather than the larger, later reward, like Netflix binging when I have to be up at 7. We all have those behaviors, and so a lot of these biases don’t hurt anyone, but some do.

We think it’s important for people to have the language and the definition. For privilege, we start out with left-handed and right-handed privilege. I’m right-handed, but I remember going into those college halls with my left-handed roommate who had to position awkwardly.

We’ve all been in places where one part of our identity has been marginalized, all of us. We really try to have people understand them underneath the sociopolitical noise that’s out there, and understand how it’s divisive and how to understand the concept of a thing that will unify us.