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Equity Department Work Serves to Empower Students and Families, Create Sense of Belonging

Equity Department Work Serves to Empower Students and Families, Create Sense of Belonging

A sense of worth and belonging greatly enhances a student’s ability to learn. Helping to create that feeling is central to what teachers, staff members and administrators do every day throughout our schools – and it’s at the heart of the district’s equity work. What that looks like varies from building to building and by grade level, but in some cases, it can be as simple as providing space. 

A group of students whose religion requires prayer at certain times of the day recently asked Pine Lake Middle School Principal Michelle Caponigro if they could use a room somewhere at school to pray together. It’s not an unheard-of request, but the result was unusual – in a good way, Caponigro said. “What we have seen as the fruit of that opportunity for those students is that they are so empowered by the group. They sit together at lunch, and I often hear them sharing their opinions and their thoughts in a way that I don’t know they otherwise would. … I think they felt like we could hear them, and we could get the barrier out of the way for them to access their culture.” 

“Equity enables us to remove barriers so that all kids can feel connected to school,” Caponigro added. “Those barriers are different for all students. We have to creatively figure out what those are and get those out of the way of learning.” 

Executive Director of Equity Alaina Sivadasan said when she heard the story about the students at Pine Lake Middle School, it gave her goose bumps. “Their overall language about being at school is now – ‘We belong.’ I thought that was so powerful,” Sivadasan said. “It sends this message to them that we acknowledge and honor that this is something that is a part of who you are, and we’re going to make the space for you to be able to do that.” 

The district’s equity work began in earnest during the 2015-2016 school year. At that time, the efforts were part of the Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) Department. Beginning with professional development in cultural competency and adding family engagement efforts, the scope of work has expanded dramatically. Over the past six years, Equity has grown from one part-time employee into its own department with three full-time certificated staff and four full-time classified staff. 

The Equity Department is funded by the Educational Programs and Operations Levy, which is proposed for renewal on the April 26 ballot. 

Members of the Equity Department team work to eliminate opportunity gaps and help district administrators examine data systemically to look for disproportionate areas in data related to discipline, academic, attendance and social-emotional behaviors. Team members are also helping the district add culturally responsive practices, working to ensure that staff see all students as capable of rigor and ensuring that students are engaged.  

Other department work includes: 

  • Helping students and families access critical information about their education. This happens via regular communication with the family partnership liaisons, and also through special events that help families from countries outside the United States learn how to navigate our system and be involved in their child’s education.  
  • Encouraging instructional practices that highlight the importance of building relationships with students. 
  • Partnering with community groups such as the Issaquah Schools Foundation, community service groups and PTAs to help provide support for families outside of school hours or outside of the district’s scope. For example, during the pandemic, the Equity Department and the foundation together were able to arrange desks for some students in need so that they could fully participate in remote learning. They also worked with the Garage teen center, which opened its doors during the pandemic to students who needed a place to do schoolwork where they had support from adults as well as access to meals. 
  • Working with Building Equity Leads at each school in the district to help guide the work at that building. 
  • Serving as part of the Issaquah Equity and Inclusion Community Group. 
  • Working with the Human Resources Department regarding recruiting, hiring and retaining educators and employees who match the demographics of our student population. 
  • Helping with continued professional development related to equity, including speakers, book studies, workshops and more. 
  • Working with the Snoqualmie Tribe on land acknowledgement and tribal sovereignty. 
  • Collaborating with Cultural Bridges and the Issaquah Schools Foundation on family partnership events. 
  • Supporting the ISD Student Equity Council, which includes students from throughout the district. Students on the council provide input to the Equity Department, and also work on their own projects. 

Christina Zeng, a junior at Skyline High School who has served on the district’s Student Equity Council for two years, said “My ultimate hope when it comes to equity work in the ISD is not just for students and staff to thrive in a more inclusive and supporting environment through systemic practices, access to resources, and the education and celebration of all students of all minority groups, but also for everyone who is impacted by, involved with, or recognize the power of educational equity work to continue to take their activism into the other spaces they find themselves now, or in the future.” 

“As a student who has personally experienced under- or misrepresentation in some problematic textbook-guided curricula and the actions and words of individual students and teachers, the formation and work of the ISD Student Equity Council, and the district Equity Department’s collaboration, matter to me because they’ve shown that I can connect to and be empowered by students who share similar experiences and passion for systemic change, and that there are allies in the district to further amplify our voices,” Zeng continued. “What’s important to me is we can initiate change that not only improves our experiences in the Issaquah School District, but also fosters an environment that embraces equity more for the lives of students that come after us.” 

For the past two years, much of the Equity Department’s work shifted as a direct result of the pandemic, but they are excited to turn back to important projects such as working with other departments to identify equity goals as part of their individual work plans. 

Sivadasan and team share yearly progress updates with the School Board related to the district’s equity policy (Executive Limitation 16), which was approved in 2018. To read the about Equity that the board recently received, visit  

“I want to acknowledge and thank (the Equity Department) for the incredible work they did last year as we managed through remote learning/hybrid learning, and helping our families access critical information to support their students,” Superintendent Ron Thiele said during the February board meeting. Thiele said he is “immensely proud” of the equity work throughout the district. “I think long term, our students and particularly those who are culturally and linguistically diverse, will have had a better, richer experience … because of all this work.” 

To read more about the work of the district’s Equity Department, visit the Equity Department webpage.

In the photo, students at Issaquah Middle School work with Rashad Norris from Relevant Engagement.