ROCHESTER — Nearly three years after Rochester Public Schools truly began focusing on the issue of equity, it is doubling down on the effort in spite of it having become a controversial topic.

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, the Rochester School Board held a study session to discuss the ongoing work of implementing and reevaluating the district’s equity policy.

“There are some people who are outside our school district who are against equity in any form,” said Will Ruffin II, RPS director of equity and engagement. “So my first recommendation is for Rochester Public Schools to define what it means, so that people in our district or any other district understand what we stand for — so when that outside noise gets louder and louder, we can say ‘that is not what we’re about.’”

The School Board didn’t make any actual changes to the policy during Tuesday’s meeting.

Instead, the board’s policy committee will review the recommendations before bringing them back to the board for action.

However, the definition Ruffin proposed — which was just one of the adjustments suggested — says that: “Equity in schools refers to the fair and just distribution of resources, opportunities, and support to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or other characteristics, have an equal chance to achieve academic success.”

RPS adopted an equity statement in 2020. It then adopted the policy in 2021. The policy calls for annual review.

The policy is rooted in the fact that there have been historical barriers affecting certain student groups.

For one, Black and Hispanic students have trailed their white and Asian counterparts in academic performance.

Another is that RPS was called out by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2018 for disparities among its student discipline data.

Like Ruffin indicated, the district’s focus on equity became a lightning rod of disagreement, reflecting larger trends throughout the state and national educational sphere.

The issue became one of the primary points of contention during the 2022 school board election.

At the time, then-school board candidate Elena Niehoff went so far as to call it “one of the most dangerous ideas pushed on our children.”

Along with other candidates who were running as a self-described bloc, Niehoff drew a sharp line between equity and equality and disparaged the former in favor of the latter.

In addition to talking about possible changes to the policy, the School Board also viewed some of the work that’s been done to date on the issue.

Part of the policy says that RPS “will endeavor to employ a diverse, critically conscious and culturally competent workforce.”

Part of that effort has included an initiative to increase the percentage of staff members of color in the district to match the student population.

Ruffin said people of color now make up 5.49% of the district’s certified teaching staff.

“It’s been hovering around 3% for many, many years,” Ruffin said.

“We are making strides in the right direction.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, students of color make up as much as 46.4% of Rochester Public Schools.

Even though there may be some changes to the policy, RPS Superintendent Kent Pekel indicated the larger share of the work would be in the process of translating it from theory into practice.

“I think this policy holds up quite well, and the challenge is implementation,” Pekel said.

“The challenge is bringing it to life.”

What happened: The Rochester School Board reviewed its equity policy and discussed the ongoing process of implementing it.

Why does this matter: Equity has become a major initiative within Rochester Public Schools and has also become a large source of contention.

What’s next: The School Board’s policy committee will review the recommendations made on Tuesday and bring back suggested revisions.