Ben’s DEI Spotlight:  Lessons From Ithaca City School District’s Equity Strategic Plan

Ben Crosby | November 20, 2019

This month we are exploring opportunities for system leaders at the beginning stages of creating an “equity strategic plan” for their organization, drawing lessons from Ithaca City School District’s equity strategic plan. First published in 2005, Ithaca’s plan is built around an ambitious yet unambiguous goal – to eliminate race and socioeconomic background as a predictor of student outcomes and success within its schools. The district’s multi-faceted equity plan outlines various focus areas in organizational development, data infrastructure & analysis, strategic professional development for staff, and community partnerships. Given the wide variety of activities and stakeholders named in this particular plan, what general lessons might we draw for creating an equity plan at your school district or organization? 

Ithaca’s Student Equity Goal: Eliminate Race and Class as Predictors of Student Success
Ithaca’s overarching equity goal — eliminating race and class as predictors of student success — is emblematic of equity objectives shared by many school districts and education organizations. Ithaca’s equity plan also names two critical assumptions that make equity work different from other types of strategic initiatives; the fact that this work is fundamentally collaborative in nature (involving stakeholders both inside and outside the organization) and that it rarely progresses according to a “linear, sequential plan”. To this end, Ithaca names a variety of both internal (eg. district staff) and external (eg. families & community organizations) stakeholders as being critical to the success of their plan. They also acknowledge that various elements of their plan will be pursued concurrently, with “different workgroups focusing their efforts on different parts of the plan at the same time”. Finally, they leave many implementation elements of their plan blank or undefined, presumably to be fleshed out later by those stakeholders responsible for bringing this equity work to life inside their district over the years to come. Despite being more than 30 pages long, their plan includes few concrete dates or timelines, instead focusing on “statements of need” and high-level development goals across a wide variety of equity focus areas.

Ithaca’s Equity Solution: Apply a Standard Planning Framework to Develop an Equity Vision and Development Plan
While Ithaca’s plan acknowledges the highly collaborative and “non-linear” nature of this work, it also does an effective job of breaking down its equity plan into three concrete focus areas, including Develop Capacity, Services to Students, and Community Partnerships. Ithaca also applies a standard planning framework to articulate its plan in each sub-component of these areas (for example, the “Data Analysis” component within Develop Capacity). Elements of this standardized planning framework include:

  • A Statement of Need describing the district’s current state or opportunity in that component area
  • A Strategic Design section, which articulates high-level goals
  • A Development section, which outlines action steps & resources
  • An Implementationsection, left blank in this initial version of the equity plan
  • An Evaluation section, which offers high-level Criteria for Success in the relevant component area

Notably, the “Implementation” section for each component is left blank for all seventeen (17) sub-components at this point in the plan’s development. The implication is that the authors of Ithaca’s strategic plan are comfortable setting out high-level goals and criteria for success but will leave it to those stakeholders “closest to the work” to develop the specific action steps and timelines for making that equity vision a reality.

The Bottom Line: You Can Create an Equity Plan Without “Knowing All the Answers” (Nor Should You Expect To)
When setting out to create a strategic equity plan for your school district or organization, don’t assume that you should articulate and publish a “fully-baked” plan from Day 1. In fact, this kind of approach (where leaders “deliver” a finalized equity strategic plan to staff) can actually further exacerbate the feelings of staff marginalization or inequity that your plan may intend to address. Instead, consider how you, as a system leader, are best positioned to create the organizational conditions for this work to feel inclusive, iterative, and authentic. Convening a steering committee or “advisory group” to help in the development of your equity plan is a great way to help ensure your plan is inclusive – see Raven’s previous post on Philadelphia’s bikeshare model for thoughts on developing this kind of inclusive governance structure.

The Talent Lesson
As you begin drafting your plan, think of yourself as an equity facilitator as much as an equity leader. You may ultimately be accountable for progress in this domain, but your focus should still be on creating the enabling conditions for this work to be successful, rather than “leading the work” yourself. With that in mind, consider the following when developing your plan:

  1. Focus your energy where you can add the most strategic value as a leader: Ithaca’s plan is most complete in those areas where system leaders can add the greatest value to the process, namely 1) developing organizational capacity and 2) facilitating communication between stakeholders. As a system leader, you may have a unique insight into how data infrastructure or analysis can be improved at your own organization in service of equity goals. You also likely have access to various communications channels that can ensure that this work is visible, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of internal and external stakeholders. As such, consider where you can take strategic action to improve the overall capacity of your organization to do this work well without further marginalizing the voices of those people for whom this work is most relevant. As one example of this, consider Google’s creation of their Annual Diversity Report that Kristina discussed in our last Talent Talk post.
  2. Plan for a non-linear process that may or may not fit into your “typical” strategic planning framework: You may be developing an equity plan in response to a request from your leadership team, or to address a concerning finding from a recent staff satisfaction survey or other source of employee feedback. Whatever the motivation, don’t assume that your organization’s standard strategic planning template will be appropriate for this work. Instead, focus on identifying the broad areas of focus, the current state (eg. Ithaca’s “Statement of Need”), and a preliminary vision for improvement or success (eg. the “Development” plan). You’ll likely want to do this planning in collaboration with your advisory group or steering committee. Much like the Ithaca plan, you’ll want to focus most of your energy on articulating a shared vision and criteria for success and less energy (if any) on specific timelines, Gantt charts, or “Key Performance Indicators”.
  3. Help set a vision, but leave the implementation planning to stakeholders who will be closest to the work: As the leader or owner of the equity plan, you may be feeling pressure to develop a fully-formed strategic vision and timeline for “operationalizing equity” from start to finish. Instead, work with your equity task force or advisory committee to develop a high-level vision, goals, and criteria for success, but leave the implementation details to the specific stakeholders or teams who will be involved in operationalizing a particular area of work. Creating an overly detailed timeline during the early stages of the planning process can come across as overconfidence in your ability to “solve” complex equity issues in your organization. Instead, plan to support specific stakeholder groups or project teams on an ongoing basis as they develop more concrete action plans and timelines related to their specific strand of the equity work. Ultimately, you are the champion, chief supporter, and communicator for this work, but you can’t do it alone. Make space in your plan for others to add their voice and vision, especially those employees or individuals who don’t typically get to “share the spotlight” at your organization.

These are my thoughts on how Ithaca’s equity plan may ve relevant to creating an equity strategic plan at your own organization. What are your thoughts? Join the conversation with Ben and the rest of the EdFuel team at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn.