Guest blog by:

Bill de la Cruz, Director of Equity and Inclusion, Denver Public Schools


Creating Equitable Outcomes Through Relationships

Rural schools and communities across the country are going through profound demographic and economic shifts. Now is a critical time for such places to engage in deep conversations about educational equity and shared opportunity.

If there is anything I’ve learned through my work in schools and districts for the past 20 years, it is this: the current system we work in is not designed to educate the students in our schools. For the past 50 years, schools, and districts across the country have taken the programmatic approach—that is, trying program after program to fix problems. The fact is, programs have not closed gaps, shifted discipline disproportionality, nor created a culture that is welcoming and inclusive for all. The bottom line is that programs don’t work. So what does?

The system of education we operate in 2018 is a relic of one that was designed by white males to educate white males who were taught by white males in the late 1700s.

From this perspective, the very machinery of schools is antiquated, and must evolve. Many people will admit that we operate in an institutionally-biased system and that the system needs to be disrupted. This disruption, with the intention of breaking through centuries of serving narrow bands of student groups, is going to take diligence and focus. Discipline disproportionality, lack of access to advanced classes for students of color and poverty and inequitable resources across schools continue. Whether rural, suburban, urban, charter or neighborhood school, we all operate within the boundaries of the same system.

After many years of attempts at school transformation, we have not broken through these ongoing barriers through programmatic fixes. 

There is a need for another conversation to create the solution our children so desperately need. So why do we keep looking for programs to make the changes needed in our approach to transforming education? I submit that if educational transformation is not about programs, then it must be about people.

So, how do we invest more in our people?

How do we shift the mindset of educators and leaders who have been trained to sustain the status quo?  With the current and legacy of racial and social constructs in our country, it is imperative to ask these questions as part of a bigger conversation. As a country, we are exceedingly divided, and that division is showing up strong in our schools. Our teachers, administrators, families and all adults who interact with our students need to be engaged in the conversation to co-create action steps to disrupt patterns of inequity. Many of the approaches we take in these conversations turn into a “defend and justify” conversation which is always a lose-lose conversation. There is a better approach.

The approach I find helpful, is to facilitate conversations about the behavioral and emotional impact of biases in our systems and relationships.

I have been in schools as a parent, a presenter, a trainer, and a school board member. I have co-authored an equity toolkit for administrators with the Colorado Department of Education, and I currently work with Denver Public Schools as the Director of Equity and Inclusion while consulting with districts around the country on issues of equity, race class, and bias.

To disrupt the status-quo into a more relational approach for educational equity, a few things have to happen.

When we focus on relationships, we pay attention to the most fundamental humanity in our classrooms. When we ignore this, the legacies of bias and exclusion continue to show up in the form of teaching and learning structures that do not meet the needs of our students.

Relational leadership and education means paying attention to three important factors: an examination of our biases and how these show up in our classrooms, attending to the social-emotional needs of our students, and cultivating a warm and welcoming environment for all students and families.

When I recently asked some educators how much time they spent building relationships with each other, the answer was appalling—zero to 30 minutes per month.

How can we ask educators to do with their students what they cannot do with each other? In order to evolve our educational system in rural, suburban and urban communities, we must shift our mindsets to disrupt old and ineffective systems.

What do you need to shift to disrupt the status quo? What are you willing to give up in service to our children? What are you willing to start doing differently to better support the children in our care? How are you willing to lead in order to create equitable outcomes through relationships?

Guest Blog

Ken Kay, Chief Executive Officer, EdLeader21




A Great Moment for 21st Century Education in Rural America

For the past 15 years I have been working with education leaders and communities to advance a model of education suitable to the challenges of the 21st century. My perch has been as a leader of a professional learning community of superintendents and their leadership teams as they collaborate on making 21st century education a reality for all students. During this time, no leaders and communities have been more inspiring to me than the ones from the rural parts of our country.

That is why I am particularly excited to be participating in this year’s National Forum to Advance Rural Education. It will be a great venue for exchanging views on why this is a perfect time for rural communities to embrace 21st century education. Here are three initial thoughts:

1. The Timing is Good

We have just come through nearly two decades of failed education policies at the national and state level. The attempt to hold schools accountable to 50 year old metrics resulted in our doubling down on a system that was well suited for the challenges of the 1950’s and 60’s, but poorly aligned to the challenges of today and those that lie ahead.

Local communities have the opportunity to step into the void created by these policies and put together a model of education more suitable for their future. We are witnessing local communities and their districts seize this opportunity to innovate and transform their education models.

2. The Opportunities are Enormous

The real opportunity is for today’s schools and education to be better aligned with contemporary challenges. In this ever-changing climate, students need to be:

  • Self-Directed
  • Problem Solvers
  • Good Collaborators
  • Innovative and Creative

These competencies are not just needed for 21st century jobs, but to help students navigate the uncertainties and displacements likely to come in the next 50 years of their lives and careers. These attributes are not alien to rural communities; they lie at the heart of rural communities. Rural communities already instill many of these skills; our schools just need to become more purposeful and intentional about them.

We all know the many challenges of rural America. They are waiting to be solved. Why don’t we see our young people as a resource to solve them? One of our EdLeader21 superintendents, Amy Griffin of Cumberland County Public Schools in Virginia recently told me:

Our students face obstacles common to rural America, including access to healthy foods, high speed internet, and transportation. However, I have seen them on a daily basis use the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) to overcome many of these issues. If given the chance, students of rural America can and will find solutions to the problems in their communities.

3. It Takes Leadership and Vision

I know the challenges of rural America are daunting, but I have seen examples of strong dynamic education leadership throughout the country from Virginia to Kentucky to North Dakota. What it takes is a strong leader, a forward-thinking school board, and a strong commitment to a future vision.

Many of the districts have started the journey toward 21st century education by adopting a portrait of a 21st century graduate. These profiles are customized by each community to meet its own individual needs. The portrait provides a guiding “north star” for the transformation efforts of the school district. To learn more about the Portrait of a Graduate, check out

The most important thing you can do is reflect on the role you, as a leader, can play in bringing 21st century education to your district and community. Many superintendents and other education leaders have banned together to work collaboratively on implementing their Portrait of a Graduate. We, in EdLeader21, have offered such a network on the national level. Check out our work at


Brad Mitchell, Senior Strategist at Battelle for Kids, has argued that addressing the challenge of rural education in the 21st century is a “moral imperative”. I couldn’t agree with him more.

One of our EdLeader21 superintendent’s, Taylora Schlosser of Marin County, Kentucky put it this way:

Our children’s limits should not be set by where they are located.

Amy, Brad, and Taylora have laid down the gauntlet. Let’s take up their challenge!

See you in Denver!