By Erica Naone
“We define equity for students as every student getting what they need, at the time they need it, to maximize their individual potential,” says Leah Walker (M.P.A.’01/GPA), director of equity and community engagement for the Virginia Department of Education.
Walker has a warm smile and a powerful sense of mission. She’s dedicated her career to implementing public policy to enhance the lives of individuals, whether in the field of health care, youth development or in her current role in education. “Where my expertise comes into play,” she says, “is I am a public administrator and a public policy wonk, so I bring a point of view that is rooted in social justice, fairness, equity and a sense of what is the responsibility of the government.”
In Virginia’s education system, there’s plenty of work to be done. For as long as Virginia has collected data, wide gaps in academic achievement have persisted for students of color compared with white students. When the state released standardized test results earlier this year, scores were down statewide, and the drop was more pronounced among minority students.
“This is a critical issue that the state is grappling with,” Walker says, and her office has many initiatives designed to help.
Improving education at the state level comes with advantages and challenges. Because local school boards make decisions about direct services to students, Walker’s initiatives have to focus on where the state has authority. On the other hand, state-level initiatives can execute on a broad and consistent vision across the commonwealth.
For example, state-level data shows that, while white students comprise about 48% of the student population, white teaching professionals make up about 82% of the teaching population. A national conversation has sprung up around recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and recent research has shown how teacher diversity helps students of color succeed in school.
In her work, Walker says, she asks herself, “What are the things that we can do at a state level to manipulate the levers of government in ways that advance equity for students? How do we help local school boards or local school leaders understand the implications of some of the systemic issues that are still prevalent in public education? How do we provide them with the necessary resources and tools to advocate for change at the local level?”
Walker and her colleagues approach issues of teacher diversity by identifying barriers for teachers of color. The Department of Education adjusted the concept of teacher shortages to include a need for a diverse teaching workforce alongside existing needs for teachers in specific subject areas or for certain grade levels. This recalibration opened up resources to help teachers of color.
At a more concrete level, she and her colleagues noticed that teachers of color who entered the profession through an alternative pathway, such as the provisional licensure process, were less likely than other teachers to complete full licensure. Her office advocated for grants to help local school divisions develop programs for provisionally licensed teachers of color, ensuring they have the support to transition to full licensure. The first grants were awarded last year, so Walker says data on their impact isn’t yet available; the approach, however, is to deploy resources to target clear and specific problems that have equity implications statewide.
Andrew Daire, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Education, says Walker “is incredibly knowledgeable in understanding the complexities of factors that contribute to the challenges faced in many Virginia schools.” For the School of Education, Daire says, “I believe it is our responsibility to function like ‘first responders’ in running toward the challenges facing our K-12 schools, particularly our urban and hard-to-staff schools.” Walker has been a key partner as the School of Education implements programs to ramp up the pipeline of prospective teachers and works to prepare teachers and school leaders, he says. He notes her work on the school’s strategic planning committee as well as connecting the School of Education with data to help determine and support its initiatives. She also regularly speaks to students and faculty on diversity and equity in K-12 education.
Walker says that her job encompasses too many facets for such a thing as a “typical day” to exist, but her work involves conducting research, meeting with educators and partners and finding ways to communicate with the public about education initiatives. She led the launch of the Virginia is for Learners public information campaign and is also working to address achievement gaps through the #EdEquityVA initiative. That initiative includes a series of webinars with resources and technical support to help educators improve equity outcomes for students, such as learning how to better meet the needs of English learners and engage Latinx families in their children’s education. She’s also establishing an EdEquityVA “community of practice” to connect equity coordinators across the state so they can benefit from each other’s expertise.
“Leah is an instrumental part of the commonwealth’s work to advance equitable outcomes for our students,” says James Lane, Ed.D., superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education. “She is the type of leader who is great about getting the focus on the most important aspects of our work and is a thought leader in helping guide all of her colleagues on how we should move projects forward successfully for the benefit of all children,” he says, adding, “She brings a unique perspective on problem-solving from a broader context than just the education field, which is so helpful as we think about best practices.”
Walker says her role is to provide an “expert understanding of how government works and what the levers are within government to impact change at different levels.” If state legislators and the governor create a budget that includes funds to support retention of teachers of color, she explains, it’s the role of public administrators to implement that program effectively.
“Equity is a part of her DNA,” says Dietra Trent, Ph.D. (M.P.A.’95/GPA; Ph.D.’07/GPA). Trent, who was secretary of education under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, oversaw Walker’s work at the time. (She is now chief of staff at George Mason University.) “Equity is something she’s been passionate about for a long time.”
Overcoming many of the challenges Walker and colleagues face will take time and hard work. She notes that Virginia, like other states, is seeking ways to advance an equitable system of education while still addressing the remnants of systemic racism. She remains committed to doing her part: “It will take bold leadership to advance change.”