An Ahwatukee woman with 25 years experience in education who broke gender barriers in her native Sierra Leone hopes to level the playing field for diverse students in the Chandler Unified School District.
Adama Sallu, the district’s new director of equity and inclusion, is charged with ensuring that “all children coming to Chandler schools have access to an equitable and inclusive learning environment where they’re valued and excellence is demanded.”
Sallu’s appointment fulfills a promise that Superintendent Camille Casteel made to black parents angered by a racist video that some San Tan Junior High students made at home then put on the internet
Further exacerbating tensions were complaints that minority students are more likely to be suspended than Caucasian students and less likely to achieve academic success.
“We can close the achievement gap and discipline gap,” Sallu said. “We can’t afford to have a group of kids failing every year. We must critically examine the data. We need to examine ourselves and our own systems. Teachers are cultural agents. Teachers need to be very, very mindful about who they are. All of us are equity. Our voices are critical; it takes a village.”
She said Chandler is already a “great school district” and no drastic changes are planned.
Parents had demanded the school district take action against the boys involved in making the video, but Casteel said it did not have the authority to punish them for something they did outside of school on their own time.
Casteel said the boys’ parents and school officials met with the boys “to teach them why the lyrics are so offensive and destructive, the ramifications of their actions and the dangers of social media.”
The governing board also adopted a resolution reiterating Chandler Unified’s commitment to diversity and fairness.
CUSD officials also engaged in an ongoing dialogue with African-American parents over broader issues, including a lack of racial diversity among the faculty and administrators and the disparity in disciplinary action against students.
During the 2016-17 school year, 36.7 percent of suspended K-12 students were Caucasian; 40.1 percent were Hispanic; 14.7 percent were African American; 2.3 percent were Asian and 1.9 percent are Native American.
That changed in 2017-18, when 40.3 percent of suspended students were Caucasian, 38.5 percent were Hispanic, 11.2 percent were African-American; 2.8 percent were Asian and 2.4 percent were Native American.
“Disproportionality is always a cause for concern and reflection,” district spokesman Terry Locke said. “National-level research, and our own research in CUSD, suggests that this type of disproportionality is often observed because of subjective discipline measures.”
He said it is vital that teachers and administrators have a “culturally responsive pedagogy” and that the maintains “a system centered in equity.”
Sallu and other administrators say they also want to address the achievement gap in the Chandler district schools.
On the English language arts portion of AzMERIT tests in 2016-17, proficiency scores were achieved by 74 percent of Asian students, 62 percent of Caucasian students, 36.6 percent of Hispanic students, 36.4 percent of African-American students and 30.9 percent of Native Americans, according to the district report.
In 2016-17, 76.7 percent of Asian students who took AzMERIT math tests were proficient. Proficiency was achieved by 62.8 percent of Caucasians, 34 percent of Hispanics, 31.3 percent of African-Americans and 35.7 percent of Native Americans.
To ensure that all students have the opportunity to achieve the same levels academically and are disciplined fairly and equitably, three things must happen in the district, she said.
First, teachers need to reflect on who they are and their “own stories,” biases and beliefs about people of different backgrounds, Sallu said.
Then the district needs to review its policies and practices to see how it might be “targeting certain students” and strive for more objective discipline, she said.
Sallu said the district should also review its curriculum and instruction to see “how we are teaching all children.”
In CUSD, 53.2 percent of students are Caucasian, 27.1 percent Hispanic, 8.9 percent Asian, 5.2 percent African-American, 1.3 percent Native American and 0.3 percent Pacific Islander.
Teachers need to see who the students in front of them are and determine how they can differentiate instruction to make lessons meaningful, understandable and relevant for all, Sallu said.
Sallu was born and spent most of her childhood in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as the oldest of three daughters with a father who head a successful electrical company.
Her mother was not allowed to go to school because education for girls was historically not valued in the country. But her mother wanted to change that for Sallu and her sisters.
“My mom thought if girls could read and write, they could change their trajectory,” Sallu said.
She and her sisters took that advice to heart. Sallu, after graduating from a rigorous all-girls boarding high school in Sierra Leone, moved to the United States at age 17 and lived with relatives.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from the College of Our Lady of the Elms in Massachusetts, and a master’s in social work from Smith College, also in Massachusetts. She earned a doctorate in educational leadership from ASU.
One of her sisters earned a master’s degree and worked for the United Nations before her death, while her youngest sister works as a nurse in Massachusetts.
“Human potential cannot be minimized,” Sallu said. “Excellence was demanded of me at boarding school. I bring that passion to this work.”
She instilled in her own children the importance of an education. Sallu’s daughter, Tanishia Amie Bailey, is a healthcare policy analyst working on her master’s degree. Her son, Cymché, served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, and will start his studies at ASU this fall.
Before moving to Arizona, Sallu worked as a health teacher at an elementary school in Springfield, Massachusetts, for three years and then as a school adjustment counselor at another elementary school for five years.
Before joining the Chandler school district, Sallu worked was program supervisor of prevention services in the Kyrene School Disrict, from 2003 to 2009.
She later worked as assistant principal at Kyrene del Milenio Elementary in Ahwatukee and then at Kyrene Aprende Middle School in Chandler before becoming the district’s assistant director of equity.
Sallu also was a full-time instructor/lecturer for social work students at ASU and she will work as a part-time adjunct instructor there. She also served on an Arizona Department of Education committee that created policy guidelines in incorporating culturally inclusive practices for local educational agencies.
Schools will be able to use the guidelines to meet diverse learners’ educational needs.
Since Sallu started in the Chandler district, teachers last month got a two-hour preliminary review of “Deep Equity,” which helps schools and districts establish the protocols, climate, common language and common goal of carrying out culturally responsive teaching practices.
Principals also got eight hours of training on “We Can’t Lead Where We Won’t Go: An Educator’s Guide to Equity” by Gary R. Howard. The guide includes activities for teachers to review their overt and hidden attitudes about race, gender, class and sexual identity.
Every school in Chandler will have an equity team (made up of staff members chosen by principals) that will receive more in-depth training on the guide.
Sallu said she also is going to create an equity advisory board with an “eclectic collection of people.”
“The advisory board will engage in a plethora of activities that will guide…in the creation, implementation, sustainability and evaluation of equitable programs at CUSD,” she said.?Sallu said she would also like to start a film and lecture series about diversity and equity. Another goal is an annual equity institute for teachers and the public.
The Chandler school district hired ASCD, a professional learning services company that helps schools promote diversity and ensure equity. Their products, including webinars and books, will be used to promote and built the equity capacity of staff members.
Janelle Wood, founder and president of the Black Mothers Forum, is impressed with Sallu and pleased the district hired her.
“She is very knowledgeable about the subject matter and she, too, is a black woman, which makes it nice she understand the majority of our concerns,” she said, adding:
“She has expertise of how to articulate that to district, teachers and staff and help students relate to one another. She’s had to raise children in America, black children in America. I like that she can empathize and she can also understand that people that have implicit bias might not recognize that they do. Her experience level is on par.”
“We just felt there was a level of insensitivity toward the impact that it had on the black students,” she said. “Bullying is centered on impact.”
Wood said hiring Sallu was “a step in the right direction but this can’t be the only step.”
“She’s only one person,” she said. “At some point we need to hire a staff for her. I want to encourage Adama. I want to give her encouragement and let her know she is a welcome change to Chandler.
“If she’s successful, the district will be, then our children will have a great, fighting chance to be successful.”
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