SD County Office of Education offers local districts lessons on equity

A poster on the San Dieguito Academy High School campus during the GSA's Love Lunch in February 2020.
A poster on the San Dieguito Academy High School campus during the GSA’s Love Lunch in February 2020.

(Celeste Barnette)

Diversity, equity and inclusion have become a priority for many school districts this past year. To address those issues, local districts have turned to partnerships with the San Diego County Office of Education’s equity department—over the last month, work has begun in the Del Mar and San Dieguito Union High School Districts.

But what does that really mean?

“The biggest piece is really about building community. It’s about seeing each other’s humanity, having empathy for the other person whoever they may be,” said Fabiola Bagula, senior director of SDCOE’s equity department. “It’s the commitment that every student receives what they need to develop their full academic and social potential.”

Whenever she works with a district, one of the first things she does is go through the many different definitions of equity, what teachers and administrators agree with and what they disagree with. In its simplest terms, equity is the ideal of being just, impartial and fair. What equity means to Bagula is that every child gets what they need, how they need it and when they need it.

A native San Diegan, Bagula was an educator for over 20 years in the San Diego Unified School District. A former principal and assistant superintendent, she was always active in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion and is a National Equity Project fellow. The county department she leads is only three years old and is currently under contract working with 12 districts, including locally San Dieguito, Del Mar and the Encinitas Union School District.

The equity department also offers free workshops and serves as a resource for all 42 school districts in the county whenever they need support. They have a yearly Equity Conference and last year began hosting student experience panels. They have hosted these individual panels to hear the experiences of LGBTQIA+, American Indian, Latinx, Black, Asian, Middle East North African students—videos and transcripts of the student conversations are available to view online. On May 26, they will host one with students with disabilities.

“One of the things we’ve been doing that I really love is we’ve been listening to students,” Bagula said. At these panels, the county asks the students from their perspective what educators should be working on.

“The kids all say ‘Please start with joy. Tell us our story and our positive contributions to this country’,” Bagula said. “I had a lot of Black students tell me ‘All we learn is about how we were slaves—we’ve done other things too’. Same thing with the Latinx kids; Asian kids said the same things too. They say ‘We’ve contributed. Can we show the joy in our contributions?’ I think that’s a really beautiful thing.”

A graphic the San Diego County Office of Education uses to illustrate equity.

In the equity department partnership, each district goes through a series of learning sessions and also has an opportunity to hire a coach. In the training, teachers develop equity consciousness and learn about constructivist listening, a technique for having intellectually challenging and emotionally demanding conversations. The sessions are broad but if a district has specific questions or an issue they are dealing with, the county tries to help as much as possible.

After the training Bagula said often teachers will want to immediately go do something different in their classrooms but it’s really about the teachers’ own “deep mirror work”, to understand what they project and what they understand about the world.

“The more you know yourself, the more you’re able to build rapport and cultural sync with the children in front of you,” she said.

Bagula often shares a story from her first year teaching. She got a job in City Heights and fully expected to speak Spanish and have a bilingual classroom. But to her surprise, her classroom was made up of Somali refugees. She didn’t know anything about refugee culture, their religion and she didn’t speak the language: “I didn’t even know how to say hello.”

“I had to do a lot of learning,” she said. “If I was going to serve the children in front of me I needed to learn about them to build that cultural bridge.”

Teachers need to learn how to relate to the community that they serve and, in some cases, that learning is continuous. Bagula said the county is working to expand its LGBTQIA understanding and resources, recently starting an LGBTQIA advisory group and working on a plan together about strategies to support students and ways to make them feel safe. Bagula said she is an ally but she is also working to strengthen her allyship because there’s a lot that she does not know, particularly about the transgender experience.

“We know that equity isn’t just about race, it’s about other groups as well,” she said, adding that another area they need to strengthen is special education and listening to the experiences of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

More districts have been interested in partnering with the equity department for training since the death of George Floyd last May and the protests for racial justice held across the country. In the midst of the pandemic, Bagula said she was mindful about the work she has done with districts.

“I appreciate that educators want to get trained but I understand they’re over-stressed right now. Teaching through a pandemic is a lot,” she said.

She and her team of four have had to make adjustments in how the work is done, factoring in Zoom fatigue and figuring out how they can build a strong community when they are online, rather than in person.

Locally in the San Dieguito district, students have protested since last summer to be heard on issues of equity, asking for things like more teacher trainings and a more diverse curriculum.

Some parents did not like the tactic and questioned why the district or the curriculum should bend to meet them when they represent such a small group. Bagula said she experienced a similar situation when she coached a high school with only 12 Black students.

“The fact that they’re so small a group should make it actually easier to help them feel welcome,” Bagula said. “Because really what this whole piece is is that we have somehow made some children feel that they don’t belong. So if we truly want to build a belonging culture, to maximize everyone’s potential, the fact that they’re small should make the work easier, not harder.”

The effort to be more inclusive can be seen as divisive but as Bagula said, it is not taking anything away from anyone else, it’s not a loss to any one group, it is a gain for the whole society.

“I love this work and at the same time, I know how divisive it can be,” Bagula said. “One of the first questions I ask the adults is ‘What scares you about leading for equity?’ I always share that my fear is to further divide. I don’t want to divide anyone. I think that’s actually one of our biggest problems is that we divide each other and then we feel like we don’t belong. As human beings we want to be seen and belong.”

“If everyone sees the light in each other, we can see the beauty in not only our differences but also our similarities.”

For SDCOE equity department resources, check out