College of Education and Human Development

Connect Magazine

Striving toward educational equity

LEAD conference audience


“The goal for us was to really marry practice and research,” says CEHD’s Executive Director of Educational Leadership Katie Pekel. “By that I mean putting practitioners and researchers in the same place and on a level footing. We know there’s a gap between research and practice and this is one way we are hoping to have two-way communication that leaves practitioners informed by research and researchers informed by practitioners who are living in schools every day.”

Pekel is talking about CEHD’s Leading in Equity, Action, and Diversity (LEAD) for PreK-12 System Improvement conference, in its third year this July 30 and 31. The conference’s mission of disrupting pervasive racial inequities draws hundreds of educational leaders from throughout the state.

“LEAD is a focused event addressing equity in a way that meets the needs of preK-12 educators and school leaders,” says CEHD Dean Michael C. Rodriguez. “It doesn’t profess to provide all of the answers, but to bring educators together to explore new ways of addressing common challenges and to learn from each other.”

Rodriguez says it is remarkable how common these challenges really are, whether in rural, suburban, or urban communities. “Equity challenges are uniquely experienced, given the composition of the local community, but they are also shared widely, since equity challenges reduce or prevent opportunities, experiences, and outcomes for one or more groups of students,” he says.

Every parent and every educator Rodriguez has ever met agrees that all Minnesota students deserve the best the state has to offer, he says. And LEAD is a way to contribute to equitability across the state by recognizing that more can be accomplished together.

“An overarching goal of the conference is that our attendees feel support from and engagement with the University,” Pekel says. “We want them to feel the U is what it is supposed to be—a land-grant institution—and a partner not only in supporting K-12, but equally important, learning from K-12. We want the conference to be a relationship builder and a way to deliver on that promise of a land-grant institution.” 


The beginnings of LEAD

The origins of the LEAD conference can be traced back more than a decade. In 2013, Rodriguez was named the Campbell Leadership Chair in Education and Human Development with a focus on education equity. Later that year, he collaborated with Julie Sweitzer, the executive director of the College Readiness Consortium, to create the UMN Education Equity Resource Center.

Beginning in spring 2014, they brought together a group of education equity scholars from across campus to discuss and plan a convening, initially to address education achievement gaps. “During this time, UMN President Eric Kaler called on the University to be a convenor to address these persistent challenges in K-12 education systems,” Rodriguez says. “Julie and I planned and raised funds for the first convening, held in the summer of 2016—Educational Equity in Action, with over 600 participants on campus.”

Due to the event’s great success, a second convening took place in the summer of 2017, with 500 educators participating. “During these convenings, presenters and participants addressed research-based initiatives that provided evidence or promise in addressing education disparities and ways to address barriers and challenges to make real change,” Rodriguez says.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted things for a bit, but after its easing, CEHD leadership and school partners discussed the possibility of returning to a convening role around the topic of education equity. A new planning team led by Innovation and Partnership Officer Ryan Warren was formed and a new name was selected: LEAD.

“The focus was turned to providing evidence-based information to more directly improve education systems to meet the needs of all students, with a focus on eliminating racial harm and disparities in education opportunities, experiences, and outcomes,” says Rodriguez. “Those of us that do this kind of work know that relationships are key. This includes relationships students and family members have with teachers, school staff, and school leaders. This includes relationships that teachers have with school staff and school leaders. And of course, relationships among peers and among colleagues are critically important.”

Pekel and Ayers at LEAD conference
Cherise Ayers and Katie Pakel kicking off the inaugural LEAD conference in 2022. 

Together we are wiser

What should attendees expect to take away from the conference? Rodriguez says there are practices and knowledge that continue to improve opportunities, experiences, and outcomes of students throughout their education careers, including those with the least experience in formal education settings or those that have had prior negative experiences, sometimes multigenerational. “Those practices and knowledge, often based on local culturally grounded ways of knowing and doing, can be adapted and tailored to meet local needs in other areas,” he says. “This requires commitment from leadership, engagement of management, and implementation from all—where implementation is no light task.”

There is a science to implementation and much has been learned about how to secure successful and meaningful implementation with integrity that acknowledges and fits local conditions, engages stakeholders, and leads to continuous improvement, Rodriguez explains. But the major takeaway for attendees can be expressed simply: “Mostly, participants gather to be in community and learn and explore together. We all recognize that together we are wiser,” Rodriguez says.

Pekel says that while you always want attendees to take away something useful and practical, there is also the desire that faculty participants see that their work is valued. “Sometimes we joke that Darrius Stanley wrote an article and 12 people are going to read it because it is in an academic journal that’s behind a paywall,” she says about the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development professor and LEAD presenter. “We’re trying to show that the research and ideas Dr. Stanley shares—while they rise to the level of being included in rigorous academic journals—they also are for the purpose of improving what is actually happening in communities and schools. I’m hoping that the researchers who engage in the conference feel validated that their work is useful and impactful.”

Participants raising hands

A fixed point on her calendar 

Lesa Clarkson feels such validation. Clarkson, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction (C&I), hosted two breakout sessions last year: “An Equity and Excellence Framework for Mathematics" with former C&I grad student and current assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Fawnda Norman, and “Eighth Grade Algebra? YES!”

“This is a fixed point on my calendar,” Clarkson says of the LEAD conference. “I find it that important.” From her perspective, Clarkson feels LEAD is essential to participate in because of the attendees—administrators, superintendents, and principals. “It’s really nice to be able to keep in contact with those people and to find out what is going on in K-12 education,” she says. “What are the challenges and what do they see? What are some of the ways they need support and what are the ways we can support them?”

Clarkson says she particularly enjoys looking at those challenges and helping find strategies for individuals. “Every school is not created the same,” she says. “There might be overarching challenges, but to hear about what is going on in specific schools or districts is really important. That feeds me as far as what I need to continue to do.”

For those who attend her sessions, Clarkson wants them to see connections among higher education, research, and practice in real time. “I just don’t see where we have time to do the work of finding good methodologies and pedagogies and getting them in print and then getting them to people where it would make a difference,” she says. “For these administrators to attend the presentations, it means we’re able to make those connections faster and make change happen to impact students in the classroom right now as opposed to a year or two down the line.”

That potential for immediate impact is what makes the timing of the conference—mid-summer—perfect, Clarkson says. “Right before school starts people are energetic and motivated. It’s a really good time to start thinking about what is going to make that particular academic year special.”


Educator takeaways 

Roseville Area Schools Assistant Superintendent Melissa Sonnek says the mission and vision of her district is around excellence, innovation, and equity, which makes the LEAD conference a must-attend event. So much so that she also was a presenter last year with Delon Smith, the district’s director of equity and innovation.

In their presentation, “Cultivating Equity Minded Instructional Leaders,” the duo hoped to instill that mindset in their audience. “If we want our principals and instructional leaders to be equity leaders, then we have to model that same approach as a district, from hiring to onboarding to principal evaluation to supporting professional development,” she says.

As for the rest of the conference, Sonnek was inspired. “I had this moment of hope when I was sitting in that big conference room," she says. "I looked around and saw all the educators across our state who are doing the same critical, important work. In the educational system, it can feel isolating—and it was this moment of realizing there are so many people who are committed to doing this work collectively. It’s not just one person in a system. It’s hundreds of thousands across our whole state.”

Besides hearing different perspectives from fellow educators, Sonnek also was pleased by the attendance of several legislators. “When we were engaging educators and legislators in a dialogue around the educational system in Minnesota, it really felt like a true partnership,” she says. “Because we were all working together in terms of a common goal or outcome.”

What makes LEAD refreshing to Sonnek is its focus on racial equity. “I’ve been to a number of conferences that have smart logistical approaches, whether it’s around professional learning communities or coaching adults, but they can do a disservice to the very system that we’re trying to service if it’s not grounded in racial equity,” she says.

A few things gleaned from LEAD were brought back to the Roseville district. “We hosted a literacy symposium where we had educators from around the state talking about literacy, the science of reading, the READ Act, and how we’ve approached shifting our literacy instruction to align more with the science of reading,” Sonnek says.

Another work-in-progress for Roseville came from Professor Stanley’s 2023 keynote address. Stanley spoke on “Community Engaged Leadership: A Call to Action for Educational Leaders.” Roseville took the call.

“We are working on a grant in partnership with another school district and the University of Minnesota,” Sonnek says. “The focus is around how schools and districts can be transformed through community-engaged leadership, which actually re-centers communities. His keynote laid out the mindset of why this matters. It provided a springboard to this grant project.”

Sonnek also reflects on a breakout session from St. Louis Park Schools, “Centering Our Community’s Hopes and Dreams through YDA,” in which students were the main driving force in gathering and presenting school data for the project.
“It was a really interesting approach. It expanded my conceptual framework around how we can use student voice,” she says. “Oftentimes we’ll have students on a panel giving feedback around something that we’re working on. This was different. It has students working through something, building it from the ground up. That’s something we’d like to explore more.”

Staci Allmaras, the director of school support of Lakes Country Services Cooperative in Fergus Falls, also has a special affinity for the St. Louis Park Schools student presentation. “I always think the sessions for me where young people’s voices are there sharing their experiences are so important,” she says. “The school district hired young people for an internship over the summer and the students learned how to look at the school data and then set goals for the staff. Professional development goals. I have brought that example up in so many places.”

Allmaras has attended the last two LEAD conferences. “We always hope to get—especially when we go as a team—resources and tools that we can then use in support of our schools. We’ve used so many nuggets from different sessions,” she says. “You make connections too, and that’s always helpful.”

Connections such as Paula Forbes' session “Listen to Heal,” featuring Bridgemakers Youth, which Allmaras attended in 2022. “I have continued to stay in touch with that group and it has done some work with the community group I work with in Pelican Rapids,” she says. “The LEAP [Listening, Engaging, Advocating, and Partnership] framework from Dr. Stanley has been a helpful resource in our work with schools and community engagement.”

Allmaras was also excited to hear keynote speaker Gholdy Muhammad in 2022, who will be returning to the conference in 2024. “We used her literature in a curriculum course that I have taught at the graduate level,” she says.

Perhaps what Allmaras appreciates the most about LEAD is its size and offerings. “It’s not super big. So many of the conferences we go to, there’s just too many people. I love having it at the U. I make so many connections,” she says. “And the content is unique compared to other conferences I’ve been to because it really is around inclusion, embracing multiple perspectives, and how we can do better within the systems.”

The future of LEAD

CEHD has committed to hosting the LEAD conference for five years, after which time, its future is open. “Since we have two years of experience with the conference, we are now able to use participant feedback a bit more to shape future efforts,” Rodriguez says. “I hope we can continue to be responsive to participants and bring to LEAD activities that will meet their needs.”

Pekel says the conference has strived to deliver sessions around what is really relevant in K-12 at the time. “For example, in year two of the conference we really built off of and engaged in literacy because of what was coming out of the legislative session relative to the READ Act,” she says. “As we were thinking toward this upcoming year, we have legislation around American Indian culture and language. After that, I speculate we will probably move into mathematics.”

After LEAD’s fifth year, CEHD may consider alternate forms of its delivery. “Perhaps it will include shorter events throughout the year,” Rodriguez says. “Perhaps it will include events in other areas of the state. Perhaps it will offer shorter gatherings for specific types of participants. I think there are many ways in which we can continue this work and gather to share common experiences, knowledge, and practices. Together, we learn more.” 


Learn more about LEAD:

This year’s LEAD conference takes place July 30 and 31, 2024 at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities.

Photo credit(s): Marjan Samadi, and Jayme Halbritter

This is why I give

“Sometimes opportunities will find you,” says DuWayne Witt (BS ’72), “I know that was the case for me.”
Witt started at the U of M in the Institute of Technology (now called the College of Science and Engineering), thinking he wanted to become an engineer. The first in his immediate family to attend college, he always found satisfaction in working with numbers and after some reflection, changed direction to pursue a mathematics education degree with the intent to teach high school. 

duwayne and kay witt standing by UMN sign

After graduating, he worked while looking for a teaching position and thinking about what he wanted to do. He was hired at 3M in 1974 as a quality control engineer, retiring 38 years later as a supervisor of manufacturing engineers in New Ulm. Witt’s career path utilized his math background and connected back to his original goal of being an engineer. “You could say that I made the full circle in achieving my aspirations,” he laughs.

Witt also stayed true to his interest in teaching while working for 3M. He helped start and coached for a MATHCOUNTS program for middle schoolers, and filled in for a local high school calculus class. He also taught quality control in partnership with South Central College. After retirement, he spent nine years tutoring as an AmeriCorps Foster Grandparent.

When Witt reached the age when he needed to take required minimum distributions from his retirement account, he decided to use some of that money to help others. DuWayne and his wife Kay established the Witt Family Scholarship for Math Education to benefit students who plan to make teaching mathematics a career and inspire young people to enhance their interest in mathematics as well.

His monthly donations also benefit several other areas across campus, including the mathematics school, the libraries, and incoming student scholarships. Witt is a longtime fan of Gopher basketball and has held season tickets for over 50 years. He also stays connected through his Alumni Association life membership and the MN 201 advocacy program. 
Witt looks forward to learning about the CEHD students who receive his scholarship. “What better way to give back than to support those aspiring to be teachers?” he says. “Math is a critical subject that is the foundation of a technical career, and we need young people with strong skills who are going to pave the way in an increasingly high-tech economy.”

—Ann Dingman

Weaver speaking at conference
Mansfield at LEAD

Collaborating with the Department of Education

Stanley speaking at LEAD conference