Impact Story

Disrupting Inequity, Creating Coherence: A Look Inside an System-Wide Partnership with Tamalpais Union High School District

Impact Story

When a district sees awesome academic results for its white students and abysmal results for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students, there is a need for coherent, system-wide change. Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) in Northern California is approaching this dilemma by building a district-wide culture of anti-racist inquiry. By incorporating multiple equity initiatives, including focal student work and reflective learning amongst teachers, site leadership teams, and site leaders, TUHSD, in partnership with Lead by Learning, is building an inquiry culture that centers BIPOC students’ experience. Utilizing current thinking around adult learning, data collection, and analysis, TUHSD continues to build its capacity to serve its most marginalized students. 

Set amongst lush redwood forests and in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, Tamalpais Union High School District is located in Marin County, a historically wealthy region of California’s Bay Area. Enrollment is approximately 5,000 students across six schools. The median income within the district is $150K, far above the national average; the student population is 70% white and the percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunch is 7%. Within this environment, TUHSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Kelly Lara, is continually asking herself, “Are we tending to the seams?” By this, she means: is our work as adults coherent and aligned towards our district goals to support all students, especially BIPOC students? Are we building a sense of belonging and social-emotional safety on campus, as we also cultivate scholars who are engaged and invigorated by their schooling experience? 

The core of TUHSD’s system-wide change process is located within two communities of practice that meet monthly: the Learning Leadership Team (LLT) Network—composed of teacher leaders, instructional coaches, counselors, deans, and program coordinators—and the Academic Leadership Network which brings site and district leaders together to co-create a culture of adult learning which can then be reenacted within the LLT Network, creating ripple effects back on-site. Through Lara’s work with Lead by Learning, she developed a key belief that continues to guide her: all leaders need an opportunity to collaborate within their own community of practice before being expected to do it on their own with colleagues. 

Lara entered into a partnership with Lead by Learning, with the goal of continuing to hone her own stance and build nesting levels of support. She understood that she wasn’t a lone wolf, or a solo crusader; she needed partners across the system to get her vision off the ground. This commitment to building leadership capacity included monthly coaching from Lead by Learning for all site leaders in the system, for Lara herself, and for a team of district leaders. Lara’s intentionality around achieving equitable outcomes for BIPOC students was expressed in her awareness that leadership matters: her system-wide leadership, as well as leadership on-site, from both administrators and teacher leaders.

With this philosophical grounding front and center, Lead by Learning worked with both the Academic Leadership and LLT Networks to track three key priorities for their 2023-2024  inquiry cycle:

  • 80% of teachers identify a BIPOC focal student and complete the Focal Student Showcase process by June 2024.
  • 80% of teachers implement selected High Impact Instructional Practices with their focal student. 
  • 80% of teachers complete a Looking at Student Work Inquiry Protocol. 

Lara understood that, by empowering both site and teacher leaders through their respective networks, the practices of all educators within the district could be impacted, leading to positive results for BIPOC students. Lead by Learning built on this understanding through supporting our TUHSD partners around the key practice of Public Learning: as a tool to build an equity lens, as a key lever for change within systems, and as a venue for furthering the capacity and confidence of all adult learners in the district. Some key questions that both Networks circled back to during Public Learning included:

  • Are we focused on what we said we were going to focus on?
  • What does the data say?
  • How do you know we are doing what we said we were going to do?

Additionally, with support from Lead by Learning, Lara had several “ah-ha moments” about the work of moving a system towards more equitable outcomes. First, she created a theory of action for harnessing the collective power of the adults in the district: if we create coherence, use our time in service of our priorities, and progress monitor our initiatives and action steps, then we will see academic and social-emotional growth amongst our most marginalized kids. Lara created several data points to assess her theory of action. Among them—a reduction of year-end D, F, and Incomplete grades for BIPOC students by 10%, as compared to data from the previous school year.

Second, Lara was honest about the heavy-lift of countering white dominant culture within schooling, “Schools are a machine. It wants to function and operate in the way it always has. We really need to set out and take explicit and deliberate action if we want to disrupt the machine.” This led to the third “ah-ha moment.” Lara realized that some educators were having a hard time thinking about where they fit into this new push for equity. She adopted the growth mindset that all of her teachers came to school wanting to do what was best for kids. However, many were struggling: “How do we help adult learners find their space in the (equity) work they are (now) doing?” She identified what began to look like a spectrum, rather than a binary: early adopters, those that were later to start, those that didn’t think this work was for them.

This third “ah-ha moment” gave Lara an opportunity for a powerful pause and led to more inquiry questions:

  • How do we support all educators in the system to find their belonging within this work?
  • How can we help people to engage on a continuum or spectrum?
  • Where are (individual teachers) within a continuum of implementation: are (they) exploring these new concepts?
  • What steps can (they) take to go from exploring to trying? 
  • How can (they) move from trying to adopting and internalizing? 
  • For site leaders: what steps are you taking to help teammates progress through the continuum—to go from questioning to exploring, from trying to applying?

This continuum framework became part of the TUHSD coherence model for equity. As Lara states, “It gave us language to talk about where our colleagues are at.  It also put the onus on (site) leaders to do something. Take action to help your teachers move along on the continuum.” By year’s end, as Lara reflected on the data sets that correlated to TUHSD’s three key priorities for 2023-2024, she was both optimistic and resolute in continuing to disrupt the machine of status-quo schooling.

Of the three comprehensive high schools within the district, there were varied outcomes across the three key priorities: identifying and engaging in an inquiry cycle around a focal student, investigating effective instructional practices, and collecting and analyzing focal student work. Lara was proud of the work that teachers and leaders engaged in, as they forged learning partnerships with focal students across lines of identity. She noted that one of the three comprehensive high schools reported that 100% of teachers engaged in all three key priorities, a rate of 20% beyond the goal. This school site also had the best results for academic data; the rate of D, F, and Incomplete grades for BIPOC students had significantly declined. There was a correlation between “students being seen, valued and heard” as part of focal student-teacher learning partnerships, and being able to successfully access the school’s academic program.

This powerful outcome is the foundation for further partnership between TUHSD and Lead by Learning in the 24-25 school year. A plan for Instructional Rounds at every site, each trimester, combined with a third year of focal student work will create a rich store of street-level data. With these next steps, Kelly Lara continues to harness the collective power of all the adult learners in Tamalpais Union High School District, and keeps engaging in system-wide anti-racist culture change.


Interested in working with Lead by Learning to support professional learning and systems change in your district? Connect with a member of our team to learn more about our partnerships.