Jennifer Rowe has been hired as the first-ever director and belonging at Lyons Township High School District 204, putting the school district in the vanguard of a growing national trend. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Lyons Township High School District 204 now has a director of equity and belonging, putting the district in the vanguard of a national hiring trend that’s growing quickly. 

The District 204 school board unanimously approved the hiring of Jennifer Rowe at a meeting on Aug. 16. Rowe’s starting salary will be $155,000. 

Rowe comes to LTHS from Indian Prairie School District 204, where for the last two years she served as the district’s executive director of educational equity. Before that role, she was a dean of students at Metea Valley High School for a decade and a teacher for 11 years prior to that. 

During an interview on Aug. 30, her first day on the job at LTHS, Rowe said she’ll spend her initial weeks and months in the position learning. 

“I think we can always have a vision, but right now the big piece is how do you come in and look at a community and see where they are?” she said. “How do you work with the team and see that you can plan together? It can be a challenge to come in and say, ‘This is my vision,’ without getting to know the people I’ll be working with. 

“So, right now is that time for me to really get in and talk to people, hear what they’ve done and get a feel for what their needs are.” 

Jennifer Rowe (center), the director of equity and belonging for Lyons Township High School, stands for a photo outside the North Campus in La Grange with junior Noor Hassan (left) and senior Ali Guerrero on Aug. 30, Rowe’s first day on the job. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

District 204 Superintendent Brian Waterman said Rowe’s hiring is the culmination of work that’s been done by the school board in the area of equity over the last year. 

“In January, our board adopted an equity statement that underscored the commitment to this work,” Waterman said. “The next step was to find a person to develop it.” 

As director of equity and belonging, Rowe has a position on the superintendent’s district-wide administrative leadership team. Waterman said she’ll work closely with other senior administrators on a range of responsibilities. 

Some of those duties include working with human resources to ensure that the district’s hiring practices are equitable, working with the director of curriculum on professional development for teachers and staff, and facilitating community outreach. 

The breadth and totality of Rowe’s functions are aligned with how she thinks about equity. 

“Equity is not something added to the plate,” she said. “It is the plate. It’s the lens through which we look at all things.” 

Rowe will try applying her expansive concept of equity and belonging in a school district where roughly 72 percent of students are white, 21 percent of students are Hispanic, 3 percent of students are Black, 2 percent of students are Asian and 2 percent are multiracial, according to the school’s Illinois Report Card. 

Roughly 11 percent of D204 students are considered low-income and 11 percent of students receive special education services. The school district serves the southwest quarter of Brookfield.

“We always want to racialize equity work, and that’s not where it should live and die,” she said. “It connects into everything. The best school districts provide the best education for all of our students. We have to look at how we’re applying that equity lens. What decisions are we making? What does our day look like? What materials are we using? All of this is connected. It’s not one thing.” 

Rowe said her career as a classroom teacher helped form her as an educator.

“When you’re a teacher of color and realize that there aren’t that many of you, but there are a lot of kids of color who want to see themselves in you — that understanding shaped me as a young educator,” she said. “So, for most of the first part of my career, I was focused on being an excellent teacher.” 

Rowe said the experience stayed with her when she transitioned into a career as a dean and she worked to develop restorative justice practices and on various initiatives that fostered a sense of belonging, particularly among Black male students. 

“It bothered me that a lot of my Black boys would struggle in school, so I wanted to make an impact with them and on their experiences,” she said. “When they see themselves in those experiences in a joyful way, that’s powerful.” 

Ironically, there’s not much of that kind of role modeling in Rowe’s own profession. While trending, the position of equity director, particularly at a high school, is still a novel concept. 

It’s difficult to track precisely how many equity-related administrators work in public school districts in the state. An attempt to get an answer from the Illinois State Board of Education was unsuccessful, but Rowe’s experience is telling. 

Rowe said she’s currently in a consortium of school equity professionals across the northwest suburban region, which includes suburbs like Oak Park. There are about 15 members of the consortium — “we’re all African American except for one Latina” — and they’ve been meeting for the last year to talk shop. 

But the consortium is so new, Rowe said, that they’re still working on a name for it. 

“We are really fresh,” she said. 

And the movement to hire equity professionals isn’t contained to schools. Equity hiring is all the rave across sectors. 

According to a recent analysis by Glassdoor, the employment website, job postings for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles in the United States rose by 30 percent in 2019. 

A month after the George Floyd murder in May 2020, DEI-related job openings started to rise by 55 percent after falling by 60 percent at the start of the pandemic in March, the analysis showed.

Precious Porras, who was hired earlier this year to become chief diversity officer for Dominican University in River Forest, gave some reasons for the recent uptick in equity-related hires across the country. 

“In the last year, it’s been prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the protests from last summer,” she said. “In the last five or six years, it’s been the Black Lives Matter movement emerging, coupled with the violence against Black bodies. Perhaps institutions are realizing they need to respond and act.” 

Other public and private school districts in the area that have made DEI-related hires in the last several years include Oak Park Elementary School District 97, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, Fenwick High School in Oak Park and Proviso Township High School District 209 in Forest Park. 

There may be even more public schools hiring equity professionals in the future, particularly since the Illinois State Board of Education made equity a central focus in its recent strategic plan. 

“The strategic plan offers this concise definition of these goals: ‘Equity means having high expectations for every learner and providing supports and resources so each learner can meet those expectations,’” ISBE states on the Equity Information and Resources page of its website. 

“A lot of schools are adding the position because they need the advice and it’s kind of scary leading that charge,” Rowe said, adding that Indian Prairie may have been the “first or second” school district in the entire state to hire an equity director, when it did so about a decade ago.

“People want to do the right thing and they want to do this work, but it’s how you do it,” she added. “Schools are often asked to do so much without the tools and resources to do it. Communities have an expectation that we have to do our best in educating students, staff and families. So, we need someone who has that area of expertise to lead the charge in that work.”