While the formation of the DEI Task Force is relatively new, the district’s belief in the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded in the enduring goals and aspirations and in the mission statements of SSES and HKMS. Recognizing and celebrating the individual characteristics of all students (diversity), providing all students with the support they need to reach their full potential (equity) and creating space for the voices of all stakeholders to be included regardless of their background (inclusion) are hallmarks of a quality education program.
This can only be accomplished in a school culture and climate that ensures that all students and staff are treated in an equitable manner with regard to the social and historical context of marginalized individuals. As we launch into this work, it is important to take time to clearly articulate our rationale. More specifically, we want to answer two questions: Why should we be focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion? Why should we do this now?
As a community, we are all aware of the decrease in enrollment over the last 10 years. Since 2010, Easton’s enrollment dropped from 1,098 to 858 as of October 1, 2020. Despite this overall decrease of 22%, the number of students of color increased by 38% from 113 to 156 over the same period. Currently, students of color make up 19% of our total population of students. Additionally, the number of English learners increased from 2 in 2010 to 16 in 2020.
Like many districts across the country, Easton’s cultural make-up of students together in one classroom has changed drastically, and thus, we must reflect on how we teach and interact with students to make sure they are given equitable access. These increased levels of cultural diversity within schools and classes have added new challenges in ensuring all students are given every opportunity to learn.
Our current and future diversity, equity and inclusion work includes a strong focus on professional learning for teachers designed to support teachers in deepening their understanding of diverse experiences and honing their ability to teach in a manner that strives to be safe and inclusive for all. This PD will also allow teachers to review their curriculum, lessons and classroom materials to ensure that they reflect our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and that our diverse student body is represented and celebrated.
Social and Emotional Learning
We recognize the importance of attending to the social and emotional learning of all students. The pandemic has exacerbated the needs of our students and required us to make adjustments to the supports that are in place for all students while also expanding resources available to students with more significant needs. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are close connections between SEL and equity.
While SEL alone will not solve longstanding and deep-seated inequities in the education system, it can help schools promote understanding, examine biases, reflect on and address the impact of racism, build cross-cultural relationships, and cultivate adult and student practices that close opportunity gaps and create a more inclusive school community. In doing so, schools can promote high-quality educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, irrespective of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences. (casel.org).
We know from current SEL research that emotions matter and that all students learn best when they are provided with a positive, affirming and student-centered environment designed to support their unique needs. Given the impact of COVID-19 on our students, it is important that we move forward with our diversity, equity and inclusion initiative and focus on SEL.
Safe School Climate
Easton, Redding and Region 9 Schools are committed to creating and maintaining a physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe educational environment free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination. During past presentations, administration identified five key components of a safe and healthy school climate:
- Someone to talk to
- Happy to be in school
- Part of a community
- Treated fairly
- Feeling safe
Each year, students are given the opportunity to share feedback on the School’s Climate Survey. The survey results from spring 2019, indicate that an overwhelming number of 2nd-8th grade students have positive feelings about school and feel safe. In the elementary survey, students were asked if they agree with the following statement: Students respect differences in other students (for example, if they are a boy or a girl, where they come from, what they believe). Of the 255 students who responded, 22 (8.62%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.
Middle school students were asked if they have directly observed others being treated unfairly because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, academic achievement, ethnicity, disability, physical appearance, or other. They were also able to indicate that the above behavior has not happened. The results are listed on the table below:
Middle school students were also asked about their personal experiences and perception: If you have been treated unfairly at times by classmates, it was because of: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, academic achievement, ethnicity, disability, physical appearance, or other. They were also able to indicate that the above behavior has not happened. The results are listed on the table below:
In 2018-19, HKMS had 51 students of color. Assuming those who indicated race were students of color, more than half of them perceived unfair treatment at school. These results, along with our commitment to fostering a safe school climate, underscores the importance of our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Furthermore, they highlight the need for us to dig deeper into our students’ experiences in order to identify appropriate action steps that will close the gap between our desired results and our students’ lived experiences.
The How of DEI
While our recognition of changing demographics, understanding of SEL and commitment to a safe school climate provide a strong rationale for focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, it does not provide a roadmap for determining how to move forward. As we considered our next steps, it was clear that our traditional approaches to continuous improvement were not the best next step.
Within the field of education, there has been a common focus on data-driven decision making and setting SMART goals. Within this focused approach to continuous improvement, data serves as a central component of our work. This approach is most evident in our approach to academic improvement.
We use the standards to determine what students need to know and be able to do, and we use assessments to determine how they are progressing towards those goals. By developing a cyclical approach to analyzing data and making necessary mid-course adjustments, we are able to make iterative improvements designed to elicit different outcomes for students.
Despite its utility in addressing academic needs, using the above continuous improvement approach to diversity, equity and inclusion can be problematic.
- The first issue is the prevalence of data related to academic performance in comparison to DEI focused data. While it may be more difficult to diagnose the cause of a deficit in reading or math, we have multiple data sources that benchmark our academic performance throughout the year and highlight issues. Currently, we don’t have a mechanism in place to assess our schools’ culture and climate with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Without the presence of existing data, we must rely on students and staff to share their negative experiences related to diversity, equity and inclusion. This puts an unfair burden on the complainant to disclose, rather than proactively addressing potential issues before they arise. This is especially difficult when dealing with younger students and those who already feel marginalized because of their race, gender, sexual identity/orientation, religion, ability, etc.
- Many districts use disparities in academic outcomes based on race, gender, sexuality, etc. as the starting point for a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Often, these disparities are less obvious in smaller districts with a homogenous population of students.
Rather than approaching our diversity, equity and inclusion work like a typical academic or instructional challenge, we recognize the need for an equity audit. Equity audits are used to guide the collection and analysis of data, with a specific focus on differences in experiences, opportunities, and outcomes across student groups.
This audit will allow us to go beneath the surface and develop specific next steps. While there is broad commitment to this work among our teachers and administrators, we recognize the importance of outside expertise who will help guide the data collection and interpretation process, build capacity among staff, support our curriculum review/revision process and assist in crafting a clear path forward.
Since last spring, the district has received a number of recommendations from individuals and community groups who are keenly interested in the direction of our diversity, equity and inclusion work. These recommendations range from the adoption of resources to the creation of courses. In many cases, the recommendation is to replace our current curriculum with one that specifically addresses diversity, equity and inclusion.
While we appreciate the community’s all of the work that took place in preparing the resources, we are committed to moving forward with a student-centered approach to diversity, equity and inclusion that is aligned to our aspirational goals, and adheres to our Board policies on curriculum revisions. We believe that engaging with education consultants who have experience with supporting districts in this work will allow us to move forward with purpose, engage our community and clearly articulate our goals as we move forward.
Focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion is not a political act, and it does not have to be controversial. Educational equity is ensuring that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential and taking the necessary steps to identifying and eliminating barriers that would hinder their progress.