ER9 Boards of Education Approve DEI Surveys

The Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards of education approved four surveys to gather data to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion at Helen Keller Middle School, John Read Middle School, and Joel Barlow High School. The overall votes across all three boards, cast at a June 1 special meeting, were 16 in favor of approving the surveys as submitted, three opposed, and one abstention.

The surveys are the work of the ER9 Joint Boards of Education Diversity and Equity and Inclusion Task Force Committee that formed last year to advise the three boards on ways to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the schools.

Parents must give their consent for middle and high school students to “opt in” and respond to the survey, and questions can be skipped. The survey is separate from the annual state-mandated bullying survey.

School Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison said the survey is a great opportunity to gather data from students who have otherwise not have felt fully seen or heard. “This survey is a way to get meaningful input from our students who are at the heart of every decision that we make, every policy that we put in place, every book we purchase, every dollar that is spent,” Harrison said.

More than 100 residents attended the public comment portion of the marathon May 25 regular meeting of the ER9 boards of education and the June 1 special meeting. The vote on the surveys was postponed until the June 1 meeting, which included a significant number of additional public comments from parents of current or former students, alumni, students, teachers, and community members. Many people spoke in favor of the survey and in support of the work the DEI Task Force is doing. Others opposed it and asked for it either to be rejected or delayed.

Easton resident Dana Benson told board members that he represents a group of 88 people who signed a letter asking the board to either vote down the survey or delay it. Benson’s limited liability company, formed to advocate for political and policy positions, recently sent Easton and Redding households a mailer. It took issue with the schools’ plans to increase their curricular commitment to examining racism and its consequences, and with the revised survey’s inclusion of questions about gender and sexual orientation.

Easton school board member Christopher Hocker urged the board to approve the survey despite the pushback. “Both sides have presented this in kind of apocalyptic terms,” Hocker said. “This isn’t Armageddon. This is a survey. It is a tool. It is going to hopefully give us information that will be used in some form or fashion that will make kids’ lives better.”

Redding school board member Michael Hoffman cast a no vote because he felt surveying “11-year-old students about gender and sexual orientation crossed the line.” Randy Hicks and Jeff Parker of Easton also voted against the survey because they felt that that DEI committee didn’t make enough changes in response to the concerns expressed by some members of the public.

Before the vote was taken, Redding Board of Education Chairperson Christopher Parkin spoke about the importance of the survey:

“How can we be serious in our efforts to ensure that we reach every student or respect one another … unless we can establish a basic baseline? Who is being left out of our caring community? Who doesn’t feel supported? Who is scared to ask for help? These are not radical questions. We’ve heard emotional testimony in our meetings … from former students about their experiences in our schools. Personally, I credit that experience with considerably more weight than the opinions of those who do not have recent lived experiences within the four walls of our buildings

We know there are students struggling due to their identity. Whether their experiences are discrimination, bullying, unfairness, or any other term that someone would like to load with a politically contentious connotation is irrelevant. We know that they exist. We hear stories of the courageous, but surely not of the less courageous, whose struggles are no less real.

We also know that students achieve academically when they feel safe, seen and supported. Do we not owe it to those underrepresented and marginalized students to understand their experiences? Who among us would reject the idea that classrooms should be inclusive spaces? If we are indeed committed to preparing students for a global world, we must embrace the diversity that exists in our own communities first, not demand that children be shielded from it or claim that bigotry or racism doesn’t exist so inclusion is irrelevant for our work. … Let’s practice what we preach and build a caring community.

Students learn reading, writing and math when they feel safe and included. Every student regardless of their sex, gender, race, body size, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, religion or political belief deserves an education in school where they are made to feel comfortable not marginalized.”

The Easton board voted three in favor and two opposed, the Redding board voted six in favor and one opposed, and the Region 9 Board voted seven in favor, zero opposed with one abstention.

Heather Whaley, a Redding board member and the chair of the DEI Task Force, said the approved survey gives marginalized individuals the opportunity to tell their stories in a safe and inclusive manner. “We have heard so many current and former students and families who have been waiting for years for a survey like this,” Whaley said. “It gives people the ability to be identified in the way they want to be identified.”

The video recording of the May 25 regular meeting and June 1 special meeting can be accessed below, along with links to the latest drafts of the surveys available on the ER9 website, and the document outlining next steps with a tentative timeline:

June 1, 2021 Special Meeting of the Easton, Redding, and Region 9 Boards of Education.
May 25, 2021 Regular Meeting of the Easton, Redding, and Region 9 Boards of Education.

Between Three Chairs: Superintendent Updates ER9 Board Chairs on Covid Vaccines for School Staff

This is the first installment published in the Easton Courier of Behind Three Chairs, virtual video conferencing between ER9 Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison and the Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards of education chairmen. The Covid-19 pandemic thwarted in-person meetings to communicate information and updates to the three school boards and the Easton and Redding communities. It led to improved virtual video conferencing, including Zoom meetings. In this video, Dr. Harrison explains the process for vaccinating ER9 teachers and staff to Jon Stinson, Easton Board of Education; Christopher Parkin, Redding Board of Education, and Todd Johnston, Region 9 Board of Education.

Between Three Chairs, Feb. 26, 2021.

Easton Democrats Welcome New Residents

Invite Participation on Town Boards and Commissions

Like many towns in Connecticut, Easton has seen a rapidly increasing number of voters who register as Democrats. So many, that for the first time in many years, “We’re nearly at parity and that’s great news for everyone,” said Nanette DeWester, chair of the Easton Democratic Town Committee.  “We’re proud that Easton is now a two-party town that reflects the growth and values of the entire community. It’s so important that more than one political party lead and direct a democracy in order for all the people to be fairly represented.”

The Easton Democratic Town Committee (EDTC) seeks Democrats to run in the upcoming 2021 municipal election for the paid, full-time town jobs of Tax Collector and Town Clerk, and the paid, part-time position of Treasurer. Interested Easton residents may contact DTC Nominations Chair David Katz for more information about experience and qualifications for these positions.

“We welcome all new Democrats to our party, and ask them to consider becoming part of town government as elected town officials or as members of elected or appointed citizen boards or commissions,” said Katz.

Elected positions for important town boards and commissions that will be on the ballot this year include the Board of Finance, the Easton Board of Education and Region 9 Board of Education, the Library Board of Trustees, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Board of Assessment Appeals, and others.

All these positions and boards wield significant decision-making power and influence over policy, budget, or quality-of-life issues in Easton. More information about open positions is available on the town website.

Easton residents interested in seeking endorsement or more information from the Easton Democratic Town Committee for any of these positions may contact David Katz at dpkatz5@gmail.com.

Democrats — old and new — are invited to join the Easton Democratic Town Committee in remote meetings on the first Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. Contact Lise Fleuette, EDTC secretary, at  dtc_secretary@eastonctdems.com to sign up and help us build a sustainable future for Easton. We believe in a transparent town government that advocates on behalf of everyone and with respect for the democratic process.

We support public officials who lead with moral character, truth, and compassion. We defend high-quality public education for all students. We uphold policies and decisions that protect our agricultural heritage and open space. We seek long-term prosperity for Easton residents that is rooted in equity and justice. We are focused on solutions and promote inclusive membership.

Easton DTC Meet and Greet with Senator Chris Murphy at a private home in Easton, CT

Easton Responds to Calls for Anti-Racism

Easton, Redding and Region 9 Boards of Education Create Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committees, Barlow Alumni and Students Form Social Justice Clubs

Across the country, activists have sustained months of protesting, sparked by the death of George Floyd and fueled by what many see as excessive force in police response to these protests. This activism has sparked conversations about racism in communities everywhere, including Easton.

With the national conversation about race resurfacing, many Americans have come to realize that the first step is to be more educated: Books about race have been selling out as people try to understand more about race and racism in the United States. Anti-racist initiatives around Easton, too, have focused on education.

The Easton Public Library has offered resources for those looking to educate themselves about anti-racism. The Easton, Redding, and Region 9 Boards of Education created a joint committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Joel Barlow High School (JBHS) alumni started a social justice group to encourage the school district to establish anti-racist curriculum, policies, and programing, while current students have founded a social justice club at the school. 

Easton Public Library

The Easton Public Library has maintained a presence throughout the pandemic by sending weekly emails, offering curbside pickup, and now beginning the process of reopening. As civil unrest spread, the library added an Anti-Racism Resources section to their website and suggested anti-racist books in their weekly emails. The webpage identifies both books and other multimedia resources for beginning conversations about race with people of all ages.

Shannon Bruchal, library assistant, explained they added the new page to the website “to begin a conversation, educate ourselves, and lead to understanding and change.” She expects that anti-racism resource section of the website will remain up for a long time. 

The library also has a display with books about anti-racism for in-person visitors to peruse. 

Boards of Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force

During a regular joint Easton/Redding Boards of Education meeting, Redding Board of Education member Heather Whaley called for the creation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force. Both boards passed a motion to establish a committee on diversity and inclusion; shortly thereafter, Region 9 created its own. The boards agreed to operate as a joint committee, as they do with the policy committee.

Although the committee has also been referred to as a task force, it is officially designated as a committee. This means they must adhere to the same rules as other committees; the public is notified of their meetings and invited to attend, and public participation is encouraged. 

Easton and Redding Boards of Education, school administrators, and community members at the Board of Education meeting when the motion to create a Diversity and Inclusion committee was passed. –Kelly Wendt photo

The committee’s charge is to advise on the operation and financing of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives related to eight focus areas. The focus areas include hiring practices, discipline, curriculum, policies, and professional development. The full charge can be viewed here

Committee membership comprises representatives from each board, but also extends non-voting membership to staff, community members, and students from every school in the district. Members will be selected via an application process in the coming months. 

The current members of the committee will be meeting to “determine what the application for community members will look like,” said Whaley. “Once committee members are identified, that’s where the real work will begin.”

Priorities for the committee once full membership is established will likely entail looking at school policies in the immediate term, and determining what goals will be achieved in the next several years. “The idea is that this is going to be an ongoing, sustained effort,” said Whaley. 

Easton Board of Education Chairperson Jon Stinson echoed Whaley’s sentiment. “I’m very supportive of [forming the committee]. No doubt about that. I think we have a lot of things going on right now, and I’ve heard from some people in the community about needing to stay focused on reopening. But we also have to stay focused on this.”

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Funding

The Region 9 Board of Education allocated $45,000 in funds from the fiscal year 2019-20, which ended on June 30, toward initiatives related to diversity and inclusion for the fiscal year 2020-21. Cheryl Graziano, the vice-chairperson of the Region 9 Board of Education, explained that there was a budget surplus that allowed them to commit the funds at the end of one year for use in the future. 

The $45,000 represents a small amount of the Region 9 budget surplus from the last fiscal year. Approximately $1.5 million of the surplus was returned to the towns of Easton and Redding.

No funds have been spent yet, but they will likely go toward initiatives at JBHS related to staff professional development, training, and curriculum enhancements, according to Graziano. Of the $45,000, $5,000 has been designated for evaluating the humanities curriculum at JBHS. Short term and long term steps for use of the funds were discussed at the Aug. 6 Region 9 Curriculum Committee meeting and will continue to be a topic at upcoming meetings.

Additionally, in late July, the Easton Board of Education approved a $2,250 donation to Samuel Staples Elementary School (SSES) to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The money will be used to buy books for each grade level, to be selected by the building administrators and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The goal is to select books that address topics related to diversity and inclusion. The remaining funds will go toward supporting professional development efforts of the diversity, inclusion, and equity committee.

ER9 Social Justice Group

The JBHS community also mobilized as protests spread throughout the country. Alumni started a petition that gained 475 signatures of support, and developed a comprehensive curriculum guide to address systemic racism within the Easton and Redding school district. The petition called for immediate changes to address racial injustice and develop anti-racist curriculum. 

The ER9 Social Justice Group meets on Zoom. –Abbie Winter photo

Among the specific action steps outlined in the curriculum guide are calls to collect and release equity data, such as data on the relationship between race and disciplinary measures (detentions, suspensions, and expulsions) and student achievement measures (academic tracking and attendance); offer counseling services specifically designed to support people of color at the school; and develop a mandatory course in ethnic studies to be completed in the ninth grade.

Alumni have since coalesced into a ER9 Social Justice Group, comprised of students, alumni, and community members with the mission to achieve equitable education for individuals across all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities (physical, emotional, mental, intellectual), nationalities, ages, incomes, religions, and language. The group considers the allocation of $45,000 in funding a step in the right direction, and asked that JBHS educators review the curriculum guide.

“My passion for education and social justice stems from my experiences at Joel Barlow High School where I experienced discrimination based on race, sex, and religion,” Jazmin Jinnah, class of 2015 alumna and member of the alumni club, said. “I graduated in 2015, and even though five years have passed, other marginalized students are experiencing the same discrimination.” 

Follow this link to find the group’s petition, curriculum guide, an option to join the listserv for email updates, and a form to get involved with JBHS SJ. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to er9socialjustice@gmail.com. They will be hosting Community Hours twice per month beginning Saturday, September 4. Reach out via email with questions.

Student Social Justice Club

Current JBHS students also entered the national, and town-wide, conversation about race and racism through forming a student club, called United and Mutually Equal (U&ME). Rising junior Chaya Benton took initiative to get the club started. She says she was inspired in part by writing her Sophomore Speak Out paper, in which she reflected on her experiences with racism at school.

Tallulah Whaley (left) and Chaya Benton (right), the founders of U&ME. –Photo provided by Tallulah Whaley

Upon deciding to form the club, Benton and fellow rising junior Tallulah Whaley began reaching out to students to see who was interested; initially, over 20 students expressed a desire to participate in the club. They are still in the process of becoming an official school club. Once officially formed, Benton and Whaley hope to engage club members in conversations about a variety of social justice topics and plan a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Benton hopes the club will be a place where students can communicate comfortably with each other, even about uncomfortable topics. However, like many of the initiatives around town, she also hopes it will create sustained changes at JBHS.

“It could make the school easier for kids of color to attend knowing that there is a club where they can learn more about their history without being afraid to ask during a class period,” said Benton. “I hope that the club can carry on and can make a difference in the school!”

Joel Barlow High School Celebrates Class of 2020

Joel Barlow High School students have not been in the school classrooms since mid-March, when the school moved to distance learning. Students, teachers, and administrators alike were feeling emotional at seeing each other again for Barlow’s drive-through graduation ceremony.

“I should’ve brought tissues,” remarked Dr. Gina Pin, head of school and assistant superintendent.

“Seeing some of my favorite staff members definitely made me get a little choked up,” said 2020 graduate Sophia Danuszar.

When it became clear a traditional graduation ceremony wasn’t an option, Barlow administrators surveyed the seniors to find out what they wanted to do to celebrate this milestone. The goal was to take into account the student voice and do what felt most meaningful to the students.

“I felt special and seen and cared for. It was cathartic and I’ll always remember the love I felt,” said Danuszar.

The drive-through ceremony, organized by Jen Desmarais, assistant principal, required cooperation from various town departments, Barlow staff and the graduates and their families. Students were assigned a time to come pick up their diploma and had a few minutes to drive through, take photos and collect a bag of goodies supplied by the PTSA.

The carefully planned ceremony ran smoothly, with families arriving on time and police and Barlow security officers keeping the traffic moving.

Several community volunteers offered to attend the ceremony and take photographs. Many of Barlow’s teachers also volunteered to stand along the drive where students exited to cheer them on.

The ceremony was “as good as it could be. It’s definitely memorable,” said Jim DeVoto, Barlow math teacher and senior class advisor.

Despite plenty of uncertainty about what will happen next in the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive-through ceremony offered a respite. “We’re celebrating,” said Desmarais.

A video with the traditional graduation speeches will be sent to the graduates. Recording took place the week of June 8. Barlow administration hopes to make the final video available June 17.

Car Procession Graduation Ceremony for Barlow Class of 2020 Planned for June 11

Joel Barlow High School administrators sent the following email update with information about the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020:

June 4, 2020

Good Morning – Last night, the Region 9 Board of Education approved our graduation plans for the Class of 2020.  We will be communicating more details as well as posting graduation information on the Barlow Website, but wanted you to have this information now.  Thank you for your patience and support.

What:  Car Procession Graduation Ceremony – Class of 2020

Where:  Joel Barlow High School (enter via Turney/back entrance – exit via Barlow Drive – one way to Black Rock)

When:  June 11, 2020 between the hours of 12:00pm – 5:00pm (actual order will be sent via student email by the end of the week – graduates will arrive in 15-minute increments)

What to do:  Read the email below so names will be pronounced correctly!  Check your graduation regalia!  Decorate your passenger vehicle (more details to follow).

The Car Procession Graduation Ceremony is one part of our celebration.  We will also publish a Virtual Graduation Ceremony (student speeches, music, etc.) as well as an informal Senior Farewell video presentation.

This story will be updated with additional information and links as they are released.

Board of Finance Releases Overview of Town Budget Requests

Comments and Questions Invited through April 30

Easton’s Board of Finance has released its public hearing presentation summarizing the town’s annual budget requests for the 2020-21 fiscal year, and inviting comments and questions to be sent to BOF@eastonct.gov by April 30.

The budget presented is what has been submitted from all town departments. The Board of Finance has not made or requested any changes in any department budget and is asking people to make any comments they have on the budget by April 30. The board will not make any changes until after the comment period.

The total town budget requested for 2020-21 is $45,522,694, including $31,306,239 for education, $13,372,355 for town accounts, and $844,100 for capital expenditures. The following slide from the presentation illustrates the overall distribution of the major budget components with the requested increases:

The total budget increase requested for the next fiscal year is $1,669,00 (or 3.81%) with $894,000 of that total requested by the Region 9 Board of Education for Joel Barlow High School, $707,000 requested by the Easton Board of Education for Samuel Staples Elementary School and Helen Keller Middle School, and $64,000 requested by other town departments.

The Region 9 Board of Education is proposing a 0.90% increase for a total budget of $24,351,255 in 2020-21. The annual percentage of the Joel Barlow budget paid by Easton and Redding is determined each year by the corresponding percentage of students enrolled from each town. Although Redding’s apportionment in 2020-21 would be $2,103,949 greater than Easton’s, the $894,000 increase for Easton reflects an additional 21 students from the town while Redding’s enrollment is decreasing by 37 students:

Region 9/Joel Barlow High School Apportionment Overview

Detail from “Region 9 Board of Education 2020-2021 Budget” included in Easton’ Board of Finance Public Hearing Presentation for FY21 Annual Budget

The bulk of the Easton Board of Education’s $707,000 requested increase for Samuel Staples Elementary School and Helen Keller Middle School is for $318,000 in contractual staff increases and $226,000 in additional health insurance costs.

The board is also requesting funds to restore a media specialist and extracurricular activities, an additional kindergarten teacher in response to enrollment trends, a part-time social worker, a board certified behavioral analyst, and classroom paraprofessionals. The remainder of the requested budget increases would fund legal expenses, operational changes to the central office, student outplacement costs, and reimbursements for pre-K tuition.

These total increases of $884,000 are offset by $176,000 in decreased expenses from one retirement and one resignation, a reduction in teachers’ tuition costs, a reduction in homebound instructional costs and the elimination of a technical assistant position:

Detail from “Easton Board of Education Budget for 2020-2021 School Year” included in Easton’ Board of Finance Public Hearing Presentation for FY21 Annual Budget

The entire presentation for public hearing — including a detailed summary of school expenditures, non-educational expenses, capital expenditures, and the five-year capital campaign — is available as a PDF on the Town of Easton’s website: https://www.eastonct.gov/sites/eastonct/files/uploads/march_2020_budget_electronic_presentation_complete_rev_4-1-2020.pdf.

Budget comments and questions can be sent to BOF@eastonct.gov through April 30.