Equity and Inclusion Work Continues Despite Pandemic

Bill Fisher
In the spring of 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down schools and businesses across the nation, the Board of Trustees approved Shore’s Equity & Inclusion Commitment. “We know that Shore has a responsibility not only to take action ourselves, but also to raise our children to recognize and address systems of oppression,” the members of the Board’s Equity & Inclusion Committee wrote to families. “Moving forward, we will use this statement to guide how we hold all members of our local and global communities to the highest possible standard of inclusion.” The statement of commitment pledges that at Shore, “We are a safe community that empowers the exploration and expression of our true selves. We thrive because we confront bias and honor the diverse identities of all people. We pursue individual and systemic cultural competence in order to model equity leadership in a complex world.”

The formation of the Equity & Inclusion Committee and its creation of the Equity & Inclusion Commitment were the first outgrowths of a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) audit of the school completed in 2019 by the consultant Robert Greene, founder and CEO of Cedar & Burwell Strategic Consulting. Greene’s audit recommended a systemic approach to building a culture of equity and inclusion at Shore. According to the President of the Board of Trustees, Rayna Lesser Hannaway, “First among Greene’s recommendations was that in order to set goals, measure outcomes, and track our progress in becoming a more inclusive community, we needed to set a vision for our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. In our ideal state, what do diversity and inclusivity look like at Shore? Answering this core question would help us remedy what appeared as one of the dominant themes in Greene’s report: that Shore has until now lacked a clear schoolwide initiative or strategic plan around DEI.”

A VISION FOR DEI WORK
With the Equity & Inclusion Commitment laying out that vision for DEI work at Shore, existing DEI efforts gained new momentum, and new initiatives sought to effect change across many areas of the school, from hiring practices to curriculum. This work continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the idea that diversity is important for all children, not just those from historically underrepresented or underserved identities. Culturally competent education—which encourages awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and nurtures the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of all students and their families—comes with a host of benefits, backed up by research, says Head of School Clair Ward. “When children are educated about diversity and inclusion, we as a society have a better chance of reducing the biases that lead to disparities in health, education, and the criminal justice system. We break barriers that support racism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance. We strengthen children’s ability to solve problems, work together, and empathize with the points of view of others. Most importantly, we prepare them for an increasingly global society in which a variety of languages, religions, abilities, and ethnic groups are commonplace.”

Now, at the start of a new year, it’s possible to look back and see the progress Shore has made toward these critical goals, even while the pandemic continued to demand attention, concern, and action from administrators, employees, and families. “Although change can seem painfully slow, and on the surface there may be no waves, certainly underneath a great deal of work is underway,” acknowledges Trustee, Shore parent, and Equity & Inclusion Committee Co-Chair Khoa Do ’86. “We’ve chosen a deliberate approach, learning from previous attempts that could not be sustained and ultimately failed. We’re working to build the framework and promote cultural changes that will buoy and sustain enduring initiatives.” Agrees Trustee, Shore parent, and Equity & Inclusion Committee Co-Chair Anthony Frye, “It’s usually not until college that we land in the melting pot and begin to understand the ideas of culture and difference. What’s important to us is giving our kids a head start, and our families, as well. Clair Ward and her team have done a great deal behind the scenes to build systems necessary to let this work come to fruition.”

Shore has focused its efforts in four key areas: people, policies, program, and practices.  

PEOPLE

“One of Robert Greene’s key recommendations for Shore,” explains Clair Ward, “was creating and hiring to fill a new Director of Inclusion position.” This administrator will be in place by the summer of 2021. In the meantime, says Ward, “The school is determined to build the right systems to make this individual interested in coming to Shore to begin with, and also to make this position sustainable.” Part of that groundwork includes hiring other key administrators and faculty who will be engaged with supporting cultural change across the school. “We are considering another new position around family engagement,” adds Ward, “and deep cultural competency would be a criterion in the hiring process for this individual, as well.”

RECENT HIRES
Three recent hires have also been made through a DEI lens. Gustavo Carrera, Head of Upper School, came to Shore in 2018 after a search during which five out of six finalist candidates self-identified as people of color. “Much of the conversation during that search,” recalls Clair Ward, “was around cultural competency, especially as it pertains to the curriculum.” Similarly, fifth grade teacher Louis Frank was hired to fill the role of Upper School English teacher and English Department Chair after it became clear that he had not only a passion for DEI work, but also a specific amount of scholarship and expertise as it pertains to DEI in the curriculum. In the Lower School, Jessica Karis was hired as co-lead first grade teacher alongside Mary Kinahan. According to Head of Lower School Sara Knox, “We knew when we hired Jess that she had a passion for teaching and talking to students about diversity-related topics. She and Mary Kinahan have worked closely to develop units of study for our first graders to prepare them for the world.” All told, says Clair Ward, “A third of our permanent hires over the past three years have either self-identified as an underrepresented identity or demonstrated specific cultural competency and commitment to equity and inclusion during the interview process.”

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
At the same time, many members of the school community have been engaged in professional development and conversations about equity and inclusion. For example, faculty and staff have participated in a SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) group for approximately 15 years. The national SEED organization  partners with schools to develop leaders who guide their peers to help drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward social justice. “My hope is that in the next year we will add a parent SEED group and potentially even a student version of SEED in the Upper School,” says Clair Ward. The Board of Trustees, too, is evolving as it focuses increasingly on issues of equity and inclusion. It continues to recruit new trustees with background and expertise in cultural competency, which has led to a number of meetings in which trustees discuss implicit bias and tell their own stories of bias.

POLICIES

In addition to creating the school’s Equity & Inclusion Commitment, the Board’s Equity & Inclusion Committee is now working on a bias incident reporting process and protocol, and it will potentially identify a reporting advocate who would help the school process incidents. 

PROGRAM

“Programmatic change is reiterative and spiraling,” says Head of Upper School Gustavo Carrera. “It doesn’t happen all at once; it doesn’t happen in spectacular ways. It happens over time, by continually rethinking what we are doing.”

UPPER SCHOOL
For example, explains Carrera, real programmatic change doesn’t come about simply by replacing books in the curriculum. “In Grade 8, we’ve taken To Kill a Mockingbird, formerly a centerpiece of the English curriculum, and moved it to the summer reading list.” During the year, students now read Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, a novel which was chosen for the way in which it speaks directly to the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. “Teaching both texts has allowed us to encourage deeper conversations about equity and race in our society. The students are not only addressing a new text but they are also approaching two texts in completely different ways.”

There have been other programmatic changes in the Upper School. In Grade 7, teachers have transformed the study of European history into an examination of how Middle Eastern and European societies have interacted and how they have developed in conversation. In Grade 9, students learn about non-violent communication through the anti-racism curriculum Dialogues Across Differences. “The program teaches students how to have difficult conversations about world topics using compassionate, analytical, and nonjudgmental language,” says Carrera. The world language department is also reexamining its program, focusing on teaching language within a cultural context. “We want our children to finish their time at school not just knowing Spanish but also understanding Latin American culture,” Carrera explains.

LOWER SCHOOL
In the Lower School, says Sara Knox, program changes are visible in several key areas. First among these is sexuality education. “We knew that we could do a better job to make the experience of teaching and talking about sexuality a healthy one, a genuine learning experience for kids.” The faculty at the fourth and fifth grade level wanted to cover topics like gender and gender identity, body parts and body image, and relationships, including conversations around bullying and what bullying means, and including terms such as bystander and upstander. Most important in all of this, according to Knox, is that “Teachers now feel empowered to dig in, to lean into critical and sometimes very challenging conversations on the fly. So the teaching is much more responsive to student needs; teachers feel that they can ask the right questions and provide answers where appropriate.”

Connections between students and teachers are critically important from the standpoint of cultural competency, emphasizes Knox. “Teachers now are taking more time than ever to get to know students as individuals—not just in terms of whether or not they need math support or if they have distractible tendencies, but to better understand what they bring to school with them every day.” Teachers are working to understand children’s stories, identities, belief systems, values, cultures, and backgrounds, and are better equipped to have meaningful conversations with children. “What we’re seeing,” says Knox, “is that this kind of work not only supports the teacher, but also benefits all of the kids in the class. Knowing someone’s background and beliefs helps everyone to work more effectively alongside one another, and helps to create a stronger, healthier classroom community.”

All Lower School teachers have begun to evaluate their curriculum from a DEI perspective, Knox explains. In first grade, teachers have introduced a unit related to difference and identity. “Some of the conversations that have happened in the classroom as a result relate to race and skin color, family and family structure, learning differences, and gender identity.” Meanwhile, in fifth grade, a regular yearly process of evaluating the curriculum through the lens of equity and inclusion led teachers to replace a beloved work of historical fiction that had been read for many years with the book Refugee, which tells stories of children seeking refuge from hardships and oppression. “Our teachers have seen that the book really opens our students’ eyes to journeys that feel very new to them.” In a similar way, a fifth grade unit entitled Power, Perspective, and Change focuses on Native Americans and looking at history from more than one perspective. 

PRACTICES

“The most important teacher when it comes to addressing issues of equity and inclusion is not always the curriculum,” says Clair Ward. “Sometimes it is the culture, and building an equitable and inclusive culture requires community-wide practices that continually increase the number of ‘foot soldiers’ at Shore who are doing DEI work and having DEI conversations.” Core to changing the culture of the school and building a corps of foot soldiers is the participation of the parent body. “I am lucky enough to be at a school where the parent body is demanding this work of us,” Ward says. A parent SEED group will support learning and discussion of important issues, while speakers and events will enable equity and inclusion leadership by more community members than ever before. Affinity groups will support a diverse range of identities and interests at the school, helping to move equity and inclusion work into “the fabric of Shore,” according to Ward.

Yet for all the progress the school has already made, says Ward, “This is just the beginning.” There is much to be done, and the work will be hard, Ward admits. “It’s frustrating at times, and it’s almost always emotional. But success depends on a tireless commitment to dismantling and rebuilding organizational systems to make change happen within the culture. I have a passion and a commitment to getting the work done pervasively and culturally, so that it is tied to Shore, not tied to specific individuals or a specific moment in time. I stand on the shoulders of many passionate administrators, teachers, trustees, and families before me. All have endeavored to sustain the work over their time at Shore. I feel strongly that we owe it to them as much as to current and future families to get this done in a way that makes it stick.”
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