NYS superintendents start a conversation about diversity, equity in schools

by David Kraus

On Board Online • January 22, 2018

By David Kraus
Special Correspondent

Lack of racial and ethnic diversity among educators in New York State is a problem that must and can be solved.

That was a key theme at a symposium hosted by the New York State Council of School Superintendents (the Council) on Dec. 8. The day-long gathering was co-sponsored by NYSSBA.

The event drew more than 130 superintendents, assistant superintendents, school board members and other educators to Saratoga Springs to learn about issues involving equity. Equity is the idea that treating all students the same does not achieve fairness; rather, students from different backgrounds may need different kinds of support in order to reach their potential.

"Equity by definition is treating differences differently," said L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent at Shenendehowa Central School District and one of the organizers of the conference. "In the context of education, it starts with the recognition that students bring different skills, experiences and expectations to the table. It is vital that we take the time to understand, appreciate, and act upon (these differences) in a way that empowers their growth as learners and sense of significance as a person."

Improving equity includes looking at the racial composition of school staff, according to Robinson and other presenters. The conference highlighted findings of the recently released "See Our Truth" research report from Education Trust-New York that provided statistics highlighting the lack of diversity among teachers in New York state schools:

The status quo is an education system that deprives many students of color of adult role models who can inspire the self-respect and confidence that leads to improved educational outcomes, according to Robinson. Another reason schools should prioritize having a diverse teaching faculty is to provide students with a better view of the global society they will enter upon graduation, he said.

(See the Dec. 11, 2017 issue of On Board for more information about the Education Trust-New York report.)

The conference was the fruit of months of planning by a 26-member commission on diversity within the Council convened by Patricia Sullivan-Kriss, outgoing Council president and superintendent of West Hempstead Public Schools.

Kelly Masline, senior associate director of the Council, said the goal is to raise awareness of the need to increase diversity among educators and help create a pipeline for advancement for minority educators who can make a difference for students.

"My kids don't have one teacher of color, and that's very common," said Masline. "This commission has that issue of how do we get more diverse candidates into the teaching field so they have that chance to advance?"

At a session entitled "Diversity and Inclusion: The Need for District-Level Changes," a school board member and his wife described their work with issues of diversity and equity as administrators at Ithaca College. Sean Eversley Bradwell, vice president of the Ithaca school board, works as director of programs and outreach at Ithaca College, and Nicole Eversley Bradwell is director of admissions at the private liberal arts college.

In 2015, protests by a student group called "People of Color at Ithaca College" called attention to issues of diversity and led to the college president's resignation. The school now has a Diversity Officer. It has required training for staff, revised hiring and staff manuals and taken other measures to change attitudes and systems.

The Eversley Bradwells stressed that it's important in educational settings to facilitate discussions and create what they called "authentic" relationships - face-to-face exchanges among those who may have differing opinions.

"If we can't be in the same space and recognize one another, then we're not going to be able to work together well," said Nicole. "We are in such segregated times, and for many it's easy to get into a space where everyone thinks and talks and looks just like you. Our media is being served up to us based on what we click on, so if you don't want an alternative perspective, you can do a pretty good job of avoiding it unless you're willing to build those authentic relationships. We really have to be purposeful if we want to engage with others and learn and grow with others who have a different perspective."

The conversations that are needed don't come easy to many educators, said Sean.

"There's incredible risk in these conversations," he said. "A teacher one time told me she purposely avoids interactions with people of color for fear of being called racist. That's huge cultural capital there, if your biggest worry is that someone may think you're a racist or call you a racist."

Symposium participants had their own accounts of how successfully opening lines of communication around diversity can lead to improvements in student outcomes. Juan Mendez, superintendent of New Visions for Public Schools (the Bronx and Queens) and District 28 High Schools recalled a male African-American student who attributed his academic problems in English to the fact that the teachers were all white and female. "They don't look like me," he told Mendez.

A conference with the department's assistant principal led to an active diversity recruitment program. That in turn led to improved student scholarship rates and Regents test performance, and an overall increase in student achievement levels, according to Mendez.

Because of one conversation with a student, "we changed the whole perspective," he said.

"There's lots of research to establish that when kids see role models like themselves, they have confidence in who they themselves are," said Robinson. The question that school leaders have to answer is: "How do we do that in a systemic way that's not just politically correct or currently popular, but is in a way that is what public schools are supposed to be about?" he said.

Masline said the conference exceeded her expectation and the commission is planning to expand its work to a regional level. They are also making preliminary plans for another symposium July 30-31 at a location to be announced.

"I've been here for 20 years and I think this is one of the best things we've ever done," she said. "We are a small staff, but I think the timing and need for this is more critical than it's ever been. It's something we really believe in."

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