Windham Southeast board backs budget boost for equity

Keith Lyman, the principal at Brattleboro Area Middle School lowers the American Flag so, left to right, Mikaela Simms, the diversity coordinator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, and Diamond Bedward, Kia Adams, and Mya Satchell, eighth-grade students at Brattleboro Area Middle School, can raise the Black Lives Matter flag underneath it, during Diversity Day on May 4, 2018.

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BRATTLEBORO — Diversity and equity efforts in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union are led by Mikaela Simms.

The diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator has been on the job for 15 years now.

“I really love it,” she said during a presentation at a recent Windham Southeast School District Board meeting, expressing some surprise at being at one job for so long.

Simms noted triumphs and acknowledged the challenges.

“As we’re moving forward,” she said, “we’re taking some steps back.”

Simms said not everyone feels they can handle the responsibility of taking on the equity work, which needs constant attention and can’t just be done on the side.

“We’re not a bubble and so right now, there’s a lot going on in society and it’s very much reflected in our schools,” she said. “With our equity work, people are engaged but in some ways we’re swimming upstream with the current climate that we have. And so the question for me is how do we match the urgency of the situation with the intensity of our work?”

Having study groups and teacher leaders involved in equity work is a strong point for Simms. Teacher leader retreats are held in the fall and spring.

Simms celebrated this year being the first in which every student in school on the day of a diversity workshop participated all day. She credited staff and teachers for making scheduling adjustments to help.

She’s calling for more relationship building among students and staff alike.

“Because we haven’t gotten to the point where it’s part of the fabric yet,” she said, “we’re having a challenge.”

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Simms said she started the Vermont Educators of Color Association a couple of years ago as a dinner for the Windham Southeast staff. Now, the group gets together twice a year in different places and welcomes any educator to join. Simms said the goal is have people with a variety of lived experience stay in the district and the state.

Noted by Simms is an increase in student participation in programming. She sees the next step as having teachers incorporate it into classrooms and create academic expectations around it.

Also reported by Simms is an increase in communication and planning over the years. She and Shannon Kelly, equity and social justice coach for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, collaborate with staff and teachers.

Simms said she doesn’t want to force participation.

“It’s from the inside and that can’t be mandated,” she said. “I think we have a lot of people enthusiastic about it.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Deborah Stanford acknowledged Simms’ “hard work and perseverance” over the last 15 years as well as her determination to stay with the district.

Stanford recounted being the only person of color when she first started teaching at Horace Mann School in New York City. When she left in 2018, after 28 years, she was the longest employed person of color at the school.

“That is exhausting,” she said. “When [microaggressions] hit you, they don’t go away. You don’t rinse them out of your system at the end of the evening. They stay with you always.”

Stanford advised Simms to look to the board and her peers for support.

“Diversity comes in all shapes and we all need to find a way to see our liberation tied up with this work,” board member Lana Dever said.