School district commits to racial equity action plan
BRATTLEBORO — An action plan committing local schools to addressing racism and systemic inequities will be developed within 90 days after the Windham Southeast School District Board of Directors voted unanimously in support of the project at a meeting Wednesday.
"The enthusiasm was pretty clear," said board member Thomas Nolan, who serves on the district's Diversity and Equity Committee which recommended the board adopt a document slightly revised from one proposed by school staff at a meeting last month. "It's too bad we actually have to do this. It's too bad that this work has to be done. But we're at the point in history where we should really take the bull by the horns, as they say."
Board Chairman David Schoales said the plan involves actively teaching anti-racism by using current events in the curriculum, providing annual social justice awareness training for staff, focusing on hiring people of color and Indigenous people, contracting with and purchasing from groups committed to social justice and anti-racism, thoroughly evaluating educational techniques and strategies, ensuring each school has an organization where Black students can provide each other with support and define issues needing attention, and identifying teacher leaders who can specialize in diversity and equity. The document will be available on the district's website.
Part of the work entails holding the district accountable at least yearly by assessing progress. Nolan expects his committee to regularly review the process.
"We recognize that it will be different at different schools," said Mike Szostak, restorative justice coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School and one of the staff members who proposed the plan, "because indeed the schools are different."
Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union who also proposed the plan, thanked meeting participants for "their thoughtful comments and support."
"It takes all of us to make these changes!" she wrote in a chatbox in the Zoom videoconference.
Shannon Kelly, librarian at Green Street School, said it is important for every administrator to know that a multi-year plan must be created.
"It's not something that we can address by just checking off boxes with a couple of staff meetings," she said.
Dan Braden, science teacher at the high school, encouraged administrators to make sure the project happens.
"I think this is something that is so important," he said. "A lot of us teachers have a lot of interest in making sure we do everything we can to diversify our teaching staff."
Braden and Schoales both acknowledged how hiring more diverse staff has been a goal not yet achieved. Board members also discussed the need to have Black, Indigenous and other people of color on leadership councils that inform the board on issues specific to each school in the district.
Citing national events, board members noted that now is the time to take a deeper dive into addressing racial issues on the local level. Board member Tim Maciel said the curriculum contains many gaps in history regarding racial issues.
Amelia Glickman, who just graduated from the high school, suggested the district could offer a lot more education on the impact of racism.
"Even though I think this is kind of a wake-up call for a lot white people right now," she said, "we need to recognize that this country has been racist for hundreds of years and continues to be racist. And so it's not just when we have live footage of Black people being killed that we should begin to do this and then draw back from there, which I think kind of happens."
Gillian Love, a community member who described being a person of color who graduated from a nearby Vermont school district in 2009, encouraged the board to adopt the plan.
"I can say from firsthand experience, there's a lot of work that Vermont schools need to do in addressing racism, systemic racism and all of the various ways it causes direct harm for the students who go through your schools," Love said. "Just through growing up in Vermont, I found that a lot of people especially in predominately white areas tend to only focus on overt forms of racism and they neglect to realize just how insidious it is and how many forms of racism are enacted on a daily basis and how much that impacts each and every one of your students, especially the children of color."
Tara O'Brien of the Root Social Justice Center said she hopes administrators will deeply explore implicit biases and what makes people feel uncomfortable.
"It's an opportunity for growth and learning among yourselves as a working group," she said.
READY FOR THE TASK
Julianne Eagan, principal at Dummerston Elementary School, said curriculum should be developed to make teachers feel confident in instructing the material in a way that is responsive to students.
Mary Kaufmann, principal at Oak Grove School, said staff at her school found recent training "powerful."
"We've started to put a plan together," she said. "We haven't quite gotten into the curriculum but I think that will come after we're able to assess our own racism and bias."
Herve Pelletier, principal at Putney Central School, said he believes the document provides "an excellent framework."
John Gagnon, principal at Guilford Central School, said his staff have been exploring their own bias and looking at the curriculum.
"We're fully committed to this work," he said.
Tom Daughton, assistant principal at Brattleboro Area Middle School, said staff meetings about racial inequities have at times led to people feeling uncomfortable.
"We have a long way to go, without stating the obvious," he said. "I think it's really important for the adults to be engaged in the work first and foremost ..."
Steve Perrin, high school principal, said staff need to examine their own biases and insecurities.
"I'm glad to see the board and the equity committee is asking us to dedicate resources," he said. "I'm looking forward to that."
Nancy Wiese, director of the Windham Regional Career Center, said every student should feel welcome and that their culture is adequately reflected in school programs.
Superintendent Andy Skarzynski described being passionate about racial and social issues for a long time. He said the planning process will involve looking at all the systems in place.
Amy Majer, nurse at Academy School, said school nurses have seen health care inequities in the communities.
"I believe there is a place for us at the table to address these issues," she said.
Kerry Amidon, chairwoman of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union board and Vernon Town School Board, said she will have the plan sitting on her desk at every meeting and refer to it for every decision being made. She is going to bring the document up for consideration at the next Vernon board meeting.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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