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ACSD panel suggests ways to battle intolerance in schools

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District can effectively fight racism, bias and discrimination within its schools by confronting those issues head-on, by incorporating more diversity education within its curriculum, and by involving students and families of color in the sometimes difficult discussions about intolerance.
Those were among the key suggestions in the ACSD Task Force on Racism, Bias and Discrimination, a panel formed by the district last September in wake of troubling testimony delivered by local residents of color about some racially insensitive incidents — both subtle and overt — targeting their children on school grounds and on buses.
The flying of the Confederate flag at two Middlebury residences last August prompted ACSD officials to seek a better understanding of the racial climate within the district, which includes schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
Co-chaired by Miguel Fernandez, the chief diversity officer Middlebury College, and Middlebury Union Middle School Principal Kristin Holsman-Francoeur, the task force was broadly charged with recommending ways of creating a more racially sensitive educational program and campus environment for local students. The task force met monthly in compiling a report that ACSD officials praised mightily upon officially receiving it on Monday, June 18.
Click here to read the full report.
Holsman-Francoeur said the task force did a lot of research, compared notes on their own experiences, and spoke with students and Rebecca Haslam of “Seed The Way.” Haslam is a former educator who advises school districts on professional development, resources for anti-bias curricula, and equity literacy.
Seven members of the committee provided the board with an overview of the report. It includes a series of recommendations cobbled from the larger premise that education and communication are the most effective weapons in combatting racism, since racism is largely born out of ignorance.
“This has been a challenging topic, you have all volunteered hours and hours and frankly, the report we received was extremely comprehensive, very easy to follow and has great detail,” ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon said. “It went above and beyond.”
And task force members noted ACSD is well-positioned right now to incorporate tolerance and diversity teaching within its schools, as the district is transitioning to an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which at its core seeks to transform students into world citizens. The report recommends creating a five-year strategic plan to measure the district’s performance in promoting open-mindedness, “with key benchmarks that align with IB.”
“There’s a natural harmony between that international mindedness … and the equity literacy we talk about in the report,” Fernandez said.
RECOMMENDED ACTION
The task force is specifically recommending, among other things, that ACSD:
•  Pursue “cultural competence” for its students and educators. The panel defines cultural competence as “the ability to work effectively with, and advocate for, the success of people from a variety of cultural, economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. (It) is present when all members of the school community consistently and intentionally honor, respect and value diversity not only in theory, but in practice in all contexts, from board meetings and community outreach, to classrooms and school hallways.”
Task force members noted that achieving and sustaining cultural competence will be an “ongoing, intentional and transparent process requiring concrete tools and training, unwavering commitment, and continuous cycles of monitoring, critical reflection, and improvement.”
•  Denounce Nazism, racism and hate in the schools, community and country, while educating students —at all grade levels — about the historical and current-day reality of racism in the United States.
•  Conduct an “Equity Audit.” Performed by an outside consultant, an equity audit can inform a school district if its programming provides equal access, treatment and outcomes for all students — regardless of race, gender, national origin, disability or socioeconomic status.
Members of the task force recommend the district “use results of equity audit(s) to inform universal training that includes school board, central office, school administrators, faculty and staff, so that our learning community is all on the same page.”
•  Form a “District Equity Team” or create a “district equity coordinator” position to support and consult with staff members when anticipating or confronted with a challenging situation they’re not sure how to address.
“This resource must provide demonstrated expertise in equity literacy, anti-bias practices, and cultural competence and be characterized by timely access and responsiveness,” the report states.
•  Look for a more diverse pool of applicants for district job openings.
Ruth Hardy, a former ACSD board member, said the district could make an immediate impact assembling a more diverse faculty and staff. The district has been searching for several new teachers in wake of the retirement this month of more than a dozen educators.
“Unless there’s actually shared experiences with diverse people, it’s not going to stick,” she said of conventional training efforts. “It seems to me that hiring has to be something we focus on in making sure our students have diverse teachers, administrators and role models.”
•  Ensure administrators are “clear and consistent” about acceptable conduct and the handling of individual incidents involving intolerance, bias and/or racism. Officials should analyze individual incidents and set up prevention/response strategies, according to the report.
“Right now, it’s building by building,” task force member and Weybridge Elementary Principal Christina Johnston said of the current ACSD process for dealing with complaints of intolerance. “It’s actually a fine-tuned, time-consuming process. For as much training as we get, we don’t have enough training or time to do that. The idea was to develop a team to get involved in investigations and have the expertise.”
•  Create a structure and budget for semi-annual forums on “critical identity issues” relevant to students and families. The district should also consider forming support groups for families who feel marginalized in what is a very heterogeneous state of Vermont, according to the report.
•  Foster transparency and communication when it comes to dealing with issues of intolerance. For example, the report suggests information be readily available on conduct expectations, resources that are available when inappropriate conduct occurs, and the expected response from the ACSD when an incident occurs.
“It’s making sure we’re not only doing great work, but that the communication is happening to the broader community so they get a sense of confidence and understanding about how the districts handles those things … and so they know in advance what conduct is expected and what conduct this district believes is unacceptable,” said task force member Karen Guttentag, the ‎associate dean for judicial affairs and student life at ‎Middlebury College.
Peter Burrows, ACSD superintendent, promised the task force’s report won’t simply sit on a shelf. He said recommendations will be incorporated during the coming years through the district’s strategic plan and the transition to IB.
To do nothing would send a negative message, according to task force members.
“If we don’t talk about it, the perception is (intolerance) is acceptable,” Fernandez said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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