Columnist Marissa Carrere: Easthampton schools address equity issues

  • A bulletin board promoting inclusivity at Easthampton High School is one of the efforts made to improve the school culture after the state attorney general’s office issued a critical report last summer. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/29/2018 7:25:37 PM

As a School Committee member for the city of Easthampton, I am writing with an individual response to the letter published Jan. 26 about the public schools (“Calls for more work in Easthampton on racism”).

The writer and I share investment in creating a more equitable school climate. Public schools are bound by the most sacred duty to teach, protect and nurture each and every student; as a School Committee member, I expect nothing less from our district.

In the past year, I have been vocal in my criticisms of the factors which produced and allowed racial inequities, and of what I identified as missteps in early responses to these problems as they came to light. However, I do see efforts and progress that should not be summarily disparaged.

In her letter, the writer suggests that the work teachers, students, and administrators have undertaken can be reduced to “Diversity Day and celebrations of food, fun and fashion” that “make us all feel good.” This is a frankly unfair characterization. I will describe some of the initiatives the district has put in place this school year that are designed to enact systemic change.

Staff have participated in training on topics including anti-bias, bullying prevention, responding to micro-aggressions, and current LGBTQ best practices, with partners including the Anti-Defamation League, the Safe Schools Program and the University of Massachusetts Social Justice and Equity graduate students.

Our curriculum director has trained for a new role as diversity officer, and is working on embedding increased diversity and inclusion into curricula.

Students have participated in training including the SPIRIT Program through the U.S. Department of Justice, which prepares student leaders to problem-solve and mediate conflicts to improve racial climate. Training for bullying prevention, as well as policies and procedures, has been offered for parents and families at all grade levels.

The district has convened a Stakeholder Advisory Committee working with the social justice expert from the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton and is issuing recurring surveys to gather data about how students and families are experiencing school climate.

We’ve hired an expert in race, equity, and inclusive pedagogies to serve as Student and Family Diversity Liaison. The district has created new discipline procedures and bias incident reporting protocol in consultation with the Anti-Defamation League, a new memorandum of understanding with the Police Department, and it will be working with the attorney general’s office to annually review discipline records with a new process for tracking demographics. This is not a comprehensive list.

Pica-Smith is right that our community “can demand that equity be at the center of the work happening at Easthampton High School and the School Department.” And indeed, our community is making this demand and the district is working to respond. The 2017-2019 strategic plan for the district includes as its first strategic objective a “culture of equity and inclusion” supported by multiple initiatives.

This goal is embedded in new New England Association of Schools and Colleges core values and beliefs and shared across the school buildings and department. I also agree with the letter writer that educational leaders should be learning about inequity, and I was glad to see the Easthampton School Department administrators name a yearlong collaborative study of equity as their central professional goal this year.

Of course, even with these efforts underway, we do not claim that our district has erased the longstanding institutional and structural forms of racism that pervade our schools and our local, state, and national communities. People throughout the district recognize that transformation and trust-building take time, and that we are at the beginning of a long process.

And I am sure there are valid criticisms of how these initial steps have been implemented and publicized. Most importantly, I would never presume that the progress we have made thus far could compensate for the hurt that students and families have felt or continue to feel.

Without question, we should all be calling for more work in Easthampton (and everywhere) on race. Racial justice is inextricable from economic and educational justice, and depends fundamentally on a strong public school system. The Easthampton Public School Department is accountable to us; critical discourse about its progress is welcome and, in fact, essential.

At the same time, I am proud to acknowledge the steps that many students, families, teachers, and educational leaders in Easthampton have taken this year in service of the necessarily slow but evident process of transformation.

Marissa Carrere is a member of the Easthampton School Committee.

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