GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Glen Ridge Board of Education was presented with the results of an equity audit at its Sept. 27 meeting from Diana Artis, an education consultant with Olive Branch Educators. Done through surveys, observing curriculum and reviewing best practices, the report was finished this past summer.
“When you do an audit like this, you’re obviously looking to identify any challenges that may exist in the community and make recommendations about how to remediate them,” Artis said at the meeting. “Often, folks can be defensive as they receive that. We did not experience that at all with the administrators with whom we worked. That was very encouraging.”
Focus groups were held for faculty and staff, students, and parents — in addition to the 475 parent survey responses, 65 high school student responses and 76 employee responses. One of the survey topics was communication.
“Parents conveyed concern that clear, consistent messages about what’s happening at the school have not been delivered in a way that they would like,” Artis said. “Why this is an equity issue is because you have nontraditional families. We have families that are divorced, we have families where grandparents may be in charge, et cetera. So their experience is that communication only goes out to one member of a family. That sends a message that the family as a whole is not being accepted.”
According to Artis, when a community has a group of people with different backgrounds, communication becomes more important.
“We know that in order to have a diverse, inclusive, equitable, welcoming community with different backgrounds and experiences, communication is really important,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone is receiving communication about what’s happening in the school.”
The second area of concern in the parent survey was the cultural competency of the staff, according to Artis. It focused on race and ethnicity, but also on gender.
“We had parents of girls, particularly at the middle school level, who spoke about how their girls were not being as supported or as empowered as the boys,” Artis said. “Parents of children with special needs also spoke about the fact that they would love to see more competency in that area on the part of the teachers to support their children.”
She and the consultants who worked on the report reviewed all of the assigned books and textbooks that are used in the curriculum. According to Artis, the district has room to improve when it comes to using books written by people of color, books by women and other diverse representation.
“That would be different family combinations, the LGBTQ community, different religious backgrounds,” Artis said. “The narrative should not just be a deficit model. Not just books about the Holocaust or books about slavery. Not that they’re not important, but also our students need to see people that look like them doing things that are successful and having a sense of agency. There is a real call for that.”
Olive Branch Educators did an audit of the language arts curriculum in the Montclair School District and the South Orange–Maplewood School District to support its findings in Glen Ridge and, compared to the neighboring towns, the district has room to grow.
“Not just in the material, but also in the discussions that support it in the classroom,” Artis said. “(Auditors) would love teachers to be more comfortable in terms of the language that they use and discuss the topics. No one was suggesting that anyone was malicious in any way. This is really about education.”
Another large concern in the surveys was the lack of diversity in the staff of the Glen Ridge schools. Many students who are not white can graduate from the district not having ever had a teacher who looks like them.
“A lot of research shows that ego identity development and racial identity development are linked in terms of success,” Artis said. “In a nutshell, students need to see people who look like them doing the things that they do in order to feel a sense of agency. That is missing.”
Other areas of study were monitoring academic success, parental agency, and the value of diversity, equity and inclusion. According to Artis, school personnel felt that diversity, equity and inclusion are valued; parents were less sure.
“Theoretically yes, but (auditors) looked to some of the things that we’ve identified as an argument against that,” she said. “It’s really raising the question of whether or not DEI is valued in the community. What I think is really at the root of that is the ability to move from theory to practice. Obviously, the school is committed to that, because they wouldn’t spend any resources to have a firm like myself come in (if they weren’t). The disconnect comes in how well we are moving from the theoretical realm to application.”
BOE member Jocelyn Gottlieb asked how the volume of survey responses in Glen Ridge compared to the number of responses in other districts, and in her reply Artis said teacher participation was lower than administrator participation. Student turnout was also surprisingly low; high school students, who are often happy to engage, weren’t interested. Mostly middle school students attended the student focus groups.
“We often find high school students are eager to talk about this, and certainly in the survey responses we did see comments,” Artis said. “But it is curious why they didn’t participate in the focus groups. It could be the comfort with having the conversation; it could be that this is really new. Some of the specific anecdotes that were listed in the survey do suggest to me where the community is on the spectrum. I think this is a community respectfully saying it is in a different place than other communities. Certainly with some of the things that are in place now, I would expect that if you did this survey again a year or two from now you would have more participation.”