Superintendent gives report on progress for diversity, access and equity in district

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Superintendent Scott Cascone and Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez gave members of the West Orange Board of Education an update on the Diversity, Equity and Access Committee at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting. The committee, formed last year, comprises parents, staff members and administrators who brainstorm about changes the district can make to improve its diversity and equity.

“Before I got here, there was an initiative to form a multi-stakeholder committee of staff, parents and administrators to come together and think about, ‘What does equity mean? What does diversity mean in our community?’” Cascone said at the meeting. “We began to explore that. I’m excited by the work that’s coming out of the committee. We’re not hurtling headfirst into the work. We’re being thoughtful; we’re being deliberate about the way we’re planning. To be deliberate on the front end then facilitates the work as it moves forward.”

De Mendez said the committee comprises three subcommittees: hiring and retention, curriculum and instruction, and professional development and training. The professional development committee has been working on writing surveys to administer to staff and parents during the beginning of February.

“That committee has worked with members of our supervisory staff and we’ve gotten feedback from different stakeholders in the community around our climate survey,” she said. “These are diversity, equity and access climate surveys. After we administer the survey in the first week of February, our intention is to receive the results and then prepare a presentation to submit to the superintendent. He’ll plan for a presentation to the board sometime in February.”

From the survey results, de Mendez said the committee is looking at what kinds of professional development the district should provide to staff members.

“We’ve been thinking about professional development in the area of facilitating critical conversations,” she said. “This would be helping teachers explore strategies for facilitating critical conversations with students and colleagues; engaging in personal reflections; and examining some common beliefs, potential biases that can affect our own ability to engage, supportive learning environments, and methods of teaching bias and race.”

The committee’s intention is to provide training to administrators and a core group of teachers at an in-service day in May, and continue with the rest of the district’s staff next year. The curriculum and instruction subcommittee has been exploring data about students in honors, AP, and Gifted and Talented classes. This subcommittee’s members are trying to close achievement gaps and improve performance.

“We’re going to look to formulate some objectives or some clear goals for next year to create an action plan on addressing those,” de Mendez said. Among those objectives, she mentioned a bigger emphasis on teaching black and Hispanic history, service days, bringing speakers to the schools to talk to students, and teaching social justice issues to students in the older grades.

The hiring and retention subcommittee is focusing on reaching out to the local colleges and universities to diversify district staff demographics.

Resident Khabirah Myers said the professional development subcommittee should consider making implicit bias training mandatory for staff members in the district.

“It’s something that is urgently needed,” she said at the meeting. “The demographic of the teachers, especially at the elementary school level, is predominantly white and female. It’s hugely important that, as a teacher, one recognizes the potential implicit bias that one has when teaching a child that doesn’t look like them.”

BOE member Cheryl Merklinger suggested the surveys also be given to members of the community who don’t currently have students in the school district, rather than just current parents and staff members. She cited former BOE member Mark Robertson’s discussions with nonparents in the district.

“One of the things Mr. Robertson brought up last year was some folks he has spoken with about their concern about not sending their children to the schools in West Orange because of some of the access and equity and diversity issues,” she said at the meeting. “If we send it out to the community as a whole, we can get some insight as to why. Maybe folks don’t feel like they have the same access, or we’re not as diverse in our curriculum as we think we are.”

De Mendez said the committee would consider Merklinger’s suggestion.

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