West Orange schools move forward with diversity, equity and access

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — As issues regarding systemic racism continue to figure prominently across the nation, the West Orange School District has been working diligently to change the landscape through education, research and inclusivity.

In 2019, the district began laying the foundation to form the Diversity, Equity and Access Committee. Chaired by the district assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Eveny de Mendez, the committee began with more than 60 members representing district administrators, faculty and volunteer community members.

The mission of the committee is to “validate and celebrate the school district’s diversity in all its forms.” Through feedback sharing, critical and civil discourse, data collection and analysis, the group works to identify focal points for improvement, further study and/or information sharing relating to equity and access. The work and findings of the committee, therefore help to inform Board of Education priorities and organizational goal setting. 

The following subcommittees were formed to further the primary goals of the committee: Hiring Procedures and Practices, Curriculum, Instructional Materials and Professional Development, Diversity and Cultural Competency, and Affirmative Action and Equity Planning. They are chaired by the committee’s core leadership team: committee Co-chairperson and Redwood/Washington Assistant Principal Kimya Jackson, Roosevelt Principal Lionel Hush, Roosevelt science teacher Hillary Rubinstein, social studies supervisor Michael Figueiredo, supervisor of science Stephanie Suriano, and WOHS Student Personnel Services and School Counseling Director Cheryl Butler. 

Since spring, schools in the district have been providing professional development in the form of discussions, teaching, book clubs and art. Students have been offered the opportunity to participate in several of the initiatives.

One of the largest gatherings to date for West Orange faculty and staff was EdCamp Operation Grow 2020, which was focused on “culturally responsive education,” and sponsored by Operation Grow Inc. and the committee. It was held at Redwood School on Sept. 26 with the goal of having safe, meaningful and constructive conversations about diversity, social justice, equity, history and student voice as it applies to teaching using NJ Amistad Legislation.

The event was organized by the DEAC in collaboration with the founder and president of Operation Grow, Sharonda Allen. Discussion and topics were facilitated by WOBOE faculty and Operation Grow members.

Presenters included: Kelly Elementary School educator Keri Orange-Jones on “Social Justice: Using Books Clubs and Other Media to Engage in Discussions about Race”; Bailey, a high school senior and Operation Grow Youth Advisory Council member, on “Student Voice: The Lack of and Need for Black History from a Student’s Perspective”; Allen on “History: The Importance of Teaching Teachers Historical Content to Teach Students”; Rubenstein on “Diversity: How Do We Get over the Hump?”; Figueirido: “Equity: Are We There Yet?”; West Orange paraprofessional Aicha Sylla on “Africa: Knowing and Acknowledging the Many Kingdoms”; and Jackson on “Black Protagonists in Children’s Books: My Grandsons See Positive Images of Themselves in Their Home Library.”

“We would like to extend a special thank you to Associate Dean of Humanities at Montclair State University Dr. Leslie Wilson for delivering the introduction and sharing the importance of New Jersey Amistad Legislation,” Jackson said. “We are grateful to Fortissimo’s of West Orange for donating 14 pizzas to our event and Redwood Principal Timothy Beaumont for the use of the Redwood Elementary School grounds.

“We would also like to thank Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone and board member Ken Alper for believing in the work, mission and vision of the Diversity, Equity and Access Committee and Operation Grow Inc.,” Jackson added.

An attendee of the event wrote: “Before I knew it, it was 2 p.m. and I noticed the staff putting away tables and chairs. I couldn’t believe the EdCamp was over. It was so informative and fun. The unconference style of learning is incredible because we learn from our fellow colleagues; we can share our best practices, our challenges and simply come together for our passion for creating equitable schools.”

On Oct. 5, Superintendent of School Scott Cascone convened the newly-formed Superintendent Equity Student Advisory Council.

“We received highly insightful feedback, which I am glad to say is very well aligned with the district’s planned approach,” Cascone said. “Thank you to Redwood/Washington Assistant Principal and District Equity Committee Co-chair Kimya Jackson for joining. Two big takeaways from today were the disconnection of the student voice from decision making and the need to establish mechanisms for inclusion and/or strengthen and retool existing ones such as student government and student advocacy groups/clubs.”

The ESAC met again on Oct. 15 to plan a larger town hall specifically geared toward students.

“It is exciting to be directly working with students again,” Cascone said. 

Jackson concluded her comments with an update on what is planned for the near future.

“In the upcoming months, WOSD teachers and administrators will participate in mandatory implicit bias training, as well as history through a different lens for pre-K to fifth grade and middle school social studies teachers.”

Photos Courtesy of WOSD