Last week, the combined Northborough-Southborough Public School district responded to calls asking for the schools to do more to address racism and bias. As part of the response, the district is forming an “Equity Task Force”. Details on how the public can participate will be announced next week.
District Task Force announced
At the June 24th Combined School Committees meeting, Superintendent Gregory Martineau said they have received a lot of simple questions that don’t have a simple answer – around what the educational community could do “to improve in the area of equity, inclusion and diversity” and do better for their students. He said that the issues aren’t new to the system. Educators have already been engaged in related discussions and work, but have “only scratched the surface”. He followed, “A great system acknowledges its areas of growth. It does not stop until all students get what they need.”
He said he was heartened that many emails referred to “we” including parents and the community in the full picture of improving the system.
That night, the committees authorized an “Equity Task Force” proposed by Martineau. The district’s task force will invite students, alumni, faculty, staff, parents, citizens, school committee members and district leaders to participate.
[Side note – Last week, the Community Advocate wrote that Town of Northborough is forming a study group on diversity.]
An explanation of the Task Force was included in this month’s newsletter issued on Friday. It referred to efforts as fitting within the newly adopted Strategic Plan for the school.
The district has been working on a new 5 year strategic plan to replace “Vision 2020”. Earlier this month, the community was asked to weigh in on a draft. The final version was adopted last week. Martineau’s message states:
Over the past several weeks I have received many communications from students, alumni, and parents calling the District to action. The communications have been thoughtful, purposeful, and direct and have centered around the District’s work with our students around combating hatred, racism, and intolerance. I’d like to share an excerpt from a recent email, “…we hope to not only educate our community about the widespread impact of racism in American society but to actively make anti-racist changes. As Angela Davis, Professor at University of California outlined in a recent interview, this work ‘will allow us to envision the possibility of a society that is free of racism and sexism, and homophobia and transphobia.” Most of the communications identified a collective response, which is essential as we continue the work of preparing our youth for the world of college, career, and citizenship. We are looking forward to engaging in this work as is clearly articulated in the DIstrict’s reauthorized strategic plan.
At the June 24, 2020, Northborough-Southborough Regional, Northborough, and Southborough Combined School Committee meeting the committees shared a Statement of Justice and Equity, and asked that I form a Equity Task Force to undertake a close assessment of all aspects of the District’s policies, practices, systems, curricula, and schools’ culture and analyze the District’s Strategic Plan, Vision 2026: Educate – Inspire – Challenge through the lens of equity, tolerance, and diversity and identify further action steps that need to be taken. I will communicate with the community regarding the Task Force and how to get involved in this important work, by Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
Lastly, I encourage families to review the District’s Strategic Plan, Vision 2026: Educate – Inspire – Challenge closely, as it outlines the important work that lies ahead. I’d also like to thank the members of the Strategic Plan Steering Committee for their participation in the development process.
The new vision plan doesn’t make direct references to institutional racism. But it does include an emphasis on equity, diversity, and understanding perspectives.
The schools’ core values are listed as Integrity, Equity, Empathy, Inclusivity, Respect, and Perseverance. The plan envisions that students will be:
Socially and Civically Engaged
- Demonstrate personal, civic, and social integrity through ethical and empathetic behaviors.
- Recognize individual and communal impact on others and the natural world.
- Value and embrace diverse cultures and unique perspectives through mutual respect and open dialogue.
Under the plan’s definition for how students will be “Healthy and Balanced” it includes that they will:
- Develop and demonstrate awareness, sensitivity, concern, and respect to connect with self and others’ feelings, opinions, experiences, and cultures.
Community Calls for Action
As I noted, the administration had been hearing calls for action from the community. Those were echoed later in the meeting during Audience Sharing.
Southborough’s Jessica Levenson said she had a statement to read from a group calling themselves (“right now”) the Anti-Racist Education Group of Southborough. She said they were looking to formally establish the group and invite others to attend.
She stressed that she didn’t want to “speak for or over black voices” but to use her voice and privilege to “amplify voices in an effort to dismantle racism”. She referenced a call to action by writer Roxanne Gay, “We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance.”
The group’s letter, shared on social media, was signed by over 50 community members. It referenced “countless murders of Black Americans at the hands of police”, nationwide protests, experiences shared by black and biracial residents in a speech at the Southborough vigil and an article by district alumni. The letter states:
this is not a “them” problem; this is an “us” problem. It requires all of us to practice active anti-racism because it is not enough to condemn racism; we must actively dismantle it.
It is incumbent upon us, as concerned parents, alumni, and citizens of Northborough-Southborough School Districts, to take theis time to not only listen to Black voices, but also to reflect on how we can forceully address systemic racism in and beyond our own community. . .
We need to teach our children how to frame out nation’s history; to address white privilege, inherent bias, and the act of unlearning racism; to teach our students how to be effective allies; and to overhaul our hiring practices to diversify the predominately white staff, so that our students see themselves represented in the teachers who guide them.
The letter included a list of 8 action items for district administration and staff. Prior to reading the statement, Levenson noted she was pleased to hear about the planned task force.
Regional Chair Cathy Kea and Martineau indicated the task force would go through the action list.
Meredith Kent of Northborough asked the school committee to address the lack of books focusing on systemic racism on the Algonquin Regional High School summer reading list.
Kent noted that Melican Middle School’s recently released list included ways for students to read more about race, diversity, and social justice. She was surprised that ARHS hadn’t responded similarly. She pointed out that in past summers, the list had challenged students by including topics that were complex and controversial. (She did acknowledge that she knew a lot went into the creation of the list and that it predated recent events.)
Martineau said there had been a shift from the English teachers creating the list to the school librarian. He said the decision had been made that the purpose of the list would be to engage students in reading for the joy of reading. He said they would revisit that shift the future.
Statement on Justice and Equity
The school committees for Northborough K-8, Southborough K-8 and Algonquin Regional High School have issued a joint statement on Justice and Equity. Prior to Audience Sharing, committee members discussed and debated the language for over 30 minutes.
The original draft stated:
it is the responsibility of our schools to ensure that we create and maintain a welcoming community free from racism for all students.
Ultimately, an amended version passed adding “and discrimination” after “racism”.
The item of main debate, raised by Dan Kolenda on the Regional School Committee, was the word “create”. Kolenda argued it would indicate to the public that the school system had failed by not having already created that community. He opined:
the school district has done incredible work in ensuring that we have a very welcoming environment for all our students. . . you are always going to have outliers who don’t see that as a priority
Joan Frank agreed, thinking enhanced was a better word. Keturah Martin said the word wasn’t to undermine, but to signal openness to make progress going forward, making things “even more welcoming and inclusive.” Some members focused on the ongoing nature of work and the need to strive for making everyone feel included, and argued that creating isn’t a one time act.
Kathleen Howland said that the number of stories she had heard recently makes her think they can’t be complacent in thinking either community is inclusive. She referred to the racial incident earlier that day on zoom. She said there needs to be a consistent effort to reach out to the “underbelly” to try to “soften” them “in their humanity”.
Roger Challen said that unless there was something really wrong with the statement, they shouldn’t be wordsmithing that night. The statement is a starting point and work will continue. Kathleen Palutchko agreed. She also stated they need to show recognition of an historic moment, and that they get it.
Jessica Devine said that she had actually hadn’t thought it went far enough. Rebutting Kolenda’s suggestion of “continue to create”, she said they need to recognize that many people in their towns don’t feel a welcoming community free from racism. Still, she was willing to support the statement as a starting point. Lauren Bailey-Jones agreed.
Things got heated when Bailey-Jones rebutted a suggestion by Kolenda that the statement be only from the three committee chairs. She said that if members don’t support the statement, they would “be being cowardly”. Kolenda asked her if she was calling any members who didn’t agree with her cowards. That exchange was quickly cut off with a call to move to vote.
The motion led to more debate with two motions to amend.
Earlier in the discussion, Paul Butka had voiced a different concern. He said there are “ways to make people feel uncomfortable beyond the color of their skin”. He said that they need to make everyone feel included no matter their sexual preference, how they practice religion (or don’t), etc. He followed, a statement that focuses exclusively on race is a mistake. He later stated that if the statement was going to kickstart the group, he didn’t want them to think that racism was the only problem to be solved. They need to add language about other discrimination.
When it came time to vote, Butka raised the issue again, reminding that it is pride month and they were ignoring the LGBTQ community. Devine agreed, saying “we need to call out racism and add discrimination”. She moved to amend the statement.
Kolenda made a separate motion to change “create” to “enhance”. It was seconded by Frank for the Regional Committee. She also moved for the Northborough committee but failed to get a second. No one from the Southborough committee moved to make the amendment. In the end, only Kolenda and Butka voted in favor for the Regional Committee. (Frank appeared to change her mind when she realized that it would lead to committees issuing separate statements instead of a joint one.)
The motion to add “discrimination” was unanimously supported across all three committees. In the end the revised statement was unanimously approved, though Kolenda noted that his vote was with his voiced reservations.
Kamali Aieka O’Meally asked when the statement would be issued, urging it be soon. Members agreed that the statement shouldn’t wait for task force details, but should be accompanied by news that a task force was being formed.