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Capital Region News

How school districts in New York are approaching diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives

A classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill
Jesse King
/
WAMC

In April, the New York state Board of Regents launched an initiative to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in schools. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas reports it is now being considered and adopted in many school districts.

The Regents called for a holistic and inclusive approach. The New York State School Boards Association, New York State Council of School Superintendents, Conference of Big 5 School Districts and Rural Schools Association of New York State have issued a joint statement on the initiative.

It says DEI policies and practices aim to include all groups that have been disadvantaged, whether due to race, ethnicity, disability, gender or gender identity, socioeconomic status or another factor.

Jay Worona, Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, says the culture wars have come to school board meetings across the country.

"There's confusion about what the intent of school districts are when it comes to providing lessons about the curriculum," said Worona. "And this statement is designed to impart the clear understanding that we are not in our school districts attempting to provide etiology and indoctrination, but rather to provide students with critical thinking skills. That's the goal. That's our aim."

Worona says when a school board adopts a DEI policy, it is committing to ensuring all students have equal educational opportunities and the resources matched to their individual needs.

Bob Lowry, Deputy Director of the New York State Council school superintendents, says DEI policies involve changing classroom practices, how information is taught and how questions are asked, recognizing that some children from different backgrounds may respond differently to different methods of teaching.

"The fact is that schools all across New York state have been doing good work for several years now, with little or no controversy, trying to make their schools more welcoming and supportive to children of all backgrounds," Lowry said. "And the fact is, our schools have been becoming more diverse. Over the last decade and a half, over 85% of the districts in the state have had an increase in the number of children of color that they're serving. And I'd say that ultimately, this is really about trying to make sure that all children have the kinds of opportunities and support that we want for our own children."

Lowry says he views the joint statement as an effort to try and "set the record straight."

Worona says remote learning and general disruption of the educational experience triggered by the pandemic underscores the need for equity.

"There was a divide, you know, it was an equity divide digitally, right, with kids who didn't have access to technology, or in areas of the state that were very remote and they did not have broadband capabilities," Worona said. "So, you know, this is a call to to ensure that there is no child in the state that should be placed in a position to be denied educational benefit, and that should be the commitment of our state on behalf of the future generation."

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 Joint statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiativesby Fred Langstaff, president, New York State School Boards Association, Dr. Phyllis S. Harrington, president, New York State Council of School Superintendents, Rev. Steve López,chairperson, Conference of Big 5 School Districts and Doug Gustin, chair of the board of directors, Rural Schools Association of New York State 

School districts in many communities are considering and adopting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies and practices. Many schools have faithfully implemented DEI efforts for years, and more have joined since the Board of Regents called on all schools in the state to develop policies that advance DEI as a priority.

In some communities, debates have arisen over the intent and focus of these efforts. Now, to ensure outcomes that best serve our young people, debates must be resolved through a reliance on facts and on a true understanding of the work being done in our schools.

The goal of DEI efforts is to create a positive learning environment for all students and eliminate barriers that limit astudent’s chance to be successful. When a school board adopts a DEI policy, it is committing to ensuring all students have equal educational opportunities and the resources they need to succeed.

DEI policies and practices aim to include all groups that have been disadvantaged, whether due to race, ethnicity, disability, gender or gender identity, socioeconomic status or another factor. That is why DEI efforts include a focus on advocating to ensure all schools have resources matched to the needs of the students they serve.

In public education, school boards, with the advice and counsel of school superintendents and staff, adopt a curriculum that teaches students to think analytically, understand multiple perspectives and draw their own conclusions. An equitable and inclusive education prepares all students for a lifetime of thoughtful discussion and analysis of issues that shape and define our society, today and into the future.

The adoption of DEI initiatives by school districts is about ensuring that all students have the opportunities and assistance we would want for our own children – and preparing all students for a diverse workforce and world they will enter upon leaving school.

Our future depends on public education and the success of our schools requires a commitment from those in our communities who hold differing perspectives to resolve those differences in a respectful manner.

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About NYSSBA: The New York State School Boards Association represents more than 670 school boards and more than 5,200 school board members in New York. NYSSBA provides advocacy, training and information to school boards in support of their mission to govern the state's public schools.About NYSCOSS: The New York State Council of School Superintendents is a professional and advocacy organization with over a century of service to school superintendents and assistant superintendents in New York State. THE COUNCIL provides more than 875members with numerous professional development opportunities, publications and personal services while advocating for public education and the superintendency.About The Conference of Big 5 School Districts: The Conference of Big 5 School Districts is a membership organization representing New York State’s urban school systems including Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers, Albany, Mount Vernon and Utica. Collectively, 46% of the State’s public school children are educated in these districts. The Big 5 Organization has been advocating and promoting urban education issues before federal, state and local entities since 1958. About Rural Schools Association of New York State: The Rural Schools Association of New York State represents nearly one half of the school districts in New York State and over one third of the state’s students. RSAprovides advocacy, programs, research and services to small and rural school districts throughout the state, with the goal of allowing them to become more educationally effective and more fiscally efficient. RSA operates the Rural Schools Program and the Center for New York Rural Schools at Cornell University. RSA’s mission is to allow New York rural school districts to provide an educational experience that prepares students to achieve success at their chosen endeavors and to make meaningful contributions to society.

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