During the Warwick Valley School Board meeting that was livestreamed via YouTube conference call on March 4, Schools District Superintendent Dr. David Leach introduced Dr. Gess LeBlanc, a psychologist and professor at Hunter College who has been tapped to help address issues of inclusivity and educational equity and the school climate in the district.
The professor works with school districts throughout the area, including: Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery and Valley Central in Orange County; Highlands in Ulster County; Lakeland in Westchester County; as well as New York City schools.
LeBlanc acknowledged that children and their families are dealing with stress, particularly as a result of the pandemic. He said that all children need to feel a connection to the district, as well as a sense of support. Some kids, he added, are dealing with “trauma.”
All students and families should “feel a sense of connectedness, support, belonging” to the district.
He recognized extracurricular activities as being helpful to physical and psychological healing, and mentioned the importance of safe spaces, in addition to academics. LeBlanc said that kids need to feel connected to their peers and teachers, as well as to the material they’re learning; they need to feel “valued and visible in the curriculum,” as well as being prepared by the curriculum to navigate the challenges of the world today.
A district-wide Equity Committee
“Raising awareness takes time, inclusivity and data collection,” he said, adding that the district needs a sustainable plan, which would be developed by a district-wide Equity Committee.
The committee would be composed of teachers, parents, students, administrators, and board members. “Only (through) inclusivity can we come to better understand what the issues are,” what’s working, “what are the wonderful things,” and what issues need to be fixed.
LeBlanc suggested forming focus groups that would “increase awareness of factors on the ground,” and that would “ensur(e) all students and families have a sense of belonging” to the district. He added that there should be “as many diverse opinions around the table” as possible, and would be willing to offer professional development support to staff and the administration, as well as to school board members.
School Board members respond
LeBlanc offered board members the opportunity to respond to the proposed committee formation and focus group, firing off questions:
Denise Ginley pointed out that this is “the most challenging year for teachers;” how can he be sure that this survey doesn’t lead to more work for them, outside of the additional tasks they have had to assume this past year?
“I start from the perspective that wonderful things are happening” in schools, LeBlanc replied, while also “teaching from a culturally responsible perspective.” New York State has a guiding document on this subject, he added, but “it’s not a curriculum.”
“You might need to ‘tweak’ social-emotional learning,” he said, but first WV must do the assessment.
Keith Parsons asked: “What are some of the misconceptions about your work?”
“People assume ‘political indoctrination,’” LeBlanc said, or that “We’re trying to silence certain members” of the community.
“Equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging (should be our) North Star...,” he added. “All voices should be heard” so that “all students can thrive,” especially in these challenging times: the district needs to identify barriers to that goal.
LeBlanc pointed out that there may be issues of income, gender, culture or color. Often times, he added, that poorer white families may be at a disadvantage.
All of these constituencies may not have the technology they need for their children to fully participate in school.
LeBlanc stressed that he wants to make sure all kids have what they need in order to succeed.
Give students the ‘space to disagree, and not be disagreeable’
He said that the district’s survey must look at demographic trends, and added that he wants to give students the “space to disagree, and not be disagreeable.”
Lynn Lillian asked LeBlanc to describe a process where different groups feel represented. LeBlanc replied that the proposed committee should have about 30 members, that would include administrators, building principals, teachers and students, adding that “most effective committees solicit feedback.”
He added that, once goals are identified, committees are then broken down into sub-committees.
“Transparency is critical, because we’re acting at the speed of trust ...we need to have a myriad of voices around the table.”
Making the committee representative
Leach asked: “Regarding working with focus groups/committee feedback, what does that look like (so that it’s representative)?”
LeBlanc offered an example of what not to do, as well as how best to be effective:
A “bad example” would be “the district picks who the families would be...(it wouldn’t) be inclusive,” versus a “good example.” The district puts a call out to the community to participate in focus groups; an introductory letter explaining the goal of equity, along with LeBlanc’s contact information, would be included in the communication.
He added that, since he’s a neutral party, respondents to the letter would self-identify as interested.
“The more that we can be inclusive, the more we cast a wide net, the more that we can rely on that information,” and then measure against other data, including school climate surveys.”
Initial reaction from the public
At the end of the meeting, School board president Sharon Davis read comments from the community in anticipation of the forming of such a committee. Eleven residents wrote to the board: seven were in favor of forming a committee on improving equity and inclusion in the district; four expressed their opposition.
Those in favor generally welcomed the project of increasing diversity and inclusion, and believe it would have a salutary effect, making students of all backgrounds feel welcome in the district, and would increase understanding among students of different backgrounds.
Those opposed expressed fears that this is “political,” and has no place in school, with one parent even accusing the supporters of diversity and inclusion initiatives as “radical” and “socialists,” threatening to take their child out of WV schools and sue the district to have their school taxes refunded, since they don’t agree with this “agenda.”