The New Canaan Board of Education last week debated whether to adopt formal goals for the upcoming school year designed to address issues of race through staff training, changes to curriculum and parent education, among other areas.
Draft goals discussed at the Board’s July 13 meeting (they can be found here, under Goal 4-2, and embedded below as a PDF) include creation of what would be the districts’ first “statement on equity, diversity and inclusion,” as well as an update on Social Studies curriculum and identification of “additional opportunities in other content areas to increase content on diversity and inclusion K-12.”
Some Board members voiced support for adopting the goals, while others said they were concerned about introducing the changes during an academic year that likely will include some form of distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic that strains the “bandwidth” of educators and where spending on schools is tight.
Sheri West said she strongly supported the new goals and that it’s “crucial that at this moment in history, that we as a Board, as educational leaders in our district that we communicate the importance of these values and really truly that they are at the cornerstone of what we do—our values and our belief system and our actions.”
“I especially like the addition of the professional development and of the parent education,” West said during the 3.5-hour meeting, held via videoconference. “One thing I would like added is I believe in order for us to execute on these goals, we are going to need budget dollars to bring in an expert consultant. I don’t think this is work that we can do alone. I think many districts have already or are hiring DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] leaders for their districts. I don’t see that happening for us this year. But at the very least I would like to see expressions that we are going to bring expert resources to bear to make sure that we do this right.”
Vice Chair Brendan Hayes said the Board should look specifically at “how we may get some improved diversity in our faculty and staff over time.”
“I think that’s something that can be challenging and I would just want to know what is the best way to think about that and try to make that happen,” he said. “So I think getting some outside advice on that might be helpful.”
Board member Dionna Carlson said she appreciated “the desire for bringing in an outside resource to help with this kind of work and I appreciate the need for it, but these goals, as Dr. Luizzi articulated earlier, are for this coming year.”
“And with as I said earlier, with a $550,000 budget cut, year-over-year, I don’t see dollars going toward an outside consultant or expertise,” she said. “I would be disappointed in losing staffing in the classroom because we have a very tight budget this year. So I appreciate the need for it, but I don’t think that this year an outside consultant is something that we can afford in this budget cycle.”
Board member Carl Gardiner said he was concerned about introducing the new goals “given that we are going to have to completely change the school model this year.”
“This has to be so thoughtfully done, and deeply and well thought-out and there are so many nuances to this and ways that it could blow back and end up being counterproductive, and to try to make this a headline goal in this year I think it incredibly imprudent,” he said. “We can start to do some study, just on the committee level. That is doable and to start setting up the process for how to think about this and get feedback from, most importantly the students, about how we think about this and what they need. This is a very comprehensive plan here, and I think it’s ambitious for where we are today and what we need to find out.”
In some instances, district leaders said, the goals reflect efforts already underway in New Canaan. For example, administrators discussed inclusion during a professional retreat last year, speakers have run workshops such as reviewing what literature is read by elementary school students, and curriculum is continually reviewed (fourth-graders didn’t study Africa until 2015, the same year second-graders started studying the Middle East, according to Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Jill Correnty).
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi, who introduced the draft goals to the Board, said that “much of this is about learning” and “continuing what we have started.”
Addressing Carlson’s points, Correnty said there are “low-level things that we can do with regard to professional development” that are “not big-ticket items like bringing in a huge consultant.”
The discussion follows a June 15 Board of Ed meeting where a group of New Canaan Public Schools alumni called for the district to hire more people of color, expand curriculum to address systemic racism and inequity, and hold twice-yearly events to educate both students and faculty on racial justice. And it comes less than two months after protests, including in New Canaan, and calls for police and other types of reform following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Though they stopped short of citing the wide social unrest that has followed Floyd’s death, Board members alluded to it.
“This is crucial work, we need to move forward on this now,” West said. “This is not a ‘nice to do’ that we can defer to next year. I think that this has been a very thoughtful first step. It starts with a goal that guides action and I think it starts here with [diversity, equity and inclusion] and us coming up with a public statement on this. I think that should have been done yesterday frankly, in my opinion, and I think that will guide the rest of the work. And this is something that is so crucial at this moment in history. We do not have the option to say that ‘this is not the right time, we can do this next year.’ We must move forward on this work now.”
Gardiner described what the Board is weighing as a “massively important curricular change” and said “to do it in a year when [the district is] completely bandwidth-constrained” gives teachers and faculty “short shrift.”
“It’s rather knee-jerked to me,” he said. “Passions are high right now. It’s usually not the greatest time to have really thoughtful approaches to things and to do things in a really reactive way. So as a period to start to study curriculum, start to understand what other schools have done, where there have been successes and failures makes all the sense in the world. But to try to—I’m seeing this language which says you are trying to shoot for a complete overhaul of the curriculum in a year where the timing couldn’t be worse in terms of the ability to have the time and space to put in the proper thought that it deserves.”
The Board moved to approve the goals as a first reading, and is expected to take up a second reading—and to vote—at its Aug. 10 meeting.