In a series of proposed changes that has generated wide community discussion, the Board of Education is poised this week to replace language around diversity, equity and inclusion or “DEI” in the school district’s goals.
Board members agreed at their most recent meeting that the following sentences rightly should be added to a draft version of the goals that the elected body has been discussing since July:
NCPS [New Canaan Public Schools] will strive to deepen students’ understanding of a range of differences among people. NCPS will work to foster empathy and respect for all and to celebrate the unique and varied contributions each of us makes.
Yet the Board of Ed is divided on a third proposed sentence for the goals:
In this regard, NCPS will seek independent expertise, research and develop next steps to advance this initiative.
Four Board members—Secretary Dan Bennett, Julie Toal, Hugo Alves and Phil Hogan—objected to the word ‘expertise,’ saying they were against hiring an outside consultant to assess New Canaan Public Schools and make recommendations.
They stopped short of saying that New Canaan’s lack of diversity is not a problem for the public schools. They said that such a consultant likely would already have a packaged program ready for a district such as New Canaan’s, that the Board should await the results of a “school climate survey,” that the Board should do more of its own research first before such language is written into the district’s goals, that hiring a consultant could start the Board down a road where it could be difficult to stop and that such messages could simply be conveyed to students by their teachers.
“I think the concern with that step is, once we seek the expert advice, what are the probabilities that we decide to accept whatever this person says?” Hogan said during the Aug. 22 meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “Once we get started on this path, I think it’s going to be hard to ever stop it, and I am reluctant to outsource such a huge decision for so many kids in the school district to one expert who has maybe never even set foot in this community.”
Bennett said he did not have confidence that the Board could “find someone who I think has the type of balanced discussion that we want to be having and is not already far down the road on what is away from what we are doing here, what is a cottage industry at the higher education level. We are trying to tackle it ground up and that’s constructive. Let’s just say I’m not as big a believer in ‘experts’ as others.”
Bennett added, “I would definitely not be an advocate to go try and find some DEI expert to come here and try to kind of explain whatever the most current thing is. If we want to spend the time defining some of these terms and understanding how we want them implemented in the school, I think that’s OK. But I don’t know that spending money on a consultant, an expert consultant, is necessarily a good use of resources and I don’t know that it would generate the level of nuance at the local level that we’re targeting.”
Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill, Vice Chair Brendan Hayes and members Erica Schwedel and Penny Rashin said they were comfortable leaving in the word ‘expertise.’ (Board member Bob Naughton was absent.)
Rashin said, “The way this initiative was always envisioned by the Board—this Board is a new board, this Board could decide they want to do something different—but it was always envisioned that we would learn about this. We saw that there was a hole in our education. We don’t know how big it is, but it’s there. It’s persistent. It’s a little bit more than giving teachers a statement, because we’ve always told teachers to nurture students, but yet we hear we’re not doing as good a job as we should to prepare our graduates to enter the world. So we want to learn more about it, and over future years take more steps as we become comfortable about them. So I don’t think it’s a statement and just move on. It’s always been seen as a process.”
Hayes said it didn’t make sense for the Board to decide preemptively that it didn’t want to hear from an expert.
“We are trying to do something that is meaningful, that addresses a serious issue,” he said. “And we’re saying, ‘Well we don’t want to hear from people about their expert views.’ We can choose five [experts], we can choose 30, we can do it for the next 24, 36 months. But to make a decision today that we don’t want to hear from experts regardless of who they may be—and there may be some people who consider themselves experts who we want to hear from who say, ‘None of this stuff works, so don’t do any of it,’ maybe that’s the case. Maybe there’s somebody out there like that. I’m sure there is. Any of those people can come here. We can hear from them and we can make a decision as to what we want to do. Why today we would want to make a decision to not get expert advice, I just don’t understand why we’d ever make that call.”
Members of the school board couldn’t agree on the right language, and scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday at New Canaan High School in order to discuss further and possibly take a final vote.
The Board of Ed reviews district goals each summer, typically making changes.
Two years ago, following a summer where NCPS alumni addressed the Board multiple times regarding shortcomings in the district with respect to diversity and inclusion, and post-New Canaan consequences for them, the Board approved the following language under Goal #4, (parts of it tweaked in 2021):
“Understand and communicate efforts to expand and increase educational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the district, with a long-term focus on identifying and remedying gaps and strengthening ongoing efforts.
a. Collaboratively initiate a process, facilitated by a DEI content expert, to develop a district-wide statement along with long- and short-term DEI goals.
b. Continue to provide professional development for faculty and staff focused on increasing awareness of issues of equity, improving cultural humility, and increasing culturally proficient and responsive educational practices.
c. Highlight existing educational opportunities available to students and, with student input, develop plans that are focused on increasing sensitivity towards issues of equity, diversity and inclusion and preparing them as global citizens.
d. Continue partnering with community agencies and experts to develop and/or offer parent education on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
e. Continue to provide students with culturally responsive learning experiences and expand the implementation of culturally responsive literature across the curriculum. NCPS District Goals & Objectives 2020-2021
f. Present update on Social Studies curriculum, including efforts to expand content in alignment with K-12 Social Studies Standards.”
Yet for more than one year after that vote, the elected body did not advance the goal around DEI, either during the 2020-21 school year or at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Though the Board of Ed was largely remade during the municipal election last fall, its makeup in terms of party representation hasn’t changed. It has been reviewing the district’s goals through two meetings (July 18 and Aug. 22) and a workshop (held just before the Aug. 22 regular meeting).
References to DEI were removed from the Board’s working draft following a discussion at the July 18 meeting—for example, objective (b) above became objective (d) as written below. Under a draft shared at the Aug. 22 meeting, a rewritten Goal #4 now reads:
“Continuously strengthen all schools and classroom communities to ensure every student feels safe, connected and engaged in inclusive, respectful and supportive learning environments.
a. Continue providing professional development for faculty and staff focused on raising cultural awareness and enhancing culturally proficient and responsive educational approaches.
b. Continue partnering with community agencies and experts to develop and/or offer parent education on issues impacting our students, families and schools.
c. Research and consider participation in the Open Choice Enrollment Program managed through CES.
d. Research and consideration participation in the Teacher Residency Program managed through CES.
e. Continue to provide students with culturally responsive learning experiences while expanding the implementation of culturally responsive pedagogy.”
During that July meeting, Toal said that the term ‘DEI’ had become “politicized.”
“Is there a way to rephrase this and use words like ‘empathy’ and ‘diversity of background and thought’? Just to kind of depoliticize the schools and the goals.”
Bennett said that what DEI entails in 2022 “is maybe different from where it was two years ago or four years ago.”
“And I think within some of those concepts you have some really good things and then you can also get to some really pernicious things,” he said. “And I think we should have those discussions so that we are as a Board clear about what we’re saying, ‘These are important things that we want as part of the school system.’ And make sure that we are not including things that the community is not supportive of.”
Schwedel said, “I do think the words really matter here and as we talk about this and as we re-craft the language that we want to use, I think we as a Board need to get away from using the term ‘DEI’ for that reason and decide what we call this objective. Is it valuing differences? Is it inclusiveness? But make sure the words that we use, not just in this document, but then externally also reflect the work we actually want to do.”
Members of the public voiced concerns about the changes at the Aug. 22 Board meeting, saying that DEI has been misconstrued with ‘Critical Race Theory,’ that removing DEI works against the basic mission of any educational institution, that the curriculum at NCHS currently has significant gaps, that DEI covers many areas including special education and that failing to implement a DEI initiative will harm the district’s rating and reputation.
Monica Chimera said she’d watched the July Board meeting and was “a little bit disturbed about some of the misinformation that some of us are operating from.”
“I think ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion’—on their own, these words are innocuous,” Chimera said. “It’s political talking points and media soundbites that make them more political than they really are.”
She added, “I don’t know what everyone’s background is, but if more than three-quarters of you are not POC, why are you making decisions that affect us without consulting us? Nothing about us without us. When I want to know about autism, I go talk to autistic kids or parents, or people who have the skill set and the expertise. I don’t know—apart from seeing women on this Board—I don’t know that that exists here. So I just want to know why you are making these decisions to stamp out this curriculum in its entirety without even consulting the people that it’s going to directly affect.”
Lauren Nussbaum said, “Why are we moving backwards? Why have we removed the language that 800 alumni, parents of alumni, current parents and current students and grandparents signed on to say this must be a priority? We are not moving backwards. I implore you. We must move forwards.”
Fatou Niang said that DEI is “not a scary thing.”
“It’s a continuity of what New Canaan has promised to its students,” Niang said.
She added, “We have an issue in New Canaan. We need to address the issue. We need to address it to our community. We need to address it to our students. And from the time I moved to this town, which was 17 years ago, New Canaan has always been the ground for excellence by listening to people who know better than we do. By learning from people who have done the work and gotten results better than what we have. That’s how we have improved ourselves. That’s how we have been serving our students. We have to remember why we are here—this is for the students, not the discomfort of the adults in the room.”
An online petition launched last week, “Keep DEI in NCPS District Goals,” has garnered about 900 digital signatures.