Saying they represent more than 650 present and past students and parents, New Canaan Public Schools alumni last week 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.
Addressing the Board of Education during the public comment period at the elected body’s June 15 meeting, the alumni also called for the public schools to interview at least one candidate of color for every faculty and administrative position available.
Valentina Zamora, a rising senior at New Canaan High School, said those who signed a June 7 letter to the district—it now has more than 700 signatories—also are calling for the hiring of a new director of diversity and inclusion for the district “to oversee the development of diverse curriculum and programming” as well as a restorative justice counselor “who will be responsible for re-framing the settlement of conflicts and discipline within the New Canaan Public Schools community.”
“Looking back at the 2019-2020 school year, where 417 white teachers and 20 nonwhite teachers were employed, we hope to see 25% faculty of color employed in academic disciplines by 2025,” Valentina Zamora said during the meeting, held via videoconference. “Along with this, we recommend that New Canaan Public Schools reports and publishes demographics of all faculty hired each fiscal year to show progress toward this goal.”
The comments came on the heels of a peaceful protest in New Canaan that drew thousands of participants, calling for an end to police brutality and racism in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Local police and government officials joined in the protest here, and nationally Floyd’s death has galvanized advocates for change in law enforcement and beyond.
Fatou Niang, who organized the New Canaan protest together with her sons, told Board members that in talking to them about what’s happening “the first thing that they told me was it was impossible to go through the public [school] system, and not come out racist.”
“And that shocked me, that kids going through the New Canaan system can think like that,” said Niang, who addressed the Board on the same topic as the alumni group though not as part of the same presentation. “So we had a long conversation and a few examples came in, such as teachers asking my son Lucas to read ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ the part where they were using the n-word, because she wanted him [the reader] to be ‘authentic.’ Those are things you learn about many years later, and you can’t do anything about it. So it makes me want to participate in this conversation to offer options.”
Niang suggested the district expand its curriculum in African-American studies beyond traditional sections focused on Civil Rights. “I think there is so much more to learn about that culture that is not being approached,” she said.
Those who addressed the Board as part of the alumni group included Valentina Zamora as well as Will Hennessy, Molly James, Emily Mitaro, Alejandra Zamora, Jelani Alladin, Caroline Hughes, Trip Means and Jack Ludtke. They outlined next steps including participation at future Board of Ed meetings, research, networking in the community and sharing their collaborative efforts with the district online.
Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill indicated that, in addition to inviting public comment at future meetings, the Board would consider the changes in setting district goals (last updated in August 2019). Parkhill noted that the Board typically doesn’t respond to public comments made at meetings, but did say “we acknowledge many of the important ideas and issues that were presented tonight.”
“We are committed, as a Board, to educate our students and it’s important that we look back, we look at our current system and we think about how to best move forward,” she said. “And as part of our Board process, we have the opportunity to do that with our goal-setting process each year and through our public meetings that we will continue to have where we hear from the public and where we can share our discussions and ideas as well. So thank you all for your comments tonight.”
Those who addressed the Board said they valued the New Canaan public education system while adding that it left them largely unprepared to frame or navigate the race-related problems they faced in college and in their professional lives.
Hennessy, who graduated from New Canaan Public Schools in 2013, said, “For many white folks like myself, living in New Canaan and then leaving to go to college and our professional careers is a reckoning that many of the normalized behaviors reinforced through our education system have unintentionally been hurtful, racist, homophobic and oppressive.”
“I’ve been called out in my workplace when the stakes are high to understand that the white-centered world in which I had been taught is the only reality,” he said. “I failed to understand the vibrant racial differences and inequality as well as the power of my privilege. For the class of 2020, the unlearning about the truths of the world starts today, and we are here as alumni, current students and parents to make changes to NCPS, so that future graduates will not be deprived of the education that they deserve to be successful.” [The Board meeting was held hours after the class of 2020 graduation parade.]
James, a classmate, said the alumni “aim to craft a comprehensive district-wide curriculum plan to teach students about systemic racism and privilege.”
“We should form a diverse advisory board to lead the development and implementation of this plan for the upcoming school year,” she said. “We encourage that this plan be available to the New Canaan community for visibility and discussion and we are committed to coming together to achieve these goals and are eager to discuss further with you the Board of Education.”
Mitaro, a 2011 graduate, said she has worked for five years in education and has extensive research training in child psychology. Mitaro that one of her favorite teachers at NCHS was Marianne Cohen in AP World History, who “was very open about her experiences as a Native American woman growing up on a reservation and being the first in her family to attend college, Dartmouth no less.” A decade after graduating, Mitaro said she is “still grateful” to Cohen for the experience of her class.
“I only hope that the district hires more people of color as well as provide the resources necessary to fully support them,” she said. “We cannot simply check a box to educate children about race—we must implement a comprehensive, district-wide evidence-based plan to teach students about systemic racism. I urge the district to hire an expert to lead this implementation.”
Hughes, who graduated in 2004 and, after earning a bachelor’s degree in education and history from Northwestern University, returned to New Canaan and served for nine years as a youth minister, called for “twice-yearly district-wide all school day events, aimed at understanding and raising racial justice, diversity and inclusion.”
“We imagine utilizing the arts, music and narrative storytelling, seminars and keynote speakers at the various schools to achieve this goal,” she said. “Similarly, we ask that two professional development days, coordinated by the director of diversity and inclusion, be centered around faculty training around issues of racial justice, diversity and inclusion within the district.”