ARLINGTON – With Martin Luther King Jr. on the minds of many this weekend, Arlington Public Schools leaders are deep in the midst of building a district that embraces diversity and equity to the fullest.
Schools Superintendent Chrys Sweeting said district leaders want to ensure that all students feel accepted regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, economic class or form of learning that best helps them succeed.
“We want to be more inclusive and respectful, with more culturally responsive approaches,” she said. “We’re trying to get more student voices, and more parents’ voices into our conversations, too,” beyond the professional development aimed at administrators and staff.
A series of unrelated incidents last year made equity work all the more worthwhile:
• A post-MLK Day ceremony at the high school that caused several students to leave when the conversation turned from honoring King and his values to peers talking about being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Other speakers supported the presentation.
• A Haller Middle School student who is African American and Hispanic and her equally mixed-race friend were in the library and happy that one of their dads spent time in their classroom that day, when a boy from the high school told them to “just go pick cotton.”
• In June, eight Arlington High students were disciplined for posts on the image messaging application Snapchat with inflammatory statements that included the phrase “racist white and proud,” “liberals need to die” and a racial slur.
The incidents prompted local parents to speak out at school board meetings.
“The district and schools need to provide real diversity and inclusion curriculum for the children and staff,” said Natalie Hollifield, mother of one of the Haller student victims.
At the time, Hollifield said she felt that backlash from whites in the incidents cited above stemmed from the pressure of rights being taken away, but that shouldn’t be the case. She believes it’s the nature of change in a growing community.
“New people moving into town doesn’t mean you’re losing rights. We go to the same schools, and we have the same pride in the town,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of growth and change. Go to the parades, be downtown, say ‘hello’ to people you meet on the street.”
Arlington schools parent Anthony Gaillard also addressed the board regarding diversity, while emphasizing that he is a firm believer that Arlington’s education system works.
“I believe, not so much that we should be tolerant or intolerant, but really educate and try to understand that this community of ours belongs to everyone who lives here, and I think that being that it’s a diverse community, not so much racially or socially, just in all different ways,” said Gaillard, an African-American military veteran who has lived overseas, who raised one successful AHS graduate and has another still attending.
“Regardless of how your children may or may not be affected by hateful comments or certain actions from other students, the thing I’m concerned with is that, based on what you know, what will these types of actions do to strengthen the type of relationships we have with our community, our parents and these kids?” he asked.
District leaders listened
The incidents prompted the district to host equity circles, Sweeting said. The sit-downs were an attempt to hear from students about how they feel after hearing about such incidences, how it impacted them and what the district can do.
“Either they heard about them or were sad that they happened, and it made them angry,” Sweeting said.
During the 2016-2017 school year, district staff and school board members attended conferences focused on diversity and equity, cultural competency and restorative justice, and had several follow up conversations.
Equity is embedded in all segments of the district’s strategic plan adopted last year, and ingrained in the teaching curriculum, Asst. Superintended Kathy Ehman said.
Sweeting also started hosting “school voice” lunches. She asks diverse students for lunch, brings pizza, asks them what helps them best to learn and barriers that hinder them. The responses have been brutally honest and unfiltered, as she had hoped.
APS’s Advisory Council for Education, which includes Hollifield, took up the mantle of equity and cultural competency discussions in November.
These conversations are just a start
To move forward, the district is getting help from a familiar expert whose “heart and roots are in the Arlington community,” Sweeting said.
Gary Howard, a nationally renowned equity and diversity expert, and Seattle-based author of several books including “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know – White Teachers, Multiracial Schools,” met with the district directors team and school board separately on Dec. 13 to talk about the “Deep Equity Process” that is central to his work. Howard taught in Arlington schools in the mid-1970s, where he was already dreaming up the diversity and equity curriculum for the REACH Center for Multicultural Education in Seattle, which he founded. The deep equity framework drills down into the ways that power, privilege and personal biases impact schools and students.
“For teachers, classified staff and leaders, it’s also really talking about understanding diversity and multicultural diversity and how it gives value to our learning system, and how we can remove some barriers,” Sweeting said.
Ehman said Howard’s equity training went beyond acknowledge that we live in a diverse world.
“There’s knowing that the world is multi-cultural, but the critical thing is not the existence of these differences,” she said. “The issue is what we do with them.”
Among the 5,601 students enrolled in Arlington schools, 77.6 percent are Caucasian, 12.7 percent are Hispanic, 5.6 percent are multiple ethnicities, 1.6 percent are Asian American, and African Americans and Native Americans are 1 percent each.
Sweeting and Howard plan to talk again Tuesday, with information to be shared with the district leadership team, directors and principals, with professional development training to follow. Sweeting hopes to give an update to the school board Jan. 22.
“It’s not just a school issue. It’s a community issue,” Sweeting said. “We need to value diversity we have within our community.”
Schools this year have scheduled a variety of presentations to celebrate MLK Day. Arlington High will have two extended 5th periods to view videos about MLK and the civil rights movement, Haller Middle School is hosting Living Voices presentations, and other schools have planned assemblies.
In his lifetime, King emphasized the importance of equity not just in society, but in education.
“We want our kids to be able to learn and to achieve,” Sweeting said. “But in order for them to achieve, they have to feel welcome, that they as a human being are accepted.”