Sixty members of the Irvington school community joined an informational meeting on Zoom on Tuesday, Dec. 1, to learn about the progress the school district has made in planning new programs in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Last summer, amid heightened discussions of the experiences of BIPOC (Black/indigenous/people of color) students in Irvington schools, the district  announced it was partnering with the NYU/Steinhardt Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. The Center’s mandate was to help the district mount a comprehensive program focusing on professional learning for faculty and staff. The experts were also tasked with helping the schools analyze the causes of possible inequities affecting BIPOC students, and point the way to create a more welcoming community.  

In July, the district held a community meeting, also on Zoom to introduce residents to the work that the Center would be helping the district accomplish. At the Dec. 1 session, Schools Superintendent Kristopher Harrison and Mary Ellis, the interim assistant superintendent for instruction and human resources, were joined on a panel by Reed Swier and Maria Hernandez of the Metro Center and by Arlene Burgos and Andrea Flynn of the PTSA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. This time, they explained in more detail how the work in progress would help the school community bring about systemic improvements in how they teach and interact with BIPOC students.

Harrison said the district’s goal is to become an “agency of change,” welcoming all members of the community and providing “equity of access for every student to achieve their personal best.” He characterized the district’s efforts as “bridge building,” and said there would be continuing community conversations on diversity, inclusion, and race. He added that students would have opportunities to discuss these issues with adult members of the school community, and to participate in discussions on possible new coursework.

Hernandez said the Metro Center’s role would be to help school staff “reimagine and recreate systems so students that haven’t been getting what they need, do get what they need — by creating a culturally responsive, equity-based system.”

A term that was used many times by Hernandez and Swier was “disproportionality.” It refers to a situation where people of certain racial groups experience different outcomes after a similar event — for example, if students in one racial group receive harsher discipline than students in another racial group after committing the same infraction. “There are no quick and simple solutions, no packaged interventions that will dismantle disparate outcomes,” Swier said, explaining that the only way to respond to disproportionality was through systemic, long-term change. “Make sure it stays in the community and grows in the community,” he said.

Swier said that over the course of staff training sessions, participants would come to understand the principles of “culturally responsive education,” and learn why that’s important in schools that are aiming for equity. He said the process starts with looking inwards and asking, “What do we need to know about ourselves, relative to race and power, in order to better understand our students and their families in ways that enhance teaching and learning?” The staff will also study what “implicit bias” means in terms of educational practices and policies, and they’ll look at how schools need to play a central role in preventing “microaggressions” — possibly minor-seeming insults or unequal treatment that have a powerful impact whether they occur once or repeatedly. A microaggression can take many forms: maybe an off-the-cuff comment made by a teacher or administrator that a BIPOC student might find insensitive, uninformed, or offensive. 

The Metro Center will look at the district’s discipline systems in an effort to identify where disproportionality may be present, and will use surveys, focus groups, and interviews to better understand the district’s beliefs and their relation to disproportionality. Finally, the Center will help the district develop a strategic action plan. Hernandez cautioned that building a plan would be “a multiple-year process.”

The Metro Center’s educational and training activities will involve school district faculty and staff, not students or community members. But Flynn explained that the committee would share some of the training techniques the Metro Center uses. 

Burgos explained, “A lot of this information for parents, a lot of the technical words and the way things are framed, are new concepts for lots of people. We want to encourage people to ask questions and keep an open mind... to create for parents and other interested community members an environment that creates a parallel training process. It is important that Irvington is welcoming, is inclusive. And that’s gonna take work.”

Harrison said the district’s efforts would have to be “slow, steady, smart work” that would include maintaining community involvement. Estimating that the process could take the next three to five years, he said the desired changes would come about “if we stay true to this and we stay engaged, and we’re willing to have these difficult conversations.”

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