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East Lyme works toward 'countering racism' through root cause analysis

East Lyme — The Board of Education has hired a consulting firm committed to anti-racist education to conduct a mini audit of the school community.

The Providence, R.I.-based Equity Institute is collecting data in the form of surveys, focus groups and one-on-one interviews to assess the school community's overall mindset on issues of diversity. The "root cause equity mini analysis" takes into account students, teachers, administrators and Board of Education members.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton did not disclose the cost of the audit, despite several requests for the information. Meeting minutes from the April 5 Board of Education meeting, during which members voted to engage the services of the Equity Institute, did not include a dollar figure.

Newton said the analysis is part of a Board of Education focus on diversity, equity and inclusion that came about at the urging of a grassroots group known at the time as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter. The group emerged following the death of George Floyd, who was pinned by the neck under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The group has since formed a nonprofit organization called the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity, or SCORE.

SCORE director of programming Nickie Padilla said her organization's attendance and public comment at Board of Education meetings over several months last summer led members of the school board to commit to addressing diversity in the school system.

Padilla said it took some encouragement from SCORE, but the school board took the issue "and ran with it."

"Initially, it was overwhelming to face a pandemic and face having to undo systems of racism at the same time," she said.

Padilla was a student in the East Lyme school system from kindergarten through eighth grade before she began attending Saint Bernard's in Montville. A certified teacher who taught for many years in New London, she is now an adjunct professor at Mitchell College.

She pointed to the district's strategic plan, approved by the school board on April 5, as evidence of the district's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. "They have a five-year plan," she said. "They want long-term change."

The equity analysis is one element of the strategic plan's six action steps for "countering racism" through diversity, equity and inclusion. The document calls for an exploration into such issues as the extent to which current policies might perpetuate racism and the how the schools do at affirming students of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Equity Institute co-founder and CEO Karla Vigil said the root cause equity analysis is about finding out where the district  stands "in terms of knowing what equity means, their beliefs about it and understanding what it looks like in action."

Part of that process means coming up with a definition of "educational equity" that's specific to the East Lyme school system and what it hopes to accomplish, according to Vigil.

She said her own organization defines equity as a five-point framework built around "psychological safety and physical, intellectual and emotional well being." That foundation is bolstered by a commitment to diversity, authentic relationships, measures of success that don't rely on standardized test scores, and making sure everyone — including people who have been historically marginalized and underserved — has the opportunity to be heard.

An anonymous parent survey from the Equity Institute sent out via email by the school district on May 5 included numerous questions on a broad range of diversity-related topics.

Some questions delved into how welcoming the school community is to various populations, including non-native English speakers; Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC; nonbinary and LGBTQIA2S, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual or two spirit, an alternative gender status in Indigenous cultures. Other questions asked how important it is to expose students to ideas from people of different genders, ethnicities, religions and races. Still others asked how safe and valued the respondents feel when it comes to expressing their views within the school community.

The school board's strategic plan specifies the data will be used to help action teams — made up of a broad range of school staff members, parents, and community members — by providing data "that assesses the effectiveness of current practices in countering racism, advancing diversity, promoting equity and fostering inclusion."

The results will be analyzed and a report will be produced and shared with the community by the end of August 2021, according to the letter accompanying the survey link.

Vigil said focus groups are going on now with different facets of the school community. One-on-one interviews will be held with principals and school board members.

Padilla, of SCORE, applauded the school board and administration for taking what she described as "a great first step."

"They're not sweeping this under the rug, which has occurred in other districts and has occurred in this district in the past," she said.

e.regan@theday.com

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