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Report: East Lyme schools reach 'tipping point' for social change

East Lyme — An independent study of the racial climate in East Lyme Public Schools presented to the Board of Education this week found at least a quarter of the school community is ready to take the steps necessary to counter racism and advance diversity.

The 70-page root cause equity analysis put together by the Equity Institute, a consulting firm out of Providence, R.I., specializing in racial justice issues, characterized the schools as strong and academically oriented, with a focus on test scores and strict adherence to the curriculum that can sometimes get in the way of change.

But Karla Vigil, CEO of the Equity Institute, said the five-month process of compiling surveys, conducting focus groups and interviewing administration and school board members led her to believe the district is ready for a transformation. She and the two researchers, hired by the school board for $15,000 to conduct the mini-audit of the school community's overall mindset on issues of diversity, presented the results of the report.

"At least 25% of your community members have shown that they're ready to move in that direction," Vigil said. "They might not completely understand what equity is or looks like or feels like, but their perceptions are that they'd like to move forward with this work."

Described in the report as the "25% tipping point," the threshold is the basis for "transformative change" in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. The term refers to the work of social scientist Damon Centola, who said at least one-quarter of a community's population needs to buy into the concept of social change if it's going to take hold.

"I think that's really important because that will hopefully spread to other folks who might not believe it yet, or might not understand what it means," Vigil said.

Equity, as defined in the report, is the recognition that people do not start from the same place and those imbalances must be adjusted. It differs from equality, which means everybody is treated the same.

The district in April adopted a strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion to guide the district initiative going forward. The equity analysis was one part of a six-step approach that also includes revisions to the curriculum and efforts to recruit more diverse faculty.

Of the study's 2,300 survey respondents — including students, family members, staff members, administrators and school board members — 58.4% were white, 11% were mixed race, 14.3% were Asian, 4.8% were Black, 1.3% were Pacific Islander and 8% did not identify themselves. The gender makeup of respondents was 44% female, 41% male, 14% "other" and 1% unidentified.

Kaitlin Moran, a partner at the Equity Institute, said responses to focus groups and interviews showed members of the school community — including students, families, teachers, administrators, board members and alumni — feel administrators and teachers lack consistency when it comes to promoting diversity efforts and talking about current events from a more inclusive perspective.

The report said some people talked about being brushed off and ignored by various members of the school community when racist incidents occurred. A trend among participants showed that some of them felt "those in power were silent when injustices happened" and there was a lack of discussion around current events that illustrate widespread inequities.

Moran said the district must take "a strong, value-driven stand rather than trying to appease all sides who might be working in other ways against the district's strategic plan."

One survey response quoted in the report came from a teacher who said colleagues are often afraid to discuss anything deviating from the curriculum that could be considered controversial.

"We work in an overwhelmingly white middle/upper-class town and have some outspoken parents that are very against any type of equity, race relations discussion," the teacher said, giving the example of teachers who have been questioned by the principal for discussing systemic racism in class after complaints from parents.

The "principal will first ask if the term is specifically mentioned in the curriculum. If not, then the teacher is in the wrong. This example is just one of many as to why teachers are worried about discussing certain topics that technically aren't covered explicitly in our curriculum, although when teaching about slavery it would be fair to discuss systemic racism," the teacher said.

The report showed a school climate affected by those who struggle with being high-achieving students in a high-achieving district. It described bullying based on homophobia, sexism and racism. Some teachers alleged certain families got preferential treatment from the administration, while some families alleged the same thing about certain teachers.

A middle school student quoted in the report expressed a desire to be able to raise a hand in answer to a question without being embarrassed about saying the wrong thing. "I wish that we wouldn't be valued based on our grades. I wish mental health was more important than getting A's. I wish that we were actually in a comfortable environment," the student said.

The report recommended more technical education and trade classes as a way to promote a learning environment that ensures equitable outcomes for all learners. Even without a survey question specifically addressing the issue, 11% of respondents filled out a generic line for additional responses with their belief the district does not provide opportunities for students who don't want to go the 4-year-college route.

A participant in the teachers' focus group put it this way in the report: "People think of us as having pretty good academic outcomes but we definitely have students that we miss. We don't have all that many, like, technical job training types of opportunities."

The report also noted that there was a feeling among some who responded that there was a disproportionate number of people of color, especially Black students, receiving special education services.

Moran said that's notable because one would expect most of the special education students in a majority-white district to be white. While the equity study did not take a look at the numbers, she said the district should undertake a statistical analysis to determine if people of color have been over-identified as needing special education.

If it's true, anti-bias training measures could help ensure students are receiving the appropriate education. If it's not true, steps should be taken to find out why there is the perception in the school community that there's a high percentage of people of color receiving special education services.

Another takeaway from the report revolved around socio-economic divisions, with the report stating there is no clear method for students facing financial hardship to communicate their needs with the school. Fees for school events and sports limit the number of students who can fully participate, the report said.

According to the Equity Institute, the goal of the audit was to help the district understand the values of the community and its readiness for change. It also provides actionable recommendations to help create policies and practices "that raise historically silenced voices, shift the imbalance of power and privilege, and ensure equitable outcomes for all learners."

e.regan@theday.com

In their words

The East Lyme Root Cause Analysis study was based on 2,300 survey responses from students, family members, staff members and administration. The respondents addressed issues in areas such as accountability, climate, curriculum, family engagement and hiring and retention. Read some of the anonymous responses here:

"There are constantly comments being made in school. The classic 'that's gay' or 'that's racist' joke made by white boys is damaging to the LGBTQ community and people of color who actually experience racism." — high school survey respondent

"I have a biracial daughter in this school system and it is disruptive to her daily learning the way some of the high school teachers handle issues that arise in classrooms and how staff daily contribute to her feeling unsafe and uncomfortable in her learning environment." — family survey respondent

"It's time to not only hire teachers of different ethnic backgrounds, but have also left East Lyme Connecticut at some point in their lives. Half the teachers left for college and came right back with no life experience outside of East Lyme. It's clearly a conflict of interest when problems arise with their friends' kids ... lots of special treatment for the kids of East Lyme Alums." — family survey respondent

"We communicate very well with English speakers only. There is no process for how teachers can communicate with parents that are non-native English speaking families." — staff survey respondent

"I wish that the school would take religion into hand. I'm Hindu and to be honest I know many kids who aren't Christian (who) have to do stuff on days they can't due to religion." — high school student survey respondent

"I wish the district offered more support to students whose families face difficult circumstances. I also feel this district is more responsive to the 'haves' rather than the 'have nots'." — family survey respondent

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