By Sudipti Kumar, Director of Research
As summer vacation arrives at independent schools, things look and feel far different now than they did in June of 2020.
Last year, our team at EXPLO Elevate was actively tracking school reopening plans throughout the summer and sharing best practices on how to effectively design classes for virtual and in-person settings. While COVID-related planning is still an issue for schools to contend with, we are happy to hear from many leaders and educators that they plan to take longer restful breaks over the summer months to rejuvenate after an incredibly challenging and unexpected year.
As educators and school leaders do look ahead to the fall, one area that continues to be top of mind is embedding principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) into the school’s overall strategy, operations, and day-to-day practices. With major pandemic-related concerns subsiding, schools (including boards, administrators, and faculty) likely have significantly more bandwidth this summer to reflect on the past year in terms of what the school accomplished in their DEIJ work and where they want to go next.
As schools both reflect on and revise their DEIJ related approaches, below are a set of five key principles we recommend schools consider. Many of these ideas can be undertaken by a school’s DEIJ practitioner/team and are based, in part, on our recent report: Making the Hidden Visible: The Lived Experience of DEIJ Practitioners at Independent Schools, where we had the opportunity to interview over 25 DEIJ practitioners.
Be Honest About the School’s DEIJ Journey To Date.
To truly do this, a school must be willing to look at itself in the mirror and articulate where it has been effective and where it has fallen down. One powerful voice is alumni of the school who identify as part of a marginalized community; their former experiences at the school can be difficult to hear but will also provide invaluable insights. It is important not to sugarcoat or gaslight these experiences by assuming that because they happened earlier in time, these issues no longer exist at the school. Instead, placing such experiences in the context of, “what does this mean for us as a school community today?” allows for an openness to look ahead. As well, being honest enough to say, “I don’t know how well we did this in the past”, paves the way to drive real improvement.
Other important stakeholder perspectives include long-term faculty and administrators at the school (specifically those from marginalized groups) as well as current students and families. Similarly, an examination of the history of the school itself – e.g. what is the timeline of when the school was integrated and how were students of color (and those from other marginalized communities) supported over time -can be invaluable resources for future planning.
- Conduct alumni surveys, interviews and/or focus groups with open-ended questions focused on understanding prior experiences at the school as well as what they wish they had in place when they were students.
- Examine the resulting data from a place of introspection and honesty, without rushing to solution before exploring the underlying root causes. A strong root cause analysis protocol is a tool that can be helpful here.Interview long-term faculty and current students/families. Long-term faculty have the insight as to what has changed and what hasn’t, while current students can speak to what the school’s experience is like at this moment which can serve as a helpful comparison point to alumni experiences.
- Explore historical information about the school’s inception and journey over time that relates specifically to DEIJ-related initiatives and places it in the history of the school overall. Consider how this story-telling can be shared with the broader school community, in an effort to learn together.
Spend Significant Time Defining Language.
Many DEIJ strategic plans start with clarifying key terms related to this work, which creates cohesion and builds buy-in. It is dangerous to assume everyone is on the same page on language that has been, or will be, used across the school. For example, a school may say that they prioritize equity and inclusion, but this word means different things to different people. Spending time, sometimes significant amounts of it, on shared definitions that are based in racial literacy will set the stage for a clearer and more focused future.
- Start with “zero” assumptions about the school’s shared DEIJ language. This means that no language is off the table in terms of exploring and discussing how different constituents define it and use it. From zero assumptions, definitions can emerge that are based on truth, shared understanding, and pushing people along in their understanding of DEIJ.
- Recognize that language will have meaning for the types of initiatives that are chosen and the types that are not. Thus, language that is chosen should be done so carefully and with an understanding that these definitions drive the work ahead across the school.
- Don’t rush to adopt words such as antiracist, abolitionist, or culturally responsive without truly exploring what the words mean and being clear that faculty, leadership, and the board can define what this language means in relation to the school. It is also possible (and recommended) to merge certain theories and ideas together as well, such that pedagogical practice is built across different but related principles within DEIJ itself.
Recognize and Address Bias.
In interviews with some DEIJ practitioners, they shared examples of well-intended but poorly designed initiatives that ultimately singled out students of color who they were trying to serve, rather than promoting inclusion. One practitioner discussed how some programs, such as providing students who are on financial assistance at the school with a separate mentor, made the faculty but not the students themselves “feel good”. These students communicated the ways that this policy made them feel excluded and different, and not in a good way.
- Offer specific training across faculty on unconscious bias and follow this up with specific feedback loops for students, faculty, and other constituents to share their experiences.
- Use intention vs. impact as a key guideline to consider when designing initiatives. Questions that are critical to ask include: Why are we actually undertaking this work? Who are we trying to serve? What do we want to accomplish?
- Have a broad array of people provide input in order to ensure that the initiatives promote the school’s DEIJ related goals. If a school is creating initiatives in the absence of the expertise of a DEIJ practitioner on staff who can guide the process, then recognize this as an obstacle to be overcome by hiring consultants or conducting focus groups.
Recognize the Importance of Data.
Starting from a place of understanding student enrollment and retention trends disaggregated by race and ethnicity means that goals can be set based on an understanding of the current state. If data is not available, this is also telling in and of itself and should be part of the future year’s planning processes. For example, undertaking a true cost audit to understand what it really costs for students to attend the school, including participation in extracurricular activities, points to a clearer and more valid picture of what financial barriers exist that are separate from the actual tuition that is covered in aid packages.
- Examine what data already exists as it relates to school-wide goals in DEIJ and where there are gaps. If the school does not have the requisite skill-set (for example there is no institutional research function built into the school), prioritize ways to access or grow this skill-set.
- Review baseline data in different areas across the school that is disaggregated across specific marginalized communities (e.g. enrollment, alumni engagement, advancement/fundraising, retention, extracurricular participation, grades/honors courses participation)
- When developing goals, reflect on the level at which they are data-based (e.g. using baseline data that is available). If they aren’t, consider what data would be helpful to collect in the figure.
Differentiate Between Progress and Impact.
When setting goals and developing programming related to DEIJ, consider what the intended impact is of the proposed initiative and how that is distinct from progress towards it. For example, some new ideas for the coming school year could be a BIPOC or Asian-American student affinity group rather than a broader one for all students of color. The intended impact should not be the creation of the group, but the opportunity for specific races and ethnicities at the school to feel more supported due to the relationships they have developed in this group. Thus, the creation of the affinity space may be progress, but it is not the end-goal in and of itself.
- Identify key initiatives and how efficacy will be measured in the short and long-term, recognizing that the initiative itself is a step towards impact, but is not the impact itself.
- Set short and long-term impact goals that include progress milestones. As such, progress can be lauded but not be the end-all, be-all.
- Be open to initiatives not meeting their intended purpose, even when all expectations are that they will. This does not mean that the initiative should be shelved completely, but does require reflection and re-thinking on the part of the school community.
EXPLO Elevate is currently offering a professional learning workshop focused on Creating Equitable Learning Environments. This course aims to directly address numbers two and three in the principles noted above by spending significant time defining terms and exploring questions such as: How do my identities shape my students’ experience? How do I design environments that support my students’ identities? How can I disrupt internalized assumptions about what my students need?