North Salem Board of Ed reviews results of outside audit on diversity, equity and inclusion

On February 24, 2021, the North Salem Board of Education (BOE) hosted a meeting to review the district’s ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Natalie Zwerger and Nakeeba Wauchope from The Center for Strategic Solutions (CSS) at NYU’s Steinhardt’s School of Education presented the results from a micro-audit. Data was collected in both the 2019 and 2020 school years. In concluding commentary at the meeting, Dr. Julio Vazquez, Director of Instruction and Human Resources for NSCSD, remarked, “we are not doing this work because we were cited. We are doing this work because we believe in it and it is the right work to do.”

The focus of the presentation was the data, but the underlying commentary asked NSCSD to use the data to begin to investigate more deeply the narrative behind the data. Zwerger asked the BOE and NSCSD administration to consider understanding the lived experiences of the most “muted voices” in the district. Zwerger said, “the numbers are people, and the people have stories and how can we better serve their needs to include their voice.” Dr. Freeston described the micro-audit as “eye opening for some” but noted the results forthcoming from the micro-audit are what “many of us have been observing, especially in the area of assessment.”

Data from the audit was broken down into categories including: race, students with disabilities, gender and, on one slide, socio-economic status and how all of those factors impact educational achievement. The overarching question looming above the data: how does the NSCSD create equitable environments so that all children have the same access to learning? To begin to answer that question, the micro-audit was intended to expose any disproportionality - areas where there exists an over- or underrepresentation of students in different categories.

The first rock the audit overturned was diversity among faculty. Findings noted that there is an overrepresentation of white faculty in North Salem schools during the 2020-2021 school year, with 96% of the faculty being white. The student breakdown by race for NSCSD in 2020-2021 is 73% White, 2.72% Asian, 18% LatinX, 3.8% Multiracial, and 2.2% Black. Wauchope explained that an underrepresentation of diversity in the faculty can lead to a “lack of representation of students not being able to identify culture, race, racial background, can lead to the omission of voice in decision making.” In Zwerger and Wauchope’s list of recommendations, they highly recommended NSCSD set goals for hiring diversely: “deeply interrogate how North Salem can become a district where BIPOC educators would want to work, thrive, and lead.” Dr. Vazquez,, who represented North Salem at a diversity job fair in lower Westchester recently, said, “we are making mindful decisions that our hires are equally proportionate to our students.”

Data also showed race and gender discrepancies for special education, gifted and talented, and access to AP and Honors classes. Data broken down by race and gender revealed that boys, Black, and LatinX students were referred for special education services at a disproportionate rate compared to other student populations. This leads to questions about the classification process and the referral process for special education. Wauchope remarked that schools need to be “intentional about centering the needs of students with disabilities at this particular time. When students are being underserved, it further marginalizes them as a group. It’s important for us to lift up that fact.” She added that district administrators need to examine how they are identifying students with disabilities and that they need to ensure that the process for identification is as minimally biased as possible.

Gifted and Talented (G/T) programming was also reviewed as part of the micro-audit. A major recommendation by Zwerger and Wauchope was that NSCSD “consider the ways G/T is advancing your commitment to equity and racial justice (or not). Examine access and opportunity to barriers to young people who are underrepresented in G/T and AP/Honors courses.” Data showed with AP/Honors that White and Asian students were overrepresented in these courses and that boys, Black, LatinX, and Multiracial students were underrepresented. At the middle school, G/T programming showed an overrepresentation of Multiracial and Black, but Latin X was underrepresented.

Zwerger and Wauchope suggested that the school be mindful of “gatekeeping decisions.” Gatekeeping decisions are decisions based on exam results that may keep a child out of a learning opportunity. Zwerger said NSCSD should, “examine access and opportunity barriers.” Dr. Vazquez followed this up in his analysis, suggesting that the district shift how it uses assessment “so that [assessments] don’t function as a gatekeeper for a student being able to have an opportunity, but look at an assessment as a starting point so that we can then meet the student where they are and then enrich them in as many ways as we can.”

Another major focus for the presentation was the NSCSD’s Code of Conduct. Superintendent, Dr. Freeston, said that being purposeful in next steps might mean a “thorough review of our Code of Conduct.” Suspensions for both the 2018 and 2019 school year were broken down by race. 2019 data showed 24 suspensions with 17 unique suspensions. Some suspensions were given in subjective categories like: “Intimidation, Harassment, Menacing, or Bullying.” Zwerger and Wauchope cautioned the district against using subjective language in the discipline code. “We don’t want to criminalize young people in schools with language like that. Insubordination, disrespect, defiance. Those types of categories could mean wildly different things to different people,” Zwerger said. North Salem MSHS Principal, Mr. DiGrandi explained in follow-up commentary, that he would like some guidance from NYU on how to “move our Code of Conduct from one that is based on punitive, reactive policies to one that is more restorative in nature.”

Director of Pupil Personnel Services, Dr. Adam VanDerStuyf, narrowed in on the work that alumni/student groups North Salem 4 Racial Justice (NS4RJ) and the Warriors have done to elevate issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion for the student body. These NSCSD student groups were celebrated and described as “palpably powerful voices of young people.” NS4RJ is an alumni-run group and functions as an alumni/student group. Warriors is student-run, but receives administrative support from faculty. Dr. VanDerStuyf remarked that “the scope of the Warriors remains mental health awareness, but there is intersectionality between mental health and social justice and our students have begun to have those conversations, but have brought in speakers to offer wider range [learning] to the student group.”

The BOE plans to create a task force to move the equity work to an action stage. The task force would be composed of key stakeholder groups including board members, community members, students, administrators, and faculty. Zwerger sees this committee as members being “architects of infrastructure.” She went on to emphasize that whatever is built today needs to outlast any of the people who are committed now.  Zwerger continued by emphasizing that, “having young people at the table making decisions about actionable steps is probably the number one opportunity for you to get to the level of depth that you hope for. Far too many school districts have boards and administration teams that sit around tables making decisions about actionable steps in isolation, and don’t hear from the community and don’t specifically extend an invitation to the most underrepresented in the community.” According to Board president Deborah D'Agostino, moving forward, a stakeholder group composed of “students, faculty, administrators, board members and community members (including parents) will now become one of the groups which is reported on at each business meeting.”

Change is definitely coming. North Salem families and faculty will see changes in different areas including discipline, curriculum, and professional development. Dr. Vazquez also identified areas of staff development that centered around equity and anti-racism, and explained that adjustments would be made to the profiles of 5th and 12th grade graduates to reflect changes in expectations.

As the BOE and NSCSD administration begin to make deliberate changes as a result of the micro-audit, there will be an emphasis on doing this collaboratively. Zwerger explained, “we can’t imagine doing this work without stakeholder voices.” In follow-up commentary, Board member Andy Pelosi remarked that he would like to see “more engagement directly with the administration and board so that we can work together.” As the conversation closed out around the 2-hour mark, Dr. Freeston, in his final comments, said that the community conversations reflected a very engaged student body, which he said “gives us hope.” In follow-up comments he said that “student voice is very important for any significant changes. Our students are smart and ready to be partners with us.”

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