The New Paltz Central School District held a community forum Monday, Nov. 13 for parents, students and community members to offer their input about the ongoing initiative to establish racial equity in the schools. The workshop-style meeting was led by educational consultant Natalie McGee of Generation Ready, a national provider of professional learning services that has been engaged by the New Paltz district to train its educators how to develop cultural proficiency in the schools. The process, as noted by McGee at a previous meeting on racial equity, “is not a quick fix. It’s something we are going to collectively do together.”
The turnout for the meeting was quite good, with nearly 100 participants showing up. Child care was provided in the classroom next door. The workshop was structured so that attendees were broken up into groups of 6-8, who first discussed the issues amongst themselves, then shared their findings with the entire group.
According to the National Association of Social Workers, cultural proficiency has been defined as “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms and values the worth of individuals, families and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”
The New Paltz Central School District has declared they are “committed to ensuring that all students receive the best possible education in a safe, secure, stimulating and welcoming learning environment. This commitment is offered to every child, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, socioeconomic status or gender identity/sexual orientation.”
The search to develop racial equity in the New Paltz schools began several years ago when an incident involving the exchange of racial slurs between two students led to the district inviting the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to the high school to determine whether this was an isolated incident or part of a more widespread problem. During the two-day exercise that ensued under the auspices of a program called Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT), the DOJ found that some students experienced issues related not only to race, but also socioeconomic status and, to a lesser extent, religion.
Monday’s community forum was focused exclusively on issues of racial equity, but the district is also planning to address other diversity-related issues in future meetings, including those connected to poverty, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation.
In November 2016, a plan of action to develop racial equity and cultural proficiency was developed by the district, providing a framework for future action. The plan will be continually revised based on data, research and available information such as that gleaned in meetings like the one held Monday.
Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice addressed the recent incident at the high school in which swastikas and the “N” word were drawn on the exterior of the building using a carrot. “Those kinds of incidents will not be tolerated in this school.” A letter about the incident went home to parents, she said, and then discussion between administrators and faculty ensued as to what the next steps should be. A school assembly to talk about it with students is one of the measures being contemplated.
In addition to dozens of community members and several high school students, attendees at Monday’s meeting included Deputy Superintendent of Schools Michelle Martoni and Superintendent of Business Richard Linden along with current and former Board of Education members.
Participants at the community forum were passionate and vocal about their concerns, which ranged from believing there is not enough diversity in the teaching staff to an expressed need to develop consistent policies and a common language to deal with problems as they arise.
The district plans to develop racially equitable curriculum and make sure the faculty and staff have the knowledge they’ll need to be effective in teaching it by offering professional development to the entire staff, beginning with instructional staff members.
“Ultimately, we aim to help our staff and students become proficient in identifying acts of racism, and de-escalating racially charged incidents, including ones that unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude.”