Board members began discussing a new policy to advance “anti-racism” at their May 5 meeting, but tabled passing it to allow the superintendent to advise whether some portions might be best left to the detailed rules that come after rather than being included in the policy, which is intended to be a guidance document that allows for room for interpretation. The concern that it might tie the hands of administrators was one of those raised during the discussion, along with questions about whether implementing the policy would be an unrealistic goal.
Speaking during public comment, Cathy Sanchez described the policy as “ambitious,” as it requires among other things that anti-racism be incorporated into all levels of curriculum. “You don’t know what an anti-racism curriculum looks like,” Sanchez said, before trying to wed this policy proposal with racial equity initiatives that have been in force since well before the pandemic. The district resident asked about the building-level racial equity teams that are already supposed to be in place, and reminded trustees that those are extra jobs for teachers that do not come with extra pay. Board members have also not yet hired a new consultant to weigh in on matters of race and equity, Sanchez noted.
Trustee Diana Armstead has been looking into those building-level racial equity teams, which are intended to work in tandem with the board’s racial equity committee. Armstead has confirmed that no such teams exist, and reminded colleagues on the board that the request to pay for this additional service has been raised for over a year. Bianca Tanis came out in support of that idea, as well.
Members of the racial equity committee are reportedly encouraged by the consideration of an anti-racism policy, but reminded trustees that the pandemic is no excuse to ignore their recommendations. In fact, they believe that the pandemic has only served to increase the inequity, making this the correct time to move forward. They are calling for an equity audit to be conducted starting this summer, to get every employee in the district through the “undoing racism” training in the next two years and to commit to that being repeated every five years for each staff member, empowering committee members to select that sought-after equity consultant, and to have a meeting with trustees to hash out plans from there.
Committee member Jennifer Berry explained that racial equity education is especially important for white students, who otherwise will be “ill-equipped for a more diverse world.”
Trustees immediately agreed to schedule a meeting and directed the superintendent to work with committee members on picking finalists for the consultant job.
Questions about cost of racial equity initiatives and the practicality of implementing this anti-racism policy were again blurred together by Teresa Thompson. The “undoing racism” training costs several hundred dollars, and Thompson wants to know how to pay for sending every employee to undergo it. The policy, however, feels like “putting the cart before the horse” to Thompson, because the intent of treating all human beings fairly and with dignity means that it includes a lot of aspirations which have not yet been achieved in local schools. Thompson did not detail precisely which points were unduly aspirational, but did suggest that focusing on what could be done immediately and without passing a new policy, such as hiring that consultant. The trustee also threw in a concern that paying teachers to serve on building racial equity teams could run into contractual problems.
Armstead dismissed Thompson’s nay-saying. “There is no, ‘we can’t do it,'” Armstead replied, and there “can’t be any half-stepping.” Staff members who are resistant to teaching anti-racism will eventually “phase out,” and Armstead hopes that over time people who are simply tolerant of difference will be replaced with others who are actually accepting of it.
Thompson doubled down on raising questions, asking the other trustees if the definitions laid out in this policy are the best ones, since they don’t match, word-for-word, some of the definitions Thompson has seen while undergoing anti-racism training.
Bianca Tanis patiently explained that “people have the critical thinking skills to hear variations on a definition” without becoming unduly confused. Where Tanis finds the proposed policy falls short is on accountability. If there’s an anti-racism policy, Tanis wants these curricula and how they are taught to be reflected in employee evaluations. As for whether or not this policy is unduly aspirational, Tanis asked for a timeline to be laid out for how and when it will be implemented. Guidance from the state’s school board association indicates that providing a timeline is appropriate when a policy cannot instantly go into effect completely.
Returning to the report from the racial equity committee during the same discussion, Thompson spoke to a committee request that they receive reports from the building-level equity teams. It had already been established that there are presently no teams, apparently because it’s a lot of work that neither teachers nor administrators are interested in doing for free, but Thompson wanted to talk about the propriety of having professional staff members “reporting to volunteers.” It was explained that this request was made because committee members are regularly surprised to learn about equity work after the fact, and that seeing the whole picture would make the committee more effective.
The one concern about the policy that lingered is the idea that it might be too “granular,” as Tanis put it. Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina agreed to review it to flag “regulatory” directives that might be too specific for a policy, and bring it back for possible action on May 19.
Superintendent downplays worries over grades
There has been concern about grades since New Paltz Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina reported on April 21 that more than 200 secondary students are failing at least one subject. The superintendent sought to ease fears about the fate of the coronial generation, saying that student grades often show an uptick after the fourth grading period. The third and fourth quarters are historically “crunch time,” and Urbina-Medina believes that this is holding true despite this not being an ordinary year. Moving back into the classroom allows for human interaction, a quality that’s difficult to measure but does appear to have made learning easier for most children. Based on that assessment, the superintendent said that “miracles” may occur. Given the extraordinary circumstances, Urbina-Medina believes that students and teachers alike should be “commended” for what has been accomplished.
District resident Cathy Sanchez told trustees that more students of color have been struggling to keep up during the pandemic than white children, and that some kind of “no-harm policies” should be enacted around grading. Leaving it up to professional discretion is unacceptable, in Sanchez’s view.
Whatever happens in the fourth quarter, there is an expectation that a larger-than-normal number of students will be attending summer school via BOCES this year. Despite the ineffable importance of human contact, the summer school program will be experienced entirely through screens this year.
Quarantines continue to be triggered
While more students are in classrooms more of the time, New Paltz Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina wants district residents to remember that there’s still a pandemic going on. For all the work to ensure ventilation is adequate and students are far enough apart at all times, and even with the installation of plexiglass cubicles around desks, when someone gets a positive coronavirus test, then all the people with whom they had contact need to enter quarantine. The superintendent said that a “significant number of students” got told that they must be quarantined recently, suggesting that not everyone is being entirely honest when they complete the questionnaire about current symptoms. When in doubt, stay home, requests the superintendent.