FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon Central Regional School District has officially chartered its racism, equity and diversity committee, and they are hoping to use it to help find a way to address inequity, and sustain equity, for all students.
“Our students began asking us to join them in taking a stance against what they felt was injustice throughout our country and state and county, and I noticed a lot of the demonstrations around the country over the summer were led by youth in some of our schools,” superintendent Jeffrey Moore said. “This is a wonderful generation of kids that are demanding we stand by their sides and help them do this.”
Moore said they have seen different experiences among students of different colors, creeds and faith, and the pandemic emphasized those different experiences.
But a number of what Moore classified as “disturbing incidents” led to the district taking a harder stance and creating this committee.
Moore said there were a few incidents on social media, and an incident of a racially charged Zoom infiltration that deeply affected the students and staff.
“They didn’t push us into this work, but reminded us of the urgency of the work,” he said.
“It’s a charged atmosphere because of the anxieties everyone is going through with the issues around race,” he added. “It’s politically charged, and it’s a very tough time for the adults, let alone the kids, especially kids who are coming of age and finding their civic identities. We have some kids who will vote for the first time this November.”
Noelle O’Donnell, board of education vice president and chair of the committee, said having the conversation about the different incidents allowed the school to see where there are gaps, and to know what the district’s strengths and weaknesses are.
“Parents pointed out how traumatic it was for the kids to experience, and asked what kind of support we have,” she said. “Counselors and all of the staff are compassionate and caring, yet we need to do more.”
“That is a specific kind of trauma that we could really learn about how to be there for these students if and when these horrible things happen,” she added.
Moore said there is a state law that mandates the district equips the students with the ability to fight hatred and racism wherever they find it, it’s in all state mandates for all content area.
“It’s really a mission for schools as they work with students growing up to become citizens,” he said. “When they demand something of us, it tells me we have an opportunity to get the students what they need, and to coach them on how to stand up for themselves and one another.”
O’Donnell said there has been a small amount of pushback from some in the community who may feel this is something very specific or political that the district shouldn’t be dealing with.
“But as far as public education, this is about being a decent human being,” she said. “That is a bump we are going to run into here and there, but we will deal with that.”
O’Donnell said it is important that the students have the support of the district. She said there are still students who are unable to access all of the tools they need to succeed, particularly in a pandemic climate.
“This is a great opportunity to find ways to address inequity and sustain equity for everyone,” she said. “We owe it to the students and community to do everything we can to start having these conversations and bringing in people who know more than we do and use all the resources. The school is not in a vacuum. We hear and see what is going on.”
Board president Vincent Panico said it is important to remember that there are a lot of different people who bring valuable lenses to the table to see what else is needed to support all the students.
“When looking at how the school operates, we may not see the unintended consequences of things that are rooted in good faith,” he said. “We don’t know how things are going to impact people without seeing it through their eyes.”
O’Donnell said they are looking into all kinds of opportunities for the committee, including student input, parent input and getting information from any stakeholders who are willing to talk about the important issues.
Panico said the committee has to be open-ended, because they “don’t know the lenses and perspectives I don’t know,” he said.
“I didn’t want to come in and set this framework of what the committee should do if I didn’t know the things it’s trying to solve,” he said. “My initial direction was to come together and start really getting a good conversation going with the community, begin to look at how their perspectives give a different look at policies, procedures and perspectives.”
Outside of that, Panico said, it is just about listening.
Moore said that in his policy and goal discussions, some of the concerns they are finding revolve around the level in which everyone has access to opportunities.
“These are areas that I would like to tackle,” he said. “But all of it needs to fit in with the goals and values that we work on together with the board and the community.”
O’Donnell said the students are paying attention, and the most important thing right now is to draw attention to the issues, and show it is as important to the district as it is to the students.
“The act of creating the committee sends out a ripple effect, and a message that these are important issues, and they need to be discussed,” she said.
Moore said there are a couple different ways students are asking for change.
First, he said, there is activism where students want to make sure the district is doing all it can to celebrate the contributions of all different people.
“I think it’s healthy to regularly take a look at how we are doing this through our curriculum,” he said. “They know what they are being taught and learning, and when they want to see more, they tell us.”
In addition, Moore said, the district needs to make sure that students have safe places to be with other people who share their same lens and understand their challenges, so they can be their own community as well.
“There is another need to make sure students have organizations and places that give them the safe and empowering community they need,” he said. “Do they all have a place to go to be with students who see and understand what they bring to the world every day?”
Finally, Moore said, there is training of staff and having good robust conversations with parents in the community.
“They can also help guide us,” he said.
Moore said that schools traditionally have had a multicultural club that celebrates diversity, and that’s important, but they also need to recognize Black students, transgender, different faiths, different nationalities and all the students who bring different things to the table.
“There is a metaphor of seeing the rainbow but not the colors,” he said. “That’s an evolution of schools to make sure we are seeing every individual as a person bringing something important to the table, not just the patchwork of diversity.”
“There is a need to bring students together in a different way than schools have traditionally done,” he added.
Moore said that one of the important things when opening for in-person instruction is to ensure they can fulfill the needs of people to be together.
“Our technology tools are excellent for this as well,” he said. “We will leverage that as much as we can.”
“We see in the pandemic itself the evidence of the needs for this as we look at the differences in how the students are experiencing it based on background, orientation and color,” he added. “We see differences we have to reckon with. The pandemic is a limiter, but it has also thrown a light on the need for this.”
O’Donnell said it is about understanding how to reach out and connect with people when you are not with people.
‘My experience so far has been you are going to get out of it what you as a person are putting in,” she said.
Moore said everything comes back to the mission as a school to ensure that each and every student has the tools to build themselves into an empowered adult. He said they have to stand behind the work they do to ensure they achieve the mission for kids.
“That may mean we are running up against things that would want us to do that work differently or not with regard to some of the things we need so everyone has the opportunities,” he said.
“We have to equip our students to be able to advocate for themselves and each other in that world, and I think we will all be stronger for it in the end if we do it well and bring in all the partners we will need,” he added. “We will graduate students who are that much better at collaborating, that much better at seeing folks around them and solving problems that require putting aside those sentiments that would split us apart.”
To start, there are four people on the committee – O’Donnell, and board members Lisa Hughes, Scott Nicol and Robert Richard – and they will bring the full board to the table as well, while reaching out to neighbors and people all around the district. Moore said there could be town halls, individual conversations and more to start creating solutions.
“What’s great about so many parents is they are just as engaged as the kids,” O’Donnell said. “I think there is going to be some goal setting on our part, and some organic circumstances are going to happen because of the community we are in.”
O’Donnell said that with all the adversity and trauma throughout the country, there are a lot of good things happening, and they have to find places where they can make change and do good work.
“We’re all blessed to be in this community, and to be in a place where conversations makes sense to involve students and stakeholders,” Moore said. “It is an amazing moment to be an educator and a community member.”