Equity Task Force discusses the next steps for diversity and inclusion

With banners up in the air, a diverse group of students, teachers, parents and alumni rally to end racism. On June 14, 2020, more than 1,000 people marched from West High campus onto the streets of Clayton Road and Baxter Road before an 8 minute, 46 second moment of silence at West Middle School in memory of George Floyd. “Im proud of our students and the Parkway community, for their maturity, ability to speak up when they see something wrong and challenging us to do more and do better,” Dr. Charlotte Ijei, the districts Director of Pupil Personnel and Diversity said.

Sri Jaladi

With banners up in the air, a diverse group of students, teachers, parents and alumni rally to end racism. On June 14, 2020, more than 1,000 people marched from West High campus onto the streets of Clayton Road and Baxter Road before an 8 minute, 46 second moment of silence at West Middle School in memory of George Floyd. “I’m proud of our students and the Parkway community, for their maturity, ability to speak up when they see something wrong and challenging us to do more and do better,” Dr. Charlotte Ijei, the district’s Director of Pupil Personnel and Diversity said.

Two summers ago, an announcement from Superintendent Dr. Keith Marty concerning racism and hate speech in social media posts announced the formation of the Equity Task Force. The task force’s purpose was to develop strategic plans and action steps based on an equity evaluation to promote diversity and inclusion and ensure equity for all at Parkway. 

The task force led by Dr. Charlotte Ijei, the district’s Pupil Personnel and Diversity Directorimplemented a “Whole School Justice” program in 2003, requiring faculty and staff to participate in social justice training. The program increased the number of African American students in AP and honors classes and decreased suspension rates. Parkway won a 2018 National School Board Association Diversity Award for its efforts to narrow achievement gaps.

“We’ve been doing diversity [work] at Parkway for several years. When I first came to Parkway, I noticed a lot of inequities, and that was in 1996,” Ijei said. “We started doing social justice awareness training at that time. So fast forward, we’ve been through all these years. We know that we still have inequities in Parkway, and this would be a perfect time to do a targeted evaluation.” 

Equity evaluation starting in 2019 was done based on surveys of students from grades 5-12, parents and staff, and small group discussions were completed in June of 2020, resulting in nine recommendations to the district. Subsequently, the Equity Task Force was formed with 61 members, comprising students, board members, teachers, counselors, principals, parents, police officers, elected officials, district administrators and clergy. The members met once a month from August 2020 to May 2021 and created detailed action steps for each of the nine recommendations submitted in the Equity Task Force Board Report 2021 to the Board of Education.

“We knew we had gaps. We knew we had some students who identify differently than the majority of students, and they were being targeted,” Ijei said. “The task force’s goal was to look at different areas to see why are we having these issues and why aren’t all of our students feeling they belong and what we can do about it.” 

The first of the nine recommendations call on hiring and retaining staff that mirrors the diversity of the student population. The second recommendation is to empower teachers and staff to build relationships with all students. One of the action steps implemented for this recommendation is collaborating with Dr. Sharroky Hollie, an expert in training educators on culturally and linguistically responsive teaching.

“You have to get to know your students, know their background, know their culture to accept them and get to know them better to build that positive, sustainable relationship with every student,” Ijei said. 

Assistant Principal Dr. Kate Piffel served on the committee for the third recommendation and the incoming principal, John McCabe, and a few other students and administrators. They worked on developing action plans for the third recommendation to support and develop administrators to lead equity initiatives in their buildings.

“I think we are further along now than when I started in Parkway eight years ago, but we still have a way to go. I am also still learning and have a lot of work to do myself,” Piffel said. “It’s like voting. If you want to make a difference, you have to pay attention and use your voice, speak up, and be willing to share your thoughts and opinions. Not everyone is always going to agree with you. But if you can have discussions respectfully and listen to each other, you can have good conversations and get things accomplished.”

Recommendation four is to initiate mandatory professional development for all employees to increase their understanding of systemic and institutionalized racism and oppressions that cause inequities. 

“It starts with understanding the vocabulary. I quote Verna Meyer’s definition of diversity, inclusion, and equity from her Ted Talk on overcoming bias. Diversity is inviting someone that doesn’t look like you to a party. Equity is making sure that someone doesn’t stand on the wall and has space at the party. But inclusion is inviting the person to dance or to add to the music list,” Ijei said.

The fifth recommendation is to implement a system of accountability that will measure the progress of the equity initiatives at the district, building, and classroom levels. Students on the task force played a significant role by helping create policies and potential solutions. However, every student in the district can accelerate equity efforts by reporting issues they see and by holding everyone accountable, according to Ijei.

“If you see something happening that shouldn’t be happening, we want to know, and we will look at it,” Ijei said. “[Students are] our eyes and ears. Who do you see not being treated fairly and equitably? Call out friends who are not being nice to someone just because of the color of their skin or because of their religion or their political preference, or anything different than what the other believes. No one should be made to feel as if they do not belong.”

Revising the curriculum so that students can see themselves depicted accurately in classroom instruction and resources is recommendation number six. 

“We’re looking at the curriculum in terms of what does the curriculum say about me? If I belong to a particular religion, say, for example, Judaism or represent a group such as the LGBTQ community, what does [the curriculum] have to make me feel as if I am a part of this whole educational process?” Ijei said.

Definitions of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The following recommendation is to increase all teachers’ knowledge of how to engage students in courageous conversations about racism and other oppressions. According to Ijei, one of the most significant accomplishments of the task force is that it opened many eyes to issues of race, diversity, and inclusion and opened the door to discussions on topics which she says are usually hard to talk about for people.

“I love working with the students because they’re intelligent, and they’re right there on the pulse of what’s going on. They know what it is,” Ijei said. “I like working with our staff and faculty simply because they want to learn and do better. They want to understand their biases. We all have biases, and we have to get in touch with them and bring them to the forefront so we can eventually wipe them out.” 

The incident of racial graffiti in the bathroom of Central High last year that sparked media attention and student protests is not the only incident Ijei has seen over the years. Although, she notes that the occurrence of race-related incidents has decreased since  the diversity and equity work began.

“It’s not the first incident. I think [there is] a microcosm of people in the community that’s been allowed to say and do [anything] they want to. And this is adults as well as kids hurting people and putting people in a bubble,” Ijei said. “For instance, people started calling the coronavirus the Chinavirus. That’s unconscionable because it’s not about China or people from China. We cannot judge a whole group of people by one act or by one person.”

Parkway exercises zero tolerance for racism and hate speech, and students found responsible can receive severe disciplinary consequences, though Ijei believes education is the most important part of the process. 

“They [students] aren’t doing it because they’re racist. They’re doing it because it’s just something that seems okay to do. Once they get it, they change, and they, in turn, become the largest group of advocates ever,” Ijei said. “It’s not about putting kids out of school or disciplining them, as it is getting them to know the person they harmed and about the groups they harmed.” 

The eighth recommendation is to involve parents and community members in the work of equity. The final recommendation is to engage students who are members of the district-wide Superintendent Social Justice Leadership Advisory Council (SSJLAC) and other equity groups within their buildings to increase learning, acceptance, conversations and student voice at all levels. U.S. History teacher and Department Chair Zaven Nalbandian leads the SSJLAC which meets monthly. In addition, senior Brinda Ambal served as a student member of the task force and reported to the SSJLAC.

“We had to read suggested material, watch TED Talks, and then discuss how we want it to reflect our goals and values. That’s why it took us [the task force] a year to form these action plans because of the amount of educating ourselves that we were doing,” Ambal said. “That learning and experience were invaluable for me. I still carry through to the lessons I’ve learned from that, like other activities I do. I carry it through the articles I write. I carry it through my role in student government. So not only was that education invaluable for me, but I think that more people should be given access to it.”

Ijei states that students contribute a lot towards diversity and inclusion efforts at Parkway. She is amazed at the number of students who do social justice work in various ways and take up anti-racism projects and feels it is an excellent opportunity for students.

“Equity work goes far beyond the nine recommendations and involves every individual. Call out your friends when they say something and ask questions like ‘what do you mean by that?’ Probe them, then people start thinking, and that can be the first step to a change,” Ijei said. “In other words, be that someone who will get in the mud with [students] and clean up this sense of, ‘I don’t like you because your hair is too long,’ or anything along those lines. If you don’t speak up for a student living with a disability and someone makes fun of them, that student goes home feeling hurt.”

Ijei will be retiring this calendar year and will be succeeded by Dr. Cartelia Lucas as the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, effective July 1, 2022. Ijei credits the growth and progress of inclusion and equity at Parkway to the strong support of the Board of Education, the Superintendents, and the proactiveness of the students. The task force has dissolved into individual committees and subcommittees with specific goals. 

“I’m proud of where this is going. We’re making sure we connect with the community and learn from each other. So I’m excited. I think this is the best thing we could’ve done,” Ijei said.