South Orangetown Central School District

Over the past six weeks, our District has taken initial steps to reflect on and expand how it perceives and promotes equity.

“As a school system, we speak out against acts of racism and hate and are constantly adjusting our curriculum to be more inclusive and culturally-responsive. We provide professional development to raise awareness of and prevent discrimination and harassment. But that’s not enough,” said Superintendent of Schools Robert Pritchard, Ed.D. “The global protests have made it clear that we must go deeper to examine who we are as individuals and what we stand for. That starts with an analysis of our own biases. This is not about meeting requirements for compliance. It’s about taking meaningful action toward creating a more just society.”

In early June, school administrators began sharing resources and facilitating ongoing discussions on confronting racism through faculty meetings and workshops. William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School have recommended Dolly Chugh’s book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, to staff as summer reading in preparation for continued work in the fall.

“[Assistant Principal] Maggie White and I reached out to Gene Thompson-Grove, a founder of the School Reform Initiative, which is dedicated to supporting transformational learning communities committed to educational equity, and a long-time consultant to our District,” WOS Principal Sheila Beglin said. “She helped us to create a vision to ground our work. Our purpose in reading this book collectively is to develop a common philosophical belief system for what we want for our students and for our school community. We’re also looking through an ‘equity lens’ for ways to embed empathy training into our curriculum through character education, morning meetings and other programming.”

“At Cottage Lane, we’ve worked with Daniel Braunfeld, from Facing History and Ourselves, along with our community outreach team, curriculum leaders and coaches over the past two years to make sure that our library and curriculum reflect diverse perspectives and stories. Daniel suggested The Person you Mean to Be as a text as a foundation for our work as we move into the new school year,” said CLE Principal Karen Ramirez. “Our next steps are to look critically at our curriculum and to continue our work to support difficult conversations with our students about racism, religious intolerance and prejudice.”

South Orangetown Middle School staff members are reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, a remix by Jason Reynolds of Ibram X. Kendi’s original National Book Award-winning work. “ELA Team Leader Colleen Henry brought Stamped to our attention after participants in our June faculty workshop expressed that they wanted a summer read connected to our conversations,” reported Assistant Principal Joseph Onativia. “Stamped had been recommended during a Teacher’s College workshop that our ELA teachers attended last fall on teaching and facilitating ongoing conversations about race. We plan to reconvene on Zoom in August to discuss the book and reflect on how it impacts our professional practice.”

Over the past two months, Tappan Zee High School Principal Rudy Arietta has connected professional contacts, students, alumni and community members with District administrators to inform equity work and, over the course of his first year, has collaborated with assistant principals on developing a concept for a mandatory character education course for students. “It would be a required cross-disciplinary course to cultivate genuine appreciation of different perspectives and to teach students to be allies. The class would be led by a cadre of teachers rather than an individual faculty member,” Arietta explained. “We presented the idea to our faculty and the Board of Education in December. However, recent events and social unrest provide an opportunity for us to carefully consider the course content. Our plan is to submit a proposal to Curriculum Council in the months ahead and, with approval, move forward with implementation in the 2021-22 school year.”

Director of Staff Relations Joseph Lloyd, Ph.D. has met with staff members, parents, alumni and members of the TZHS Social Justice and Multicultural clubs regarding their experiences in our school district to inform staff recruitment, retention and training efforts. During a Zoom session with club members organized by Arietta, students noted that they and many of their peers had never had a non-White teacher throughout their K-12 experience. They felt that a more diverse faculty would be empathetic to a broader range of students and benefit both minority and non-minority students by normalizing “different people as role models in positions of power.”

Lloyd has been exploring approaches to more closely align staffing with student demographics, which have shifted significantly over the past 20 years:

School Year Total Students Hispanic Indicator (Yes) American Indian or Alaska Native Asian Black or African American Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander Multiracial White English Language Learners Eligible for Free School Meals Eligible for Reduced-Price School Meals
2019-2020 3285 594 1 262 70 8 146 2204 144 491 52
2009-2010 3462 288 3 350 74 combined with Asian 26 2721 82 180 50
1999-2000 2920 154 combined with Asian, Native Hawaiian 390 98 combined with Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native not available 2278 101 187 76

He has also been working alongside District administrators to establish a District-wide coalition to coordinate and monitor K-12 efforts to advance equity and guide decisions regarding student learning and environments, access, curriculum, community outreach, culture and climate, finances, leadership and staffing. “Advancing this work needs to be a team effort that is both intentional and systemic. We want all members of our District community to be respected, feel valued and know that they have a voice,” Lloyd stated.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Culot, Ed.D., was among those listening during the TZHS student focus group and has heard from other current and former students. “For the past few years, our District has been working with the Tri-State Consortium, a group of 50 high-performing districts from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, to assess our K-12 social studies and ELA curricula to ensure that we are using current events and literature from a variety of resources to teach history from multiple perspectives. And we’ll continue to improve the quality and variety of our author visits and literature that students read and are read to include more Black authors,” said Culot. “Our professional development has also focused on ensuring that students receive instruction in culturally responsive classrooms which meet the needs of our diverse learners. This is a classroom environment that values and celebrates every students’ identity, empowers all students to have a voice and provides equal access to curriculum and programs.”

Over the past four years, the District has invested in expanding its building-level student support teams to provide more comprehensive, culturally responsive services to meet all students’ academic and mental and behavioral health needs. This whole-child approach is informing the District’s planning for reopening. “The health and safety of our students remains our top priority. In recognizing the stress and trauma caused not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the chronic impact of social values and biases, our schools are developing trauma-informed reopening plans which encompasses professional development for all staff, individual student risk assessment and enhanced mentorship and wrap-around family supports,” noted Executive Director for Pupil Personnel Services Karen Tesik, Ed.D. “As we focus on assuring that our programs and practices promote equitable outcomes, regardless of whether we’re teaching and learning in person or remotely, we’ll be drawing on the social emotional learning work we’ve been doing for the past two years to create the environments in which all students can thrive.”

“Equitable access to resources is essential to further educational equity here at SOCSD,” said Executive Director for Finance and Management Services Alicia Koster, whose department has focused on aligning the District’s financial plan, strategic goals and mission. “We’re establishing a task force this fall to examine how resources are allocated to our schools for items such as curricular field trips, student materials and supplies, and other expenses associated with student learning opportunities. Our findings will drive systemic changes to budgetary decision-making and strategic planning to advance equity in our overall educational program and collaborations with community partners.”

Administrators unanimously expressed a sense of urgency in effecting transformative change. School-based data inquiry teams formed last September have spent the past year investigating gaps among demographic subgroups with regard to key indicators, such as chronic absenteeism and academic progress, and identifying research-based strategies for implementation. “Our data inquiry teams have been looking at ways to promote academic progress among all students, but specifically among demographic subgroups that appear to have gaps,” noted Coordinator of Data, Assessment and Accountability Jeanne Corcoran. “We have looked at demographic data from multiple perspectives to start to get a grasp of not just who our students are and who we expect them to be, but how that expectation plays a role in their growth, both academically and socially. We have started to address the difference between equality and equity, to present and be cognizant of opportunities and structures which support students to meet challenges while at the same time trying to find ways to dismantle unnecessary obstacles in students’ paths to success.”

Hearing directly from students, staff, families and alumi has provided administrators with valuable perspective on how racism and bias has directly impacted our community and actionable feedback to move forward. Pritchard stated, “It is our moral imperative as a public school to listen, to understand and to communicate our shared goal to eliminate racial injustice. Having courageous conversations is a shining beacon of hope during these challenging times.”

Expanding Equity is the first of a series of community updates on the status of South Orangetown Central School District’s efforts to promote and support equity.