South Orangetown Central School District

In January, SOCSD published a story based on a group interview with the six student members of the District’s Equity Coalition about their experiences and their hopes for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive school district. Since then, seven of the staff members who serve on the Coalition have gathered to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:

The Coalition is a much-needed platform for students, staff and families to voice concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion and to mobilize support for effecting results-oriented change.

Ensuring that diverse voices are heard motivated Tappan Zee High School English teacher and Social Justice Club advisor Sarah McMane to get involved. “It’s important to amplify the voices of my students. One of my goals in serving on the Coalition is to make sure their concerns and suggestions get heard. When there are a lot of adults in the room, we all tend to talk. I want to make sure the kids are heard as well,” she noted. “I’d also like to look at our English curriculum and examine it for diversity. Whose voices are being taught and whose aren’t? How can we better mirror the country and the world we live in with the books we teach?”

Cottage Lane Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Anne O’Brien joined the Coalition out of a concern for students’ well being. “It’s important that every student feels valued for who they are and believes that they are capable of achieving great things,” O’Brien said. “There is great value in public schools. They can serve very diverse populations and bring so many different voices to the table. We need to make the most of that. Everybody in our community can be learning. That’s how we move forward.”

Responsibility for meeting the academic and social emotional needs of the District’s increasingly diverse student population often falls disproportionately on a small number of faculty members.

“As a Coalition member, I love being a representative for the families that I serve in conversations spanning different areas of our school system. Due to limited existing resources available to families who speak different languages, it can be very challenging to adequately meet their needs. I’d like to see more diversity within our staff to further enhance our ability to more comprehensively serve our multilingual families from kindergarten through graduation and am excited to partner with our District in this important work,” stated School Social Worker Jessenia Cursio, who works with students at South Orangetown Middle School and Tappan Zee High School.

“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students gravitate to us because we look like them and share some of the same struggles because of who we are. The diversity of our staff isn’t representative of our student population or the world. We need to do better,” said Jaclyn Nandlal, who teaches second grade at William O. Schaefer Elementary School. “Culture has a lot to do with how open students are with their teachers. I look forward to the work that the Coalition will do to examine the curriculum, honor voices and bring equity to the makeup of our staff.”

Staffing composition is also a limiting factor as the District looks more critically at its policies, practices and processes. With just seven percent of teachers identifying as people of color, the same small number of minority staff members are repeatedly tapped for representation on various committees and teams. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that,” Nandlal added.

There is concern about a lack of consistency in content being taught across grade levels. Current events, science and historical truths are critical components of a quality education that prepares students to become informed, global citizens.

“I’m working to support teachers with conversations around current events and their historical implications,” K-5 Instructional Literacy Coach Kristy Nadler explained. “This includes embedding diversity and inclusion into instructional practices and developing a culturally-responsive K-5 curriculum featuring a variety of texts and resources that are inclusive of diverse cultures and backgrounds.”

In the midst of uncertainty and unrest, students look to teachers for leadership and guidance. ““I want to work with students and families so that we can have space to talk about what’s happening in the world around us. Every student has the right to be treated with dignity and respect,” noted seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher Colleen Henry.

Connecting students and community has been at the core of Nandlal’s work for years. “We need more projects that build community and bring outside perspectives and resources into our classrooms,” she said. “We need to make more meaningful connections to the world beyond our school buildings that will leave our students with lasting memories.”

Staff are seeking continued, expanded support from District leadership.

Building community within and among schools to enhance support for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts is needed. Nandlal moved to William O. Schaefer Elementary School in September after teaching sixth-grade at South Orangetown Middle School. “I don’t know the teachers that I work with on a personal level due to the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely adore the teachers that I work with. They have been incredibly supportive and welcoming. But, I’d love to know their stories, hobbies and passions. Pre-COVID, teams of teachers would be able to get to know each other, outside of curriculum banter, during common prep times and during lunch. It’s hard to do that via Zoom. But I understand that safety is our number one priority right now,” she said. “Moreover, I think anti-bias training should be provided for every teacher in our district. It’s important to know that we each have a different lens to the world. Our experiences shape us into who we are as human beings. Building empathy through anti-bias training would enable teachers to see a different world from the lens of their own colleagues.”

Unconscious bias can create disparities in access to supports and services. “The work that we’re doing through the Coalition will help us be more reflective as a District and question whether we’re truly serving everyone to the best of our ability,” said School Social Worker Jessica Inglis, who works with families at William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School. “It is important that we build our internal capacity to serve more families in order to remove barriers to communication. This will allow all families to feel more included within our school community.”

Teachers expressed appreciation for the professional development opportunities that the District has offered thus far. To date, Henry has attended two Equity Institutes at Columbia University’s Teachers College with SOMS colleagues and a workshop, “Texts That Empower Students,” about engaging students in lessons and constructive conversations about equity. “I’m excited that we have a Coalition and that the District is supporting staff in advancing equity work to address the needs of our community, to facilitate conversations and to provide professional development for equity teaching practices,” Henry noted.

Ultimately, staff members are looking forward to additional guidance, policies and resources to continue making progress. “This is not something that will or should be achieved overnight. This requires a great level of commitment and resources from our whole community,” asserted Cursio. “Acknowledgement and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion sends a message to our students and families that they are all important to our District, our community and our world.”

Group photo of staff Equity Coalition members

Related stories:
Expanding Equity: Student Coalition Members Speak (1/19/21)
Expanding Equity: SOCSD Launches Equity Coalition (10/1/20)
Expanding Equity: Developing Leadership Skills to Support Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (8/24/20)
Expanding Equity (7/16/20)