South Orangetown Central School District

The South Orangetown Central School District launched its Equity Coalition, composed of students, parents, staff and administrators, in September to help guide ongoing, mission-driven improvement efforts.

In mid-December, the six student members representing Tappan Zee High School and South Orangetown Middle School–Hadiya, Kara, Rachel, Ruby, Sabrina and Victoria–met virtually to discuss the Coalition, their experiences and their hopes for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive school district.

One key item identified by students is the need for a more diverse group of stakeholders engaged in choosing texts and developing curriculum. “I’m very proud that the Equity Coalition is starting from the elementary level because subtle things make a difference,” noted Hadiya. “As a little kid, I never saw my name or a diverse name in the texts we read or the worksheets we were given. Not only are we recognizing the need for diversity, but also the need to incorporate it into our everyday lives. We can’t have equality without normalizing diversity.”

Students said that they want to learn about slavery and civil rights through the voices of those directly impacted, but that coursework should also recognize the achievements and contributions of different cultures. “One of my hopes is that the District will expand the high school curriculum with new courses, such as Near East Studies and African Studies, to provide students with more exposure to the history and cultures of these areas of the world and to rectify underrepresentation and stereotyping,” explained Rachel.

“The Hispanic/Latinx community also faces stereotyping,” Sabrina added. “It’s important for people to understand that there is a great deal of diversity within each demographic category. ‘Hispanic’ encompasses so many different cultures and traditions.”

Students are also calling on the District to ensure that its staffing more closely aligns with our increasingly diverse community. Although one-third of all SOCSD students identify as people of color, just seven percent of teachers do. “This means we’re taught about history, literature, culture and current events from a limited perspective throughout our schooling,” Ruby observed, noting that learning from a more diverse teaching staff throughout their K-12 experience would help to provide students with a broader context and deeper understanding of the world around them.

The number of students identified as English Language Learners in the District has tripled over the past 10 years and currently compose nine percent of the student body. Collectively, SOCSD families speak a total of 30 languages; however, Spanish is the primary home language for three-quarters of the students who speak a language other than English at home.

“As a bilingual person, I’ve seen the struggles that students who speak a different language have when they try to express themselves. When they take too long to respond to a question, some teachers will just move on to an English-speaking kid,” said Sabrina. “In elementary school, I was often asked to help translate for other students. I was glad to help, but we need more teachers who speak languages other than English.”

Income is also perceived as a barrier to accessing school programs and services. Nearly one in five SOCSD students are economically disadvantaged. “A lot of people grow up thinking that we all start off from the same place and it’s just not true,” Ruby explained.

Equity Coalition student members recognize these disparities and are committed to ensuring that every student achieves to their fullest potential. “People in my own community are facing inequities. I have a responsibility to use my privilege to advocate for others who don’t have those privileges, to make sure that they have someone they trust that they can go to at school, to make sure that they can get lunch if they’re hungry. I’m one person and I may not be able to make a huge difference in the world, but knowing that I can make a difference in my school is important,” said Victoria.

All six students say that casual racism and bigotry must be addressed more effectively. When students speak up, they say that the response from their peers is almost always “calm down” or “it’s just a joke.” “It’s really not funny and a lot of the time it’s not taken seriously enough,” Sabrina attested.

“Throughout my entire schooling experience, I’ve heard slurs spoken all the time. When you call someone out on it, people turn on you,” said Ruby. “You become the problem. You’re the one ruining the joke.”

“I hear racist and homophobic slurs rather frequently and we’re expected to brush it off,” Rachel reported. “When someone makes a derogatory comment about culture, race or religion, just making them apologize isn’t effective. If I bring this to your attention, I’m not looking for an apology. I’m trying to address the issue that the mindset this person has is that it’s OK to do this. They need to be educated rather than be allowed to treat others with bigotry and bias.”

Hadiya echoed this sentiment, adding that having a more representative staff would help students feel more secure and connected. “Someone who doesn’t have this experience will never be able to fully understand the extent of how it affects students. They don’t understand the context in which we receive it,”” she said. “Exhaustion is a thing. In Social Justice Club, we talk about how calling someone a slur causes them to hold themselves to a higher standard. We just internalize that. I’m the only hijabi in our school. It’s something that I have to keep in mind constantly. For a lot of people in our school, I’m the only exposure they have to my culture and religion. I have to make sure that whatever impression I make is a good one so that they won’t have a negative bias when they encounter someone else like me in the future. I feel like there is an inherent prejudice against minorities; people assume that they’re going to mess up. They have an expectation that I have to prove wrong.”

This experience resonated with Rachel. “It’s something that I feel in the Black community, in particular,” she reflected. “When you’re in a minority, you have to be the prime representative because you feel like it reflects on your whole community. Otherwise, it justifies the stereotypes and bias. Instead of focusing on individuals and holding them to their mistakes, people hold their community to the individuals’ mistakes. It can be exhausting.”

In the weeks ahead, these students will prepare to share their experiences and highlight opportunities for improvement at the next Equity Coalition meeting. “Everything is not perfect,” noted Kara. “We all deserve equal access to opportunities. The Equity Coalition has been a long time coming and it’s going to take time to make changes.”

Students are at the heart of District efforts, said Equity Coalition Coordinator and Director of Staff Relations Joseph Lloyd, Ph.D. “In creating the Equity Coalition, we placed an emphasis on listening to our students, parents, staff and community members while also looking at the District’s new mission and values statement as adopted by our Board of Education,” he explained. “During those initial steps, it became evident that we needed to establish a team that could inform District systems while positioning students to achieve their fullest potential in an inclusive, safe and nurturing environment. In reflecting upon our students’ experiences, we recognize that we have much work ahead of us. Despite this, we remain confident that their contributions, ideas and perspectives will significantly support us in forging a path forward.”

Student Equity Coalition members

Related stories:
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)