South Orangetown Central School District

Recently, parent members of the Equity Coalition participated in a group discussion which covered a broad range of topics, ranging from what motivated them to get involved to what their hopes are for the District. Here’s what they had to say:

Several parents got involved with the Coalition because they saw parallels between the experiences they had growing up and those of their children.

“After my son’s graduation last June, my brother and I were talking about how we had not been assigned to read any non-White authors when we were in high school. My son spoke up and said that he hadn’t either and I was stunned. I felt like I had fallen down on the job not knowing that and I want to make sure that no other South Orangetown students have that experience,” said Samantha Olds-Campanile.

Growing up, Cindy Caraballo didn’t see her own culture represented in school either. “I recall becoming more curious about my culture in middle school and checking out the school library. I didn’t find anything. I struggled between feelings of pride and feeling like I had to hide a part of who I was. I was embarrassed when my mom spoke Spanish to me in public. I repeated to her what I heard others say. ‘We’re in America. Speak English.’ It’s such a source of pride for me now, which I try to instill in my own kids,” Caraballo reflected. “Fast forward so many years later and the same issues still exist, where only certain viewpoints are presented and exposure to a broader worldview is limited. I joined the Equity Coalition because I want to be part of advocating for and creating change; because I believe strongly there is work to be done and I want a seat at the table.”

Leslie Laboriel got involved with the Coalition to help create a more inclusive environment. “My son, as an African American, represents 1.7% of the SOCSD. He is in an environment that may not understand or support his culture. I wanted to be a voice to help build a community that embraces his background and culture,” explained Laboriel. “I grew up in East Ramapo in the 1970s, when kids of color were the minority. I am now raising a child in a district that has the same demographics. I know how it feels when you think you do not belong. It is a different time for young people, but there are still real challenges in the educational system that need to be discussed and improved. Years from now, we want our son to remember the amazing friendships, teachers that believed in him, and the environment that allowed him to be himself. My mom did not necessarily know how to voice her concerns to help create the same memories for me, but I do. Joining the Coalition is a step in the right direction.”

Parents emphasized that honoring diversity is about respect and community.

“Teaching respect, decency, empathy and compassion for others starts at home, but I’m hoping that it’s also something that our District will address and model for other communities,” said Faith Alexandre. “My oldest is 20 and when he started kindergarten, he was one of two Black children in the school. There wasn’t much in terms of literature or classroom materials. Even for Black History Month, the focus was on the same people every year: Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. We need to do more.”

Many of the parents agreed that while home is the best place for children to begin learning about and developing an appreciation for diversity, schools have a responsibility to foster that growth, too. “Our district’s Princeton Plan model helps our schools mix students from an early age, which exposes them to different family structures,” noted Pat Tobin, who is also an alumna. Our children need to be aware of all viewpoints and how different frames of reference yield different perspectives. These students represent the future. We need positive role models for each and every one of them. Further, we need to encourage all students with regard to respect and inclusion of others. It is disturbing that there is still a high suicide rate among kids who identify as LGBTQ+. All children should be supported and our district should be constantly improving and keeping pace with the world as it changes around us.

The diversity of our community is what drew Rana Park’s family to relocate from Bergen County. “Asians tend to get left out of the race conversation because there is this idea that we don’t need representation because of the ‘Model Minority’ myth. But, the reality is that people of color must perform at high achievement levels to even get noticed or get their foot in the door, thus perpetuating this unfortunate reality that has created a myth that Asians are doing just fine,” explained Park. “I moved here because of a diversity that is different from Bergen County. Still, despite being somewhat diverse, there is social separation in our community. So I joined the PTA as a first step in getting involved in our community.”

South Orangetown Middle School PTA President Liz Dudley has worked on her own and through PTA to learn more about creating a more supportive and inclusive community culture. “I participated in an ‘Undoing Racism’ training with William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School administrators a few years ago and it was a life-changing event for me. Joining the Coalition was the next step in doing that work. I’ve found that we need more representation and support for our LGBTQ+ students, too,” she stated.

Parents echoed student and staff observations that District staffing should be more diverse.

Through her involvement with PTA, Dudley has been invited to serve on District interview committees as a parent representative. “The question I always ask is, ‘Where are the people of color?’” she said, noting a lack of diversity among the candidates she’d seen over the years. “We also need to think more broadly about skills and experience. There are positions, for example, that would be best filled by someone who is multilingual.”

Olds-Campanile said culture is critical to attracting diverse talent. “In order for people of color to want to apply, you need to make it clear that it is a hospitable environment for them to work in.”

Laboriel agreed. “For some people of color, when exploring teacher or administrative opportunities, the first requirement is figuring out if the district is serious about embracing diversity, equity and inclusion or if it’s a temporary fad that appears to be popular currently. Our district is supporting this work. The plans and results are shared publicly to show everyone the district’s commitment. This type of transparency makes candidates believe the district can be a positive mental health work environment.”

Beyond staffing, Park observed that there is also work to be done by parent volunteer groups so that there is representation at all levels.

Parents reported that their community’s attitude toward diversity impacts children from a young age.

“My dad graduated from a segregated high school in North Carolina in 1960. He said that one of the losses of desegregation was the loss of Black teachers. I grew up wanting to be an educator to show all students what having a BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) teacher in front of the classroom looked like. As a parent, I want my kids to see people who are different from them,” said Olds-Campanile. “It’s exciting to be an educator right now. Young people are developing a way of thinking that is different. Many kids are more accepting of things, such as different gender identities and sexual orientations, than when I was young. That progress has been made in a short period of time. It’s inspiring to live and work in a community where that can happen.”

Alexandre sees students’ vocal participation in the Coalition’s efforts as a source of hope. “For my daughter to be so outspoken about inclusion and diversity is not something I ever experienced going to high school in the city. We didn’t have any input as far as curriculum or any after school programs that promoted inclusion and encouraged diversity, so that’s a positive. But we have to continue to forge ahead,” she noted.

Parents also see the need to expand this work beyond school grounds. “The world we grow up in affects the lens we have. As a community, we need to invest in relationships. How well do we know our neighbors? How can we get to a place where we listen to other people’s stories and care enough to carry their burdens with us? We need to find ways to sit down at the table together and talk,” reflected Park.

Related stories:
Expanding Equity: Staff Coalition Members Speak (2/2/21)
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)

Parent Equity Coalition members