South Orangetown Central School District

At its January 20 meeting, the Board of Education adopted Policy 0105, “Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity in Education,” after nearly a year of development, public comment and review. The new policy affirms the District’s commitment to a “positive and inclusive learning environment where all students feel safe, welcomed, accepted and that is conducive to academic success” and sets goals and accountability measures to ensure that “equitable access to educational resources and opportunities are being provided to all students.” It is the most recent milestone in a multi-year effort encompassing professional development, curriculum, student support services, technology and staff recruitment and retention which aim to cultivate more inclusive learning and working environments which effectively support all students in reaching their fullest potential.

“This policy reflects our commitment to ensure that every student feels included in, and has access to, our educational program. The manner by which we hold ourselves accountable to this very important objective is set forth in this policy,” said Superintendent of Schools Robert Pritchard, Ed.D.

Over the past two years, professional development opportunities—ranging from discussion groups to all-staff workshops— on topics related to educational equity have grown in response to demand. This school year, Tappan Zee High School partnered with CANDLE Rockland to provide Superintendent’s Conference Day training for all school staff on topics related to gender identity and sexuality at the request of secretaries, coaches, counselors and teachers who asked to learn more about how they could better support students. A recent two-day workshop for South Orangetown Middle School staff on identifying and addressing bias was coordinated by SOMS School Counselor Phil Farrugia in collaboration with the Center for Safety and Change. Cottage Lane Elementary School has worked to offer professional development and resources about how to teach current events at its grade levels and how to embed topics into current units. Mindset has been a focus of professional development at William O. Schaefer Elementary School, with staff learning how to provide more opportunities for all students to see themselves represented in the books they read and to learn about the lives of others through literature.

“As a leader of an early childhood school, it is important that we build foundations with our youngest students. We are thoughtful in our approach by first teaching our students to learn about themselves and their families. Then, they learn about our community and celebrate each other’s similarities and differences. It is important that our students are exposed to different perspectives and experiences,” Principal Sheila Beglin noted. “Keeping the best interest of every one of our children in mind is at the heart of our work.”

District and building administrators are training on “lenses of instructional equity,” such as access, barriers, representation, empowerment and cultural responsiveness, to inform goal-setting and benchmarking. Hearing directly from students, alumni, parents and staff members about their experiences in the District through emails, conversations and Equity Coalition meetings motivated school leaders to seek out targeted professional development to better integrate diversity, equity and inclusion considerations into efforts to strengthen school culture and enhance student engagement and achievement.

“Equity is a key piece of my decision-making as a school leader. I’m looking at what kids are impacted if we cut programs or support an activity that isn’t socially responsive,” said Cottage Lane Elementary School Principal Karen Ramirez. “And we’re committed to creating avenues for students to talk, listen and learn how to use their voices to affect change. My long-term goal is that we become a collective, collaborative community where everyone feels part of the whole.”

South Orangetown Middle School Principal Chad Corey, Ed.D., expressed similar thoughts. “Our goal is to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of our students. It is important that all students have access to educational opportunities and activities at the middle school level that occur both during and outside of the school day,” Corey added. “Student voice is another important component in our work to foster a positive and inclusive learning environment. We are continually exploring opportunities and structures that incorporate student voice.”

“Having been a former social studies teacher and history and African American studies major in college, looking at the history of equity or lack of equity in the U.S. has always been of interest,” stated TZHS Principal Rudy Arietta. “As a principal, it’s imperative that I’m engaged in these conversations. Our schools are microcosms of society and we live in a world where these issues persist. As leaders, we all need to be on the frontlines in terms of advancing these conversations and in modeling how to respect, listen to and appreciate other perspectives.”

What does a diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environment look like? Schools equipped with classroom and library materials which represent perspectives and experiences of people from all over the world. This “mirrors” and “windows” approach to curriculum and instruction enables students to see their own culture reflected (mirrors), gain insight into others’ cultures (windows) and reflect on their own thinking as they explore literature, history, science, math, art, world languages, business and engineering. Other characteristics include, but are not limited to, diverse staffing, physical environments that accommodate differently-abled students and staff and responsive planning which ensures access to the full scope of District programs and services.

“For many years, our District has been committed to providing students with equitable learning opportunities and programs for students that are inclusive, engaging, and supported by books, materials, and resources that represent a variety of cultures and backgrounds. The adoption of Policy 0105 not only validates the work, but further supports our efforts to build an inclusive school community that values diversity,” Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Brian Culot, Ed.D. noted.

School-based data inquiry teams formed in 2018 have been investigating gaps among demographic subgroups with regard to key indicators, such as chronic absenteeism and academic progress, and identifying research-based strategies for implementation. Data collection and communication practices have also been reviewed and, in some cases, updated to more accurately and respectfully capture and share information.

“Our data shows that we need to be doing this work. Hard data coupled with the voices of our students calling for this has led me here,” Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel Services Karen Tesik, Ed.D. reported. “As one of the veteran administrators in the District, I’ve observed the changes in our community. Hurricane Sandy, back in 2012, really highlighted the changing needs of our community. Three years ago, our District shifted from a Director of Special Education to a broader Pupil Personnel Services model because we understood that we needed to know and support all of our students better.”

As part of the transition to the Pupil Personnel Services model, the District has invested in expanding its building-level student support teams to provide comprehensive, culturally-responsive and trauma-informed services to meet all students’ academic and mental and behavioral health needs. The Family Engagement Center, founded in Fall 2018 to promote active parent involvement from pre-K through grade 12, has rapidly developed programming and partnerships to aid the work of these building teams through initiatives which include the ParentChild+ early literacy program and the SOCSD Food Pantry.

The Staff Relations Office has worked to develop its talent pipeline to be more diverse and inclusive by building new partnerships, expanding recruitment opportunities and remodeling its hiring process. Last weekend, the District participated–for the third consecutive year–in the Lower Hudson Council of School Personnel Administrators’ Diversity Job Fair and is partnering with Nemnet, a national resource organization that supports school districts in recruiting and retaining diverse staff. “We recognize and value the benefits of a diverse workforce of professionals who can contribute varied experiences, skills and perspectives inside and outside the classroom and inspire our students to grow and learn,” reflected Director of Staff Relations Joseph Lloyd, Ph.D. “Our efforts to attend diversity job fairs, post job opportunities on multiple platforms and explore ‘grow your own’ programs, such as Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Teachers, have been aimed towards adding new applicant streams into our District’s recruitment and hiring processes.”

In September 2020, the District established the Equity Coalition as a platform for key stakeholders to identify barriers to equity and opportunity and to inform decision-making regarding curriculum, staffing, community response and the student experience. To draw on existing institutional knowledge, the founding group was composed of students, alumni, parents and staff who had expressed interest in contributing to District efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion. Coalition members reported on the challenges faced by underrepresented students and offered recommendations to better support them. Last month, school administrators presented their work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as accountability measures to evaluate progress in their respective schools. The Coalition, along with other district-wide committees, will continue to serve in an advisory role under Policy 0105.

Related stories:

Expanding Equity: Parent Coalition Members Speak (3/10/21)
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)

Admin training on equity