Ever since the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement and the protests that followed, the nation has been taking a deep look at systemic racism. The words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” are now regularly used by businesses, television shows and other entities. But what do they actually mean? And how can they be put into everyday practice?
These topics and more were covered during the Bensalem Township School District’s inaugural Equity Summit, held at the high school and via livestream on the evening of Wednesday, June 2. Representatives from Bensalem and surrounding districts, including Pennsbury, were present to discuss steps being taken to ensure every student, regardless of race, ability or sexual orientation, has the opportunity to succeed.
Attendees were welcomed by Bensalem school board member and alum Vanessa Woods, who serves as chair of the district’s newly-established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. She explained the often-misconstrued difference between “equality” and “equity.” While equality is giving everyone a shoe, equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits. Additionally, while “diversity” is inviting a person of color to the party, “inclusion” is asking them on the dance floor.
Woods said the purpose of the summit was to figure out how to do this in the district, and ensure every student’s differences are celebrated, not tolerated, by examining curriculum, policies and more through an equity lens.
“Saying, ‘It’s always been like that,’ leads to complacency,” she said.
The summit’s keynote speaker was Valda Valbrun, of the Valbrun Consulting Group, who shared her story of discrimination in the third grade. In Valbrun’s 30-student class at a Catholic school, there were three children of color, herself included.
She reflected on how an older nun, who hadn’t been around many Black kids, asked Valbrun how her mother kept her so clean. Valbrun believes the nun wasn’t trying to cause harm. She simply didn’t know what was appropriate to say to a person of color because she was never exposed to them. Valbrun’s mission is to make sure no student is ever placed in a similar situation.
The first step to an equitable and inclusive school environment, said Valbrun, is for all members of that community to look in the mirror and understand their own cultural awareness, and how their upbringing may impact how they relate to those who are different.
According to Valbrun, society often blames the child for not being successful. However, she said it’s often the fault of the “system,” whether that be the government, housing inequality, lack of access to healthcare or poverty. Each system feeds into schools, causing a disadvantage for many. While fixing these systems requires more work, she said there’s almost always racial justice, social justice and liberation on the other side.
“We have a lot of work to do in schools. It’s the reality,” she said. “It can’t be one conference, one conversation, one course.”
Valbrun added that tough conversations must be had, and not everyone will always agree.
“But I don’t think we need to agree,” she said. “I think there’s more than one way to look at this work.”
Various school districts then had the opportunity to detail the work being done to promote equity.
At Pennsbury, Dr. Cherrissa Gibson was named its first Director of Equity, Diversity and Education. An equity audit was conducted, and the results showed an achievement gap in PSSA and Keystone exam results over a five-year trend. There was also a discipline gap, with students of color receiving more office referrals and suspensions than their white counterparts. In summary, students of color and those with disabilities and IEPs weren’t having positive educational outcomes.
“The data was not flattering, but it was essential,” said Gibson. “It’s no longer an opinion, but facts.”
These findings were presented to the school board, and an action plan was drafted to have all students represented in the curriculum and have a more diverse staff. Currently, 3 percent of staff members are people of color.
At Pennridge School District, equity work began in the fall of 2018 following what superintendent Dr. David A. Bolton said was a transgender incident. This led to the district’s first diversity training, followed by a five-year goal to rewrite all curriculum documents through a culturally responsive lens. There are currently 40 documents completed, with the district on track to finish all by the end of 2023.
A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team was formed by administration and staff in January 2020, and was later expanded to include parents and students. Accomplishments to date include the formation of a DEI guidebook, the addition of a diversity area on the district website and professional learning opportunities, including one on culturally competent teaching taught by Gibson.
Woods concluded the summit by asking everyone to look at minority students as “at-potential” rather than “at-risk.”
“We have our work cut out for us,” she said. “It won’t be easy but it will definitely be worth the journey.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org