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Things that Make You Say "Hmmmm..."

 

Fall 2007
Although many schools have made an institutional commitment to develop and sustain an inclusive community, and to the broad notions of equity and justice in the school and beyond, there is often significant distance between their stated goals and reality. The reasons for the gap vary from school to school, although the overarching challenge may simply be that diversity work is hard work and ever evolving. It's a challenge in the nation at large, so there's no reason to expect it to be easy in schools. In the public sector, despite all the efforts at racial integration in education in the 1960s and 1970s, our public schools are more segregated today than ever. For independent schools, especially with those that have traditionally served the upper-middle class and primarily white families, the transition to a well-functioning inclusive community can be slow and difficult on various fronts.

We have presented a number of workshops aimed at helping schools and individuals within schools better align their missions and actions when it comes to diversity in all its dimensions. Here, we'd like to focus on the institutional issues. In particular, we will examine school systems — the way decisions are made, as well as the operational culture of the school. It is our firm belief that one of the key reasons that a diversity initiative doesn't survive beyond the early efforts of committed, short-tenured people, or that it is defined by a short-term response to some unfortunate incident, is because schools fail to focus on the organizational systems that give rise to and sustain diversity initiatives.

We approach these issues here through a series of key questions — those we've heard echoed in many schools. Our approach is based on the belief that, if schools can identify the key institutional-level questions — the things that make you say, "hmmm…" — and develop a framework for answering these questions in a way that is best for the school, they can and will move the conversation forward in beneficial ways. An approach we've intentionally avoided here is providing specific examples of the answers other schools have given to these questions; we avoid such an approach simply because we believe there is no one answer that fits all schools. We encourage you to use the frameworks we present here as you come across the important questions in your work.

Self-Assessment
A key question we hear often is, "How do we accurately evaluate our current school climate and the need and desire for change with regard to issues of diversity, multiculturalism, equity, and justice?"

Our answer to this question starts with an affirmation of the value of the question. It is important to accurately evaluate a school's climate and both the need and desire to change; otherwise, it's hard to know how to proceed. And to rush forward with diversity initiatives without gauging the school community's specific needs for the work is a quick way to fail.

In order to evaluate the climate with regards to diversity, multiculturalism, equity, and justice (DMEJ), we believe it's best to start with the school's overall reaccreditation process. Why here? First, because this process is familiar. Schools often mistakenly look upon diversity issues as being adjunct to their core educational concerns, and therefore attempt to address these issues using processes that lie outside their standard operating procedures. "This is a new focus for the school," the logic goes, "so we need a new assessment tool." While such tools are available, a potentially more successful approach is to examine diversity issues in the context of the overall mission and goals of the school as a whole. This brings us to the second advantage of the reaccreditation process: it is holistic in nature, and thus allows all constituents to see diversity as part of the school's overall health and well-being.

Of course, if the reaccreditation process turns up a need for a closer and more specified look at issues of diversity in the school community, more tailored measures are appropriate. The Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM) — a tool developed by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) that builds upon the work of its earlier Multicultural Assessment Plan (MAP) — can be effective for three key reasons. It packages all the elements a school needs for assessment (training of internal leadership, data-collection methods, and data analysis); it has been beta-tested and used formally in a variety of schools with successful early returns; and it is administered by an organization that works specifically with independent schools. Outside consultants can be helpful as well, although we always caution schools against consultants who tend towards a one-size-fits-all approach. A good consultant will spend time getting to know a particular school on the front end of her or his work, and spend time following the progress of a school's work through the stages of development.

Readiness for Change
These self-assessment tools tell us where we are in DMEJ work in our schools. What remains to be determined — sometimes in less formal ways — is whether or not our schools are actually ready for the work that follows such an assessment. Along those lines, a useful question to ask is, "What are the benchmarks to gauge the readiness for change in each of the school's constituencies?"

Time is a precious commodity in all schools, so it's not unusual to hear some educators claim that there isn't enough time for diversity work, especially when everyone is already feeling overwhelmed with everything else that needs to be attended to. We've also heard the complaint that taking the time required to become astute with diversity work means taking precious time away from a school's effort to adequately prepare children for an increasingly complex global society. Both these perceptions strike us as forms of resistance to diversity work, and we read such comments as clear signs that key constituents within these schools just aren't ready to properly embrace a diversity initiative. This is not to say that global issues aren't important or that time isn't a real factor to consider in all school work.

"Readiness" — a general communal desire to learn more — is essential in order for a school to explore the process of being an inclusive community. To meet with any lasting success down the road, a core readiness matters at the start.
But steering the discussion of diversity in this direction does raise questions about readiness — or, rather, the lack of readiness — to move forward with any sort of DMEJ-based initiative.

Readiness must be defined as the state of the school in which all constituencies are ready to learn more about, and actively use the merits of, what it means to be a diverse school or to undertake a diversity initiative. Now, let's not confuse this with being ready to "sign off" on a diversity initiative. Our point is that "readiness" — a general communal desire to learn more — is essential in order for a school to explore the process of being an inclusive community. To meet with any lasting success down the road, a core readiness matters at the start. When all constituencies come to the table for something common, both to take and to give, they are more apt to band together to ensure that they are successful — in whatever endeavor. A sense of urgency at the leadership level for diversity initiatives also needs a sense of readiness on the part of the community.

For various constituencies within the school, here's what "readiness" might look like:

Parents Association: The parents association sees itself as a partner with the school in learning about the same diversity-related concepts and principles that teachers are pursuing in their classrooms.

Board of Trustees: The board sees the strategic and pedagogical value in pursuing diversity-related goals.

Alumni: Alumni understand that diversity does not mean that the current school administration wants to change the school they remember, but that the administration wants to ensure fond memories, a quality education, and a lifelong connection to the school for each and every student, regardless of cultural background.

Administration: The administration is clear about how to both lead and help manage the implementation of the diversity initiative while connecting the effort to mission, core values, professional development dollars, and teacher evaluation.

Faculty: Teachers are clear about how diversity is an integrated instructional piece of their craft tied to a child's identity and to his or her intellectual and emotional development.

As a school gains a sense of readiness in all these groups, the next step is the alignment of administrative systems (or drivers) with the school's diversity goals. When the faculty meetings, the school calendar, the professional development programs, the in-service programs, the teacher evaluation system, and the core values of the school are synchronized with one another around diversity and its pedagogical worth, a school knows that it has an institutional "green light" to pursue diversity work in a substantial way — that is, developing something that reaches way past the feel-good exercises of "food, folks, and fun" in the classroom. Diversity feels like an "add on" when it's not supported by these systemic functions of the school.

The Six Stages of Diversity

Stage 1: Exclusive
School's mission, structure, and decision-making model is influenced entirely by the dominant perspective (white, male, Judeo-Christian, heterosexual, upper-class, able-bodied, etc.), and unabashedly so.

Stage 2: Passive
School no longer markets itself as an exclusive institution, but has done little, if anything, to change its mission or structure. Nothing about the school has changed in practice.

Stage 3: Symbolic Change
School begins to address diversity with a limited definition of that term — that definition usually being limited to race, the most visible element of diversity. School begins efforts to diversify by recruiting a smattering of students and faculty of color, and goes to considerable lengths to publicize these efforts. Students/faculty of color must be the "right" students/faculty of color to thrive at the school. They must buy into the school's structures as they exist; those structures will not change to serve them.

Stage 4: Analytic Change
School begins to ask questions about whether its structures are serving all its constituents as they need to. Often, the constituents have changed significantly in a way that prompts these questions.

A danger here is that the school will get caught up in endless discussion, asking questions without being willing to provide concrete answers.

Stage 5: Structural Change
School begins to answer the questions posed in analytic change stage. School does so by dedicating scarce resources — time, money, personnel — to diversity initiatives.

Stage 6: Inclusive
Diversity, multiculturalism, equity, and justice (DMEJ) work is part of the fabric of the institution, fully integrated into school mission, structures, and decision-making process. It is important to recognize here that this stage is a moving target, as diversity is not a static issue.
Identifying the Work
When schools have assessed where they are regarding DMEJ work, they'll most likely find that "where they are" is very different from their peer schools. And when schools come to this realization, they tend to ask, "What's the best focus for our work in the areas of diversity, multiculturalism, equity, and justice: creating individual programs that address immediate needs or auditing institutional structures?"

Once again, the answer varies from school to school, depending on how far a school has progressed towards its goal of being an inclusive institution. However, the pragmatic answer that applies to all schools is this: The work is most effective when it meets the school where it is and progresses from there. In other words, honestly identifying where the school is, using the assessment tools and practices outlined above, is the key initial step in deciding what work (individual programs or structural audits) needs to be done next.

An analysis of a school's culture might, for instance, reveal that establishing an outreach program, housed in the admissions office and designed to recruit more students of color, might generate the sort of momentum that would cause a school to reexamine its admissions practices in general. On the other hand, if such a program were thriving in terms of attracting a diverse applicant pool, but the school was struggling in terms of admissions rates for that same group of students, a logical next step would be for that school to reexamine practices, rather than create more new programs. Either way, knowing the starting point is crucial.

A tool we've used in our work that has proven to be especially effective asks schools to assess their culture and place themselves in one of six phases along a continuum — exclusive, passive, symbolic change, analytic change, structural change, or inclusive (see sidebar, left). Should you choose to use this tool to evaluate your own institution, keep in mind that your school might be at different phases for different areas of the school (curriculum vs. student support, for instance) and that your school might be at different phases for different aspects of diversity (socioeconomic status vs. sexual orientation). What this means, of course, is that you will have multiple starting points for your work, and that you'll need to coordinate that work in a meaningful, strategic, and appropriately prioritized fashion.

Institutionalizing the Work

Ultimately, as you can see in the continuum, our goal is to help schools move to a place where diversity is part of the fabric of the institution. Naturally, then, schools interested in doing DMEJ work successfully should be thinking about working towards a coordinated initiative that touches all aspects of school life. The question, therefore, becomes, "How do we, as a school, transcend a model of special events or add-on programming and move towards a model that integrates diversity work into the fabric of our institution?"

The most critical step here is to understand that there are three key stages of the work:

Awareness raising: This is where there is a school-wide effort to inform the entire faculty that DMEJ work is essential for a quality education today. Common elements of this stage include speakers, films, art exhibits, and other tangible, visible reminders of difference. Every school begins in this place, and it is absolutely necessary that they do so. It is crucial for the success of any initiative, however, that schools recognize that the work done in this stage is only an initial step that builds towards future work. Allowing the work to stay in this stage too long sends the message to the community that diversity work is an adjunct of school life, and will cause the larger initiative to fall flat.

Capacity building and accountability: Seldom do independent schools speak about diversity as a skill-based endeavor; it's our opinion that this oversight is one of the most common pitfalls of diversity initiatives. To be taken seriously, any initiative must have expected outcomes and growth points — things everyone in the school can be accountable for. This step, then, is where actual skill development comes forth from diversity training. For example, a staple of diversity training is conflict management. While not evidenced often in our mostly cordial schools, conflict is nevertheless inevitable. Especially as we pursue a more diverse teaching faculty, cultural, personal, and professional viewpoints will undoubtedly intersect and clash. We should teach our faculty how to manage this aspect of a healthy, collaborative community-building process in a way that is proactive, and built on establishing solid relationships with colleagues.

Integration and institutionalization: This rarely-achieved state is where you see a change in the school community's population so that it now represents a broad spectrum of difference, where there is routine monitoring of "how are we doing" to sustain the gains and continue improvement, and where the school's practices change as a result of being organizationally aware of the impact of its decisions on underrepresented groups. At this stage, faculty meetings are used, among other things, to openly discuss the ways in which difference is interconnected to children's lives.The school calendar makes room for teachers and staff to practice dialogue skills about difference across the differences in the community. And the curriculum is not simply about including the experiences of darker skinned peoples, but instead about encouraging critical analysis of race — focusing particularly on the voices heard and unheard, the perpetrators of injustice as much as the victims, and the parallel of historic societal events to today's world.

We hope that you can see in our answers to these questions a few of the basic tenets we hold as essential in addressing DMEJ issues in independent schools: (1) that schools must address these issues at multiple levels — the individual human level, the isolated program level, and the institutional structure level; (2) that independent schools require independent solutions, so that there is no one answer to these sorts of questions that applies to all schools; and (3) that schools are at different places from each other in their journeys towards becoming inclusive institutions, and that effective work in this area continually addresses where they are, not where they should be.

There are always lots of additional questions circling a diversity initiative: How do I justify the use of affinity groups? Do we really need a director of diversity? What's the next step after the MLK Day celebration? You've no doubt heard some version of these in your own school. And while we can't answer these questions for you without an intimate knowledge of your school, we hope that you see that asking the broader institutional questions and employing some version of our accompanying frameworks will lead you to a place where you can answer questions large and small. We also hope you see the value in making this effort. From our perspective, the opportunity to address DMEJ issues in a meaningful way is an essential part of what makes an independent school great.

Abe Wehmiller is assistant director of the upper school at Lakeside School (Washington). André Withers is the assistant head of school at Lowell School (Washington, DC). They have presented a more detailed version of "Things That Make You Say ‘Hmmm...'" at the 2006 NAIS People of Color Conference — including advice for individuals working within schools.
 
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