Supporting Changing Student Population Demographics Through Global Learning
The Elisabeth Morrow School’s (EMS) campus is situated on 14 acres in the middle of Bergen County, New Jersey. As of 2017, 30% of the county’s residents were born outside of the country, and 44% are people of color. EMS reflects the diversity of this population—65% of students identify as nonwhite, a 21% increase from 10 years ago.
A few years ago, as we continued to focus on diversity efforts already in place, we wanted to discover who we are as a school community and make sure our programming and mission align. To do that, in January 2017, we conducted NAIS’s Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM). The results of the survey and self-assessment indicated that we needed to focus more on faculty and staff professional development in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), to introduce inclusive curriculum in which all students can see themselves, and to develop global programs. We integrated these findings into our strategic planning and accreditation self-study in 2018.
The AIM results also led to a reimagining of our mission with the full school community, including parents, students, alumni, teachers, administrators, and trustees. One Saturday in March 2018, we worked to identify the key elements of an EMS education and ultimately added to our mission statement that we’d aim to “create global citizens.” Our efforts to carry out this mission include embracing and supporting students from every race, culture, and socioeconomic background.
Investing in Faculty
Our DEI work started well before we received the AIM results. Like many independent schools, we’ve struggled to have the diversity of our faculty mirror our student population. It is a strategic priority for our school, so we now require one male and one person of color in every finalist pool. Since we implemented this practice in 2015, we’ve seen more representation of faculty of color, but we still have work to do.
In 2013, as part of the effort to recruit and support an increasingly diverse faculty, we established the Equity and Justice Task Force. All faculty members, administrators, and school leadership are invited to join. Monthly meetings with 10–15 core group members serve as a space to discuss DEI issues, field ideas for programming, and support faculty members of color. The task force also develops quarterly in-house professional development workshops. Students are involved in the planning and execution of at least one workshop per school year. Last year, student panelists discussed personal experiences with DEI at EMS. This year, students will give a presentation on inclusive language.
Our school also invests resources to enable faculty teams to participate in professional development programs at other schools and at national conferences. Each year, individuals apply and are selected by a staff committee to attend NAIS’s People of Color Conference, the Widening the Lens Conference, the New York State Association of Independent School Diversity Conference, and more. Conference attendees bring new insight and information back to the school to share with the task force. For example, because of the learning that occurred at the Widening the Lens Conference—a daylong workshop held at Far Brook School (NJ) that gathers various constituent groups from local independent schools—we set an objective to better support our middle school gay-straight alliance. We realized that we could do more to make families aware of the student group and the various activities and conversations that occur at meetings. Also, because of our increased communication with families, the Parent Association created its own Equity and Inclusion Committee, which will host a workshop on gender identity for parents this year.
Creating Inclusive Classrooms with a Global Focus
Our student demographics have changed dramatically over the past decade. We have expanded from K–6 to include seventh and eighth graders. We also now serve students outside of the 15-mile radius we previously drew from, to include those from surrounding neighborhoods with more diverse demographics. Because of these changes—having older students and a more diverse population—we decided to look more closely at student programming and grade-level curricula to be certain to reflect multiple cultural perspectives.
Many of our students are multilingual, speaking English in their homes as well as Farsi, French, Greek, Hindi, Mandarin, Telugu, and more. Some students have newly immigrated; others are Third Culture Kids, students navigating the cultures of their parents as well as the culture where they now live. In November, as part of our annual EMS Gives Back event, we’ll host a workshop with Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. In moderated groups, families will learn about the gifts and the challenges of living and growing up in a multicultural world. EMS Gives Back brings EMS and non-EMS families to the school for conversation and fellowship and to support local organizations and charities such as the Center for Food Action.
To provide students a space in the classroom to explore their identities in more depth, we offer electives such as “Diversity of Identity” for grades five through eight. For eighth graders, the electives have a community outreach component. Last year, our older students went to our early childhood classes and read books with female and gender nonconforming protagonists.
We also enhanced our curricula to include a more global focus and to broaden our telling of American stories to include native, immigrant, and enslaved peoples’ voices and languages. Eighth graders read Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States during their study of American history; seventh graders learn about the governments, cultures, and leaders from ancient and modern Asian history; and third graders visit Waterloo Village, a recreated Native American community in Byram Township, New Jersey.
Looking Toward the Future
As part of our strategic plan, we are currently working on a global music initiative. We already have a robust music department, and music instruction reaches all students. Beginning in third grade, every student learns to play an instrument, and small group lessons are held several times weekly. Our orchestras perform classical and modern music and have opened for performers such as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Our music department looks for sources from non-European origins to play at our biannual concerts and is expanding the traditional selection of instruments played to include African drums and the didgeridoo.
By 2045, most people in the United States will not identify as white. We continue to strive to create true global citizens through our recognition and support of the needs and identities of the children entrusted to our care. It is our responsibility to equip them with cultural and global competencies, so they can navigate a world that will look vastly different from the one their parents grew up in.