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New School Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion Coordinator ‘Ready To Go’



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Diversity, equity, and inclusion was a main topic for the Board of Education during its October 5 meeting.

Ahead of a report on diversity and inclusion efforts from the last year, Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue introduced the recently hired school district Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Wesley Johnson at the meeting, which was held in person at Newtown Municipal Center and streamed online.

According to Rodrigue, Johnson was strongly endorsed by two interview committees. Those committees used words like “collaborative,” “balanced,” “compassionate,” “listener,” and “mediator” to describe him.

“We are so excited to have you join Newtown Public Schools,” said Rodrigue.

Johnson — who has worked as a contractor for Bethel Public Schools by providing diversity, equity, and inclusion coaching and training; as an area director/developer of Young Life in Danbury; and more — received standing applause from the superintendent and board members present for the meeting.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to enter into this space,” said Johnson. Later he said he is “ready to go” while recognizing that there are “strong positions” regarding the role of coordinator.

“I do hope that we will get an opportunity where we can have conversations where we can be transparent, honest, and where we can be vulnerable without judgment,” Johnson said to the room before he said he is excited for equity chats and equitability building.

Johnson said he hopes to create a culture rooted in respect, sensitivity, understanding, and curiosity.

Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku later reflected that the school board passed a resolution in July 2020 on diversity and equity.

“I think it is important to recognize the progress that has been made as well as the progress to be made,” said Ku.

Both Ku and Rodrigue said the district’s work over the last year is really just the beginning of a journey.

“And we believe this is critical to building a safe and supportive environment for all of our students and staff,” Rodrigue said.

The diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are also crucial to student success, Rodrigue said near the start of a presentation, which provided overview of the work completed in the district over the last year.

In an overview, Rodrigue said a priority has been made to review the kinds of literature students are reading, through a curriculum revision process. Other highlights she offered included opportunities in world language classes to include culture lessons, building academic opportunities for all students, and Newtown High School’s Capstone project for seniors that allows student voice and choice.

Rodrigue said data is looked at regularly to know what students need and want and how courses will address different student needs.

The superintendent said the school board’s Policy Subcommittee has made a priority of reviewing and monitoring policies for supporting students and staff around diversity, equity, inclusion, and more.

Other Highlights Detailed

Other highlights from the presentation included conducting a review of nonfiction core reading for kindergarten through high school students; increasing the representation of diverse characters and authors for all grade levels; revising “social and emotional learning lessons that allow students to explore multicultural perspectives and address topics related to diversity, as developmentally appropriate;” and revising social studies curriculum, “beginning with grades three through eight, to align with the Connecticut Elementary and Secondary Social Studies Framework and ensure accurate representation of historical events, inclusive of the positive contributions of diverse peoples,” according to a slide.

Rodrigue also spoke about reporting protocols for incidences of racism and all bullying along with documentation efforts for those incidents in the district that is being finalized. While the district has an anonymous reporting option, Rodrigue said students are encouraged to seek out a trusted adult when possible.

“Our teaching and learning practices need to speak to all students and all staff,” said Rodrigue.

The coming year will include implementing practices, measuring outcomes, and making changes to improve.

The conversation around equity, inclusion, and diversity will include input from the Newtown Public School community, according to the superintendent.

“It’s a long journey, but it is an exciting one too,” said Rodrigue.

Board of Education members asked a range of questions on the topic following the presentation, before Johnson offered input supporting that the topic is something everyone should be involved in as it “really is a collective effort.”

Members of the public also weighed in on diversity, equity, and inclusion at the meeting. One resident said the time for censorship is long gone and it is time to “be kind to all.”

Resident Christine Miller said the district’s efforts are “just the beginning.”

“Effective diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives require support and commitment from the top down, with strong expectations for all,” Miller said.

With the coordinator hired, Miller said, that position will need support.

“Every adult must be committed to establishing it as a core community value. Every adult must also be willing to recognize their own biases and be prepared to feel uncomfortable. None of us is exempt from the need to truly dig deep within ourselves to recognize how our experiences have created stereotypes and bias,” Miller continued.

Later, resident Nicole Maddox said she is tired of things like overt and covert racism, tired of people claiming racism does not exist, and tired of allies who fall away when the work becomes inconvenient.

While Maddox said she appreciates the work the district has made in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion, she questioned not hearing deadlines.

“Finish out that goal and finish out the timelines,” Maddox said.

Maddox asked the school board to put “a concrete deadline” on each goal outlined for the coming year.

Speaking to Johnson, Maddox said, “We are thrilled you are here. That said, if the experiences that black families have had in this town are any indication of what you will be facing, it’s not going to be an easy path.”

However, Maddox said there are people committed to helping support that path.

Education Reporter Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

Newtown Public School District Director of Business & Finance Tanja Vadas, left, and Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue share a presentation on Diversity, equity, and inclusion at the school board’s October 5 meeting.
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