The superintendent of Massachusetts’ Needham Public Schools recently met with a parent who was upset about his child’s school discussion of skin color and race in class. The parent said talking about those issues could make racial tensions or divisions worse in the 5,700-student district.

Both the parent, who said he is “color blind” to the differences in people, and the superintendent are white. The parent asked Dan Gutekanst, the superintendent, if he felt the same.

“After a pause,” Gutekanst wrote in his blog in early February 2020, “I answered, ‘No.’”

This admission is not out of character for the veteran superintendent, who has led an ongoing equity initiative now in its third year in this Boston suburb. Since mid-2017, district officials, staff, and the school board have embarked on a series of difficult and often uncomfortable conversations about race, cultural heritage, and understanding differences.

Those conversations, ranging from one-on-one meetings to classroom talks, community forums, and school and districtwide professional development, have been led by Gutekanst and Needham’s school board. By being open and public about equity, their hope is to raise awareness about differences in schools and the broader community, and then take steps to deal with those differences in a fair manner.

And slowly, sometimes painfully, it seems to be working.

Get real

In early 2017, I wrote an ASBJ story on the issues school leaders faced after a historically divisive presidential election. The story, titled “Aftershock,” looked at the increase in harassment and threats students were facing at schools because of their immigration status, sexual orientation, race, gender, religious affiliation, or political beliefs.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told me at the time that every school board would deal in some way with the effect of the election.

“The kind of division and emotion you are seeing in our communities is reflected in our classrooms and hallways, and it is affecting students’ behavior and their overall social/emotional well-being,” Costello said. “The question is what can you do to bring things under control, so all students feel safe.”

Around this time, Needham’s school committee—the name given to school boards in Massachusetts—supported an audit to see how the district was dealing with issues around equity. The audit showed the predominantly white district—fewer than one-fourth of its students are minorities—“needed a wakeup call,” says Diane Simmons, Needham’s director of strategic planning and community engagement.

“Needham has always prided itself in being a district with a focus on equity and all of our students, but we’re a product of a movement in our country that is making people rethink what is going on,” Simmons says. “Although we strive to be inclusive, accessible, and equitable to all, our students are living in a broader society and bringing that into the classroom.”

For the report, consultant Christine Robinson interviewed and held focus groups with more than 250 parents, community members, staff, and students. Issued in December 2017 and published in full on the district’s website in March 2018, the report showed that some students of color felt marginalized and harassed, some parents were not being heard or felt disconnected, and teachers were anxious about “doing or saying the right thing when the issue of race surfaces.”

“The audit was realistic about where we were as a community, and it really opened our eyes,” Simmons says. “A lot of it was very tough for us to recognize, but we decided to take a systemic approach to address it.”

The district established the REAL (Race, Equity, Access, Leadership) Coalition that works with staff, students, families, and community members to “promote equitable practices for all in our community.” The coalition started with a steering committee of central office staff and building-level administrators who developed goals in six areas identified in the report. The committee then expanded to include students, teachers, parents, and school board members. The 31-member group now oversees the ongoing equity efforts across the district.

“We had a lot of ways of expressing equity across the district,” says Simmons, who serves on the committee. “We brought them all to the table and took what was a piecemeal approach and pieced it together to use as a working definition of equity.”

Uncomfortable

What makes Needham’s equity focus unusual is that it is very public and open. The audit findings, along with information about the work of the REAL Coalition subcommittees, is on the district’s website. “Equity” has its own tab on the homepage.

The district has developed a five-year strategic plan, with the first year dedicated to developing a framework for equity.

“We had to relook at all of our communications vehicles and the opportunities we had to reinforce the plan going forward,” Simmons says. “The website is the place to capture all of the efforts that are going on across the district. It’s very deliberate. It’s our way of saying that equity lives here and is going to live here for the very long-term.”

In his blog, Gutekanst acknowledged that “conversations about race can be uncomfortable and unnerving,” but he believes they also present opportunities for learning. In explaining to the parent why he is not color blind, he noted that he does see “the differences in people, including their skin color and race.”

“Being color blind disregards the circumstances of that person and prevents one from being inquisitive about another’s life, culture, and story,” Gutekanst writes. “In short, color blindness whitewashes the world in an attempt to comfort ourselves and make believe that black and brown people, for example, all have the same experiences and opportunities in a predominantly white school and community when, deep down inside, we know that is not their reality.”

For Simmons and other staff, the challenge now is “maintaining momentum and keeping the messaging alive.” That includes Gutekanst’s blog, videos with various experts on equity issues, social media posts, information sent home in school newsletters, and an annual performance report that goes to all households and businesses in Needham.

Opening the door to talk about equity for all has not been easy, Simmons says. Some staff members have been hesitant to discuss race. Graffiti with hate speech has been painted on school walls. But the district is pushing ahead.

“All of the work around equity is hard,” Simmons says. Students now are leading conversations and interventions. A courageous conversations class at the high school is “bringing things to the teacher’s attention that were under the radar before.”

She continues: “Being blind doesn’t help. We really have to see. What we have to do is become clearer in our intentions and actions. It doesn’t mean that it’s ever easy. It just means we keep going forward.”

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