Teaching the history of inequality and injustice in America and having students “really engage with the lived experience of people who aren’t white, who aren’t male, who aren’t straight” are essential, said Karine Schaeffer, Scarsdale High School’s English department chair, describing the thinking behind the selection of texts and literature being taught by the SHS English department.
Schaeffer was one of several teachers and students who joined Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Edgar McIntosh during the virtual school board meeting Dec. 21 to present details of the district’s ongoing efforts to build a more “culturally responsive” curriculum.
“What we've been finding so far since March or April is that our students genuinely want to talk about issues of race, about issues of police brutality, about issues of social justice,” Schaeffer added. “Where once we might have confronted a certain degree of apathy, now that apathy is gone. Students have questions. Students want to feel that they are talking about these issues, and they need teachers to take them through the complexities of the issues.”
Themes of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) were central among the information collected for the report, which highlighted goals and specific areas in the current education system that are being addressed — both in a purely academic as well as interrelational context — and work that has been recently introduced to pursue new DEI goals, as well as next steps and areas for growth in the district’s DEI efforts.
School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman worked with McIntosh to create the education report and was supposed to co-present, but was not available to attend the school board meeting.
In developing the school district’s goals, McIntosh used a benchmarking tool in the current New York State guidelines for creating what’s known as “culturally responsive-sustaining education” (CR-S).
“It gave us an opportunity to demonstrate places in which these standards are operationalized in Scarsdale, as well as look forward to areas of continued growth,” McIntosh said of his team’s use of the NYS guidelines.
McIntosh defined culturally responsive-sustaining education as education that “is grounded in a cultural view of learning, in which multiple expressions of diversity — such as race, social class, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and ability — are recognized and regarded as assets for teaching and learning.”
“So we begin with an agreement, a shared assumption, with this statement,” McIntosh said. “While this statement supports our view of an ethical learning environment, it does not stop there. We believe that through our diversity we are smarter, stronger and better able to thrive in our diverse and complex world, from classroom to boardroom to statehouse.”
To implement a CR-S education, McIntosh and his team are focusing on four principles: creating a welcoming and affirming environment; inclusive curriculum and assessment; high expectations and rigorous instruction; and ongoing professional learning.
Since 2019 in all levels of the school system — elementary through high school — teachers have been provided with professional development programs that focus on DEI initiatives. There has also been a reevaluation of course content and curriculum. English departments in particular have been critically evaluated, given the role that literature can play in fostering empathy through the opening up of different worlds and multiple perspectives.
“As teachers, we need to help our students identify who they are so that they can identify with characters and stories both similar to themselves and different,” said Liz Rosenfeld, a fifth grade teacher at Greenacres Elementary School. “The more we can use our books as windows and mirrors, the better our society will be ... I think more than anything we have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling. Talking about race, talking about culture, is a really difficult thing, and as educators, it's really difficult not only to address the implicit bias inside of yourself, but to discuss it and open up a forum with students, especially when they're really young. It's a really difficult thing but it's an incredibly important thing that we have to do.”
Schaeffer echoed similar sentiments and identified some ways in which the SHS English program has changed and is changing. “Our mission this year is to pilot,” she said. “We are piloting new novels, new memoirs … and thought-provoking new nonfiction texts that are at the top of the bestseller lists that have to do with social justice.” The department is then coupling these new texts with the medium of video: TED Talks, documentaries and films. “So we might pair ‘Invisible Man,’ for example, with Jordan Peele’s film ‘Get Out.’ Or we might pair the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’ with the documentary ‘13TH,’” Schaeffer explained.
Along with the four principles of CR-S education, McIntosh also identified three broad learning goals for students that the new and revamped curricular offerings are meant to address: students experience academic success; students become socially and politically conscious and culturally responsive; and students develop a critical lens through which they challenge inequitable systems of access, power and privilege.
The hope is to create classrooms that are “safe spaces for all students to be themselves, while striving for protocols in which students are entitled to respectfully express their opinions, while building resilience to be in the same room as those with ideas and opinions which offend them,” McIntosh said.
“Petitions for the removal of people or ideas are antithetical to a critical engagement. We want students to build tenacity to advocate for their position without censorship, or the silencing of others,” he added.
In addition to new course offerings and options, McIntosh also highlighted interactive opportunities to engage more personally with DEI principles. Through the Middle School Social Studies department, in collaboration with the platform Level Up Village, for example, students had the opportunity to engage via video webinars with students in Mexico and Zimbabwe.
Meghan Lahey, a seventh grade social studies teacher at the middle school, gave an example: “Students in Scarsdale and the students from Mexico and Zimbabwe shared their educational experiences and what it's been like to be a kid in this pandemic [as part of the] work that we do in the building on human rights and appreciation for different perspectives.”
McIntosh also discussed a summary of the information collected and work achieved by the Scarsdale High School’s year-old Dignity and Inclusion Committee. Made up of 22 students and 13 professional staff, the committee was formed in response to the discovery of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in a high school bathroom. With the help of consultants Tanya Odom, an inclusion specialist, and Steve Wessler, who works in schools to reduce bias and harassment, the committee gathered data from students related to their experiences of belonging. They administered a survey to all students asking them to reflect to what degree Scarsdale High School has achieved a culture of inclusivity.
Survey results found that some students reported hearing language that was demeaning to other students, and language that was racist, misogynistic, homophobic and/or anti-Semitic. Students reported hearing such comments during the school day, as well as seeing them on social media at night.
In response to the findings, the committee has been working with faculty and administration to encourage each academic department to review its course curriculum and its method of delivery. “At a recent meeting they discussed the need for a short professional teacher training related to difficult conversations around race, identifying bias and discrimination, and working with demographically complex student populations,” McIntosh said, referring to suggestions made by representatives from the committee.
“They talked about the importance of creating welcoming and safe spaces, and the desire for a more diverse faculty that more closely reflects Scarsdale student demographics,” McIntosh continued. “They are currently focusing on administrative procedures and managing incidents of reported bias and discrimination. There’s a sense among some students that the efforts of teachers and administrators to confront and address acts of discrimination have not been as fully effective as they should be. They will be having a conversation about the philosophy behind the sort of justice approaches and working through these complex situations.”
Moving forward, McIntosh expressed his team’s priorities as more training for faculty and better integration of the diverse perspective and experiences of community members into school board meetings and town committees.
In response to a question from school board member Ron Schulhof regarding how the success of DEI goal implementation will be measured, McIntosh explained some of the difficulties his team has experienced regarding overt versus covert racism.
“When we talk about things that are overt, [it’s] easy to measure, like the number of times these kinds of disciplinary actions happen. It’s a little bit more difficult to really put a number on the microaggressions and implicit bias [interactions], except through qualitative data and the feedback that we get from our teachers and administrators about what the culture field feels like,” McIntosh said. He explained that his team is continuously soliciting feedback from students and staff directly in the academic buildings. “There are just gaps that we need to continue to work on,” he concluded.
During public comment, community member Mayra Kirkendall-Rodríguez also expressed concern about the demographics of teachers and administrators in the school system and how that might affect achieving DEI goals.
“It would be really good to hear specifics about what efforts are being made to diversify the administration and teachers,” she said. “I was really impressed to hear what books are being read and what films are being watched at the high school level, but I would appreciate understanding more about what the perspective is, when the classes — those topics — are being overwhelmingly taught by Caucasians.”
Another Scarsdale resident, Rachana Singh, asked about the inclusion of neurodiverse perspectives in the district’s DEI goals.
McIntosh did not directly address Kirkendall-Rodríguez’s question about the diversification of faculty. Instead he highlighted the “dedication and interest” that existing faculty is bringing to furthering DEI initiatives.
In response to Singh’s question, Assistant Superintendent Eric Rauschenbach explained that there already exists a Learning From Our Differences program at the elementary school level that addresses questions of neurodiversity and differently abled students and people, and that the high school has a number of clubs dedicated to the topic.