Guilderland district turns focus on inclusion, diversity, equity 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

At the Guilderland Library, Michelle Charles looks down at her middle child, Jackson, as her oldest child, Christie, plays with baby Nigel. Charles has urged the school board to “make a paradigm shift" in its approach to diversity. 

GUILDERLAND — Children need to learn more than they do now about slavery, Michelle Charles believes, but they also need to hear about the richness of African culture and the continent’s resources before slave traders came in and robbed it. 

“We were kings and queens before we came here. We came from a land of resources … Black children are losing sight of who they are,” Charles told The Enterprise this week.

Throughout the past school year, Charles, an African American who has two children who are students at Lynnwood Elementary School, spoke to the Guilderland School Board about her concerns. She is a homemaker, and her husband is an engineer.

Charles hopes the district will find a way to hire more diverse teachers and also administrators — perhaps an assistant for Demian Singleton, the assistant superintendent for instruction, she said. “All of these people could be woven in. They could be role models walking around for kids, and they could also ensure you’re not teaching a lesson that would exclude some people, but include everyone.” 

Asked about this, Singleton wrote in an email to The Enterprise, “I am all for creating a position in our district to focus on Equity-Diversity-Inclusion. In fact, I have been discussing this with Dr. Wiles for several months.

“I see this as a critical step for the district. I would not suggest, however, that it be focused on the needs of one race, ethnicity, or group. Our demographics are becoming more and more diverse. We need to be responsive to the needs of all groups.” 

The district has started working with an expert to increase its diversity and inclusion, according to Superintendent Marie Wiles. “We put our toe in the water last week,” Wiles said. “It’s the start of a conversation for us. We’re committed to continuing to build awareness of this topic across our school community.”  

Dr. Stacy Williams of Marist College worked for a day with the Farnsworth Middle School faculty and staff in March and for a day-and-a-half with district administrators at a leadership retreat last week. 

Minorities make up more than a fifth of Guilderland’s student body, but the percentage of faculty and staff members of color falls far behind that figure, with some of the district’s seven schools having no black or Hispanic teachers, and with only a scattering of teachers or staff of color in place throughout the entire district.

Wiles said this week, when asked if the consultant was hired as a result of Charles’s comments, “I think the pieces fell into place.” The district had been talking for months about hiring an expert consultant, and Charles’s comments underscored the need, she said. 

Charles told the board in October 2018 that she believes the district needs to hire more faculty and staff of color. She said that her children have sometimes been bullied about their hair or skin color on their school bus or at school and treated unfairly by especially substitute teachers.

Since Lynnwood currently has no black faculty, Charles told the board, the only person that her daughter feels would understand her is a secretary in the main office, who is also an African American. 

Charles told the board on May 7 of this year that the tradition at Lynnwood of “Colonial Day” — when fourth-grade students, like her daughter, Christie, are expected to dress up as Colonial boys or girls to learn what a day in a Colonial schoolroom was like for young people more than two centuries ago — is behind the times and does not take the experiences of all students into account. 

“In the 1700s, African Americans were not allowed to go to school,” she told the board pointedly. 

Christie’s teacher agreed to allow Christie to dress as an African princess for Colonial Day, Charles said. But she views the tradition of Colonial Day as one more element, she said, in a curriculum that overlooks the experience of some students. 

Charles would like to see the curriculum include more about black history in the United States including slavery but also including the many accomplishments of African Americans beyond just the most famous, like Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

Charles would like elementary-school students learn about Phyllis Wheatley, the 18th-Century slave who became a world-renowned poet, or Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become an influential social reformer, orator, abolitionist, writer, and statesman. 

Another Guilderland mother echoes the points Charles makes. 

Shateka Harrison-Cooper, who has three young boys, ages 11, 9, and 4, works as an investigatory for Albany County’s Child Protective Services.

“I’m the one knocking on doors,” she said.

She plans to tell her sons when they are older that they must attend a historically black college because there, she said, pride in the accomplishments of black people who have come before is built into the curriculum. In biology class at those colleges, she said, students hear about the accomplishments of African-American scientists. 

Beginning in elementary school, students should be learning about many more black Americans than they currently are, said Harrison-Cooper, whose oldest son is going into sixth grade at Farnsworth Middle School, and whose second son attends Lynnwood.

“This helps black students cultivate love for themselves from an early age,” she said, adding that it’s good for every race. “Why can’t they just know more about our race? We all need to be familiarized with each other’s cultures, so we can appreciate it.” 

 

Specialist 

Stacy Williams, an assistant professor at Marist College, is also a school psychologist who trains other aspiring school psychologists. She is also, Wiles explained, a “well-regarded researcher and speaker on inclusivity and social justice.” 

Williams did not respond to Enterprise requests for an interview.

Williams is an immigrant from Jamaica, “who is proud of her birth land’s accomplishments on the world stage,” according to her website. She is also a photographer

Williams was recommended to the district by Amanda Nickerson, a University at Albany professor who had helped Guilderland in years’ past on efforts to create an environment of safety, respect, and appreciation of diversity across the district. 

Superintendent Wiles recalled that when the district approached Williams about consulting, she responded, “If you want me to come once, I will politely decline the opportunity. I only want to work with school districts that are willing to work on this over the long haul.” 

At Superintendent’s Day in March, Williams spent half a day making a presentation to the assembled middle-school staff and faculty, and the other half of the day working with small groups of teachers on classroom-based practices; she then worked with the district’s leadership team for a day-and-a-half last week during a retreat. The leadership team, Wiles said, includes all of the district’s administrators, principals, assistant principals, and instructional administrators. 

During the leadership retreat, Wiles said, Williams had outlined the “why” of why it’s important to have a culturally inclusive school and practices, setting the context, sharing research and her own observations. In the afternoon session, she had organized content around key vocabulary, the superintendent said. 

One element from the afternoon session that stood out in Wiles’s mind, she said, was the word “micro-aggression.” This refers, Wiles said, to “comments or questions that on the surface don’t seem to be racist or aggressive, but come across that way.” 

Wiles cited the example of someone saying to Williams, “Oh, you’re so well-spoken!” 

It’s insulting to her, Wiles said, “because it’s like they’re surprised.” She added, “Of course she’s well-spoken. She’s published; she’s a professor.” 

During Williams’s visit, said Farnsworth Middle School Principal Michael Laster, Williams was asked if there were any books in particular that she recommended that the Farnsworth Middle School community could read. She recommended a book called “Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race” by Debby Irving. 

Laster described it as “a white woman’s journey to her ‘a-ha!’ moment where she realized she wanted to be involved in social inclusion and diversity.” 

Laster bought 40 copies of the book, he told The Enterprise, and made reading it optional, asking teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators if they would like to read the book and meet each Friday morning to discuss it. 

“Right away, I had 40 people sign the books out,” Laster said. The group met to discuss the book, and its implications for the school, through late April, May, and June, he said. 

 

Curriculum 

The social-studies curriculum is guided by the New York State Frameworks for Social Studies, said Singleton. 

 In third grade, he said, the concepts of universal human rights, prejudice, discrimination, social action, and social change are introduced. 

Fourth grade, he said, includes a “significant focus” on Native American groups and their experiences in New York State, as well as a strong focus on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods in the state. Students learn that there were slaves in New York, learn about the life of a slave, and hear that slavery was at the heart of the Civil War. They learn about abolitionism and the fight for female suffrage.  

In fifth grade, Singleton said, students learn about the slave trade, the transport of slaves across the Atlantic, and the role of sugar in the slave trade. 

In seventh grade, he said, slavery again becomes a focus, as does the Native American experience, including removal to reservations. 

Singleton said it is possible that some teachers may place greater emphasis on certain topics than others do. He wrote in an email to The Enterprise, “Ideally, these decisions are discussed and made collaboratively during grade level and/or curriculum meetings.” 

Asked about whether the district teaches about African-American accomplishments, Singleton said, “We certainly strive to include successes where possible and aligned with grade level and subject standards. We can always do more, however.” 

Colonial Day 

After hearing concerns from parents including Charles, Lynnwood’s acting principal, Barbara Goldstein, wrote in an email to The Enterprise, a decision was made to alter the format for Colonial Day. The decision, by Goldstein and the fourth-grade teachers, was made because of parental concerns that “many of our own Lynnwood students would not have been in school and able to participate in the activities done during Colonial Day as a result of their race or ethnicity,” Goldstein wrote. 

The costume was made optional, and a time was set aside for students who had brought one in to wear it. Students were also told about populations that could and could not be part of a Colonial celebration at that period of time, she wrote. 

No decisions have yet been made about whether Colonial Day will be held next year, Goldstein wrote, adding, “I was extremely impressed with the professionalism shown by the staff and their willingness to look at the purpose of the activity and make adjustments as needed.” 

 

Looking forward 

“This is going to be an ongoing priority for us on lots and lots of levels,” Wiles told The Enterprise. 

Williams “laid a foundation,” Wiles said, by sharing a wealth of resources such as books and websites that outline classroom practices that the district can consider in the light of inclusion. 

The leadership team will continue to talk, over the summer, Wiles said, about “how this plays out for us.” Several internal meetings are planned, she said, to flesh out what this topic looks like and how the district can flesh out greater inclusion across the district. 

The team will also talk about the best way to bring in diverse stakeholders, to help in the process, Wiles said. 

Wiles has begun working, she said, with Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, to think about Guilderland’s recruitment practices next year and how they can find faculty and staff members from more diverse backgrounds, she said; they are considering changes including how they recruit and where they recruit. 

Perhaps they need to expand into new geographic areas, she said. “Do we need to go out to other parts of the state, where there are more diverse populations?” she asked rhetorically. 

Wiles reflected, “Some of our neighboring schools are actually hiring diversity coordinators. I don’t know if that would be something we would do. We’re not there yet.” 

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