Letter to the Editor: On Climate and Culture in our School Community

Editor’s note: Donna Smith is running for re-election in the 2017 Board of Education race.

Addressing climate and culture in our school community – and broader community – is something that is a key focus for me for in my campaign.  Students, teachers, and parents have all expressed deep concerns with the climate and culture in our schools. We must work together to establish meaningful dialogue that allows all parties involved to feel trust and build understanding of all points of view. I believe that everyone wants to do what is right, but it involves hard work and open minds.

Racial and anti-Semitic incidents in our schools have shaken this community and caused outrage among students, parents and staff.  Our students often have valuable insight and solutions, but they have had to create their own opportunities to be heard by staff and Board members.  I believe much more proactive action needs to be taken with regard to hearing student voices.  I will advocate for policies and process that promote better student engagement in establishing the vision and mission for our district.

The growing rift between our children and the adults in our community must also be addressed.  The reaction by some staff to a student dance performance that was just trying to make a point is an indication that, for some, we have reached a boiling point of division.  The school board should ensure the district’s policies and actions are helping heal rifts, not furthering them.  The district has been conducting professional development on cultural competency, but I believe that discrete points of action happening in a vacuum will not move us forward. We need to bring staff, students and the BOE together as part of our on-going Strategic Action Planning work to ensure a healthy climate that promotes good teaching and learning is established – and it should be among the top of the priority list.

We also need to engage in this work as a broader community – our schools are just a microcosm of our larger community and solving for our school issues alone is not enough. The July 5th incident in Maplewood reminds us that the school’s issues are a part of community wide issues. Partnership between the school board and the Townships is critical.  I will work to strengthen these partnerships and promote more co-sponsored community wide events where we can work through solutions as a broader community.

If we are brave enough to undertake this work with a spirit of partnership, this means that everyone should feel free to express their thoughts and feelings, and all must listen to all points of view with open hearts and heads. Agitation and attacks are not the means by which we will get to better climate and a culture of tolerance and respect for all.  In Courageous Conversations About Race, Glenn E. Singleton talks about the “Courageous Conversation Compass:”

Democratic discourse means providing time and space in the Courageous Conversation for every educator’s perspective and experience to be listened to and affirmed. When this occurs, everyone at the table feels validated and respected. With personal validation comes a greater willingness to honor the opinions and views of others, no matter how different they may be. Affirmation also enables us to enter into conversation less rigid and more willing to challenge a tightly held personal belief, entertain a different perspective, and transform an unproductive behavior.

Understanding that it is very difficult, we must work on our own courageous conversations about race and culture in the schools and I hope to promote such conversations and partnership in the coming years.

Donna Smith
Member, South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education

The views expressed are my own and do not represent the position of the Board.

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