District aims to promote more diversity discussions in the classroom

photo by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Abby/" title="View all of this person's work">"Abby</a></span>

photo by Abby Attias PPS administrators were among staff and administration from various districts conversing about addressing a diverse student body.

On January 30, five members of the PPS staff and administration attended a workshop entitled “Diversity in Schools: What It Means to Change the Conversation” at Mercer County Community College as part of a district initiative to promote discussion of diversity and cultural responsiveness in the PPS community. The workshop is part of a consortium known as the “New Jersey Network to Close the Achievement Gap.” Dr. Abby Attias, Vice President of the Center for Supportive Schools, taught the workshop.

The event was the latest in a series of workshops relating to diversity in public schools, including a Day of Dialogue workshop that various PHS students attended, held on December 13 and February 15, as well as a Diverse Learners and Issues of Equity workshop on January 11.

At the day of dialogue workshops, PHS students were able to discuss with other students from the state about various issues relating to the rights and expressions of students.

“[PHS students] talked about what [PHS] should change about freedom of speech within the school and related that to all the other schools in the convention,” said Luis Estrada ’17.

Some students agreed that the workshop allowed them to examine topics related to diversity.

“We talked about how people could sometimes discriminate without even knowing… we shared our opinion on different things like stereotypes and things that are different about our cultures,” said Isai Onofre ’20.  

The consortium emphasized various factors that come into play when trying to address the achievement gap within a diverse student body.

“This consortium of schools has tried to focus on issues related to the achievement gap, addressing both explicit and implicit biases, and promoting a broader sense of equity in our school systems,” wrote PHS Humanities Supervisor Mark Shelley, who attended the workshop, in an email.

Closing the achievement gap is one of the five main goals of the PPS Strategic Plan. The initiative allows the goal to be met through developing informed conversation between staff and students.

“If equity for all students is the goal, then schools need to be able to talk about inequities…[that] reside in a variety of diversities that are often not talked about…and connected to action,” Attias wrote in an email. “The presentation centered around five key points for maintaining effective conversations about diversity: relationships, [facilitating] new stories, data, process and progress, and [seeking] change.”

At the workshop, there were group discussions and reflection exercises designed to model those to be held in classrooms. One activity called “compass points” consisted of educators splitting into four groups based on different roles they take on in collaborative work. They evaluated the importance of the various teamwork roles. Another activity focused on listening skills. Participants answered the question, “What is one moment in your life when you felt different from others around you?” and reflected on the differences among their experiences.

I felt good that participants experienced some of the power that diversity conversations can bring while also exploring how complex the diversity terrain really is,” Attias wrote.

Students who participated in the activities agreed that the exercises made them feel more powerful.

“I learned that it is really important to have a voice and to be really active about it … I think that it is very important [for PHS to] approach other students to really bring out the student body’s voice,” said Brianna Silva ’18.

As a result of the workshop, staff members gained insight into the subject of diversity.

“[The workshop] deepened my understanding of issues related to race, gender, bias, and equity—helping me to be more proactively empathetic in working with individuals… from all backgrounds,” Shelley wrote.

Shelley believes the workshops will help him foster meaningful conversations with teachers about teaching diversity, advocating effectively for equity, and continuing to seek ways to reform the curriculum to meet the needs of more students.

Other initiatives are being put in place to facilitate conversations on race. Teachers are learning about ways to increase their cultural responsiveness through professional development trainings. This year, a new JWMS elective course and a new unit in Peer Group were created to emphasize issues of race and culture.

“We have to have the courage to look honestly at problems and then take the actions to address them,” wrote Superintendent Steven Cochrane in an email. “This year we established a Diversity Council that brings together representatives from each school as well as the community to talk honestly about the issues we are facing and how to respond.”

Cochrane maintains that the initiative is a crucial component of education.

“There is no more important work we can do—no more important lessons we can teach than empathy for others and respect for our world’s diversity of races, religions, and cultures,” Cochrane wrote in an email.

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