Stow-Munroe Falls making strides toward diversity, equity, inclusion
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests around the country, more than 40 Stow-Munroe Falls alumni and residents wrote to the Board of Education.
They shared stories of discrimination within the schools and the lasting pain that came from it. They demanded a statement affirming that Black lives matter, and they challenged the district to back up those words with meaningful actions.
"We had a lot of work to do," Superintendent Tom Bratten said. "We knew we needed to get better and be more proactive in the district in terms of helping to build relationships and having more meaningful conversations to really effect change instead of just talking about it. The first goal was to have honest conversations."
In the past eight months and in the midst of a global pandemic, the district has taken a number of steps to make it a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place, but district leaders say there is still much work to be done.
One of the first actions was the creation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, led by the district's only Black administrator, K-6 Curriculum Director Iisha Collier.
"It's important we celebrate differences and having conversations about differences because when you look at Stow, white is the norm. It's important that we empower people of color, people who are trans, or differently abled, to speak up and speak out and stand up for themselves and that they feel important and respected. We want them to feel accepted — it's just that simple."
The 13-member executive board — including co-chairs Traci Kosmach, Riverview Elementary principal, and Cyle Feldman, the athletic director — and the 68-member general assembly have guided the district's progress.
"We also have the Stow mayor, police, clergy and members of City Council because when we plan events or do things, we want to make sure we have allies across the city that are going to help us and support us," Collier said. "Stow is predominantly white, and it's important we're getting as much buy-in as possible to move the work forward."
Subcommittees form plans
The group includes five subcommittees — Curriculum & Instruction; Student Experience & Climate/Culture; Professional Development; Policy/Hiring; and Community — each of which has its own three-year plan, allowing them to continuously evolve their actions and objectives based on measurable data.
Among several actions, those subcommittees have:
- implemented multiple professional developments focused on diversity, equity and inclusion
- started a staff book club on "Courageous Conversations about Race" by Glenn E. Singleton
- created a plan to replace library books that reflect implicit bias
- added links on the district website to report DEI concerns
- created an exit survey to allow students leaving the district to report issues
- formed a plan to hire more people of color by creating partnerships with area colleges and historically Black colleges and universities
- reviewed the curriculum to identify required reading that includes implicit bias
- adopted a new K-4 and 5-6 curriculum that includes diverse representation, while remaining aligned with state standards
Some of these items are ongoing, and the DEI Committee will review and reflect on each of the subcommittees' progress at the end of each year, they said.
"Because we have the five subcommittees, we're much further along than I anticipated, especially while dealing with the issues of COVID, which tends to slow down everything," Bratten said. "The amount of work has been tremendous. The nice thing is that if the subcommittees find something that can be done immediately, we're not waiting, we're acting."
Individual buildings have also taken steps to change the culture in their own hallways.
At the high school, a student-led Black History Committee re-formed and expanded to become Bulldogs Taking Action, a group of 21 staff members and 17 students that celebrates diversity.
"The summer events kicked us into gear to create this, and that's what got a lot more students and staff involved," said DEI board member and high school coach Curtis Black. "As unfortunate as those events were, I think something good is coming out of it."
Student members Rosa Tate, who also serves as the student representative on the districtwide DEI Committee, Christiana Copeland and Patricia Woolfolk all joined the initial committee and have continued with Bulldogs Taking Action.
"I'm a Black girl in a predominantly white school, and sometimes it feels like you have to reform yourself to be like the people around you instead of really being yourself. It can mess with you, so I felt like it was really important for us to do this," Copeland, 16, said. "I felt like I could have a voice."
"I wanted to join because I saw there was an issue of diversity in our school, and I wanted to be part of something bigger to improve that," Woolfolk, 17, said. "I've also experienced feeling uncomfortable, so I feel it's important to show people that you're important and we see you."
The group has encouraged the celebration of Black leaders through door decorating contests, announcements during basketball games and a timeline poster to acknowledge Black historical figures whose contributions have been coopted or ignored. They've also given Black students and community members a platform to share their personal experiences through the #HumansofSMF Facebook posts.
High school junior Ronika Esmaeilimarandi, 17, who suggested the #HumansofSMF initiative, was inspired by the popular Humans of New York Instagram.
"I think Black Lives Matter this summer helped a lot of students realize there is a problem and it can affect the lives of students in this school," Copeland said. "It's important we show them we care and that you have a home and a safe space here. For me, I think the biggest thing I want to accomplish is making kids feel comfortable here."
Black said the Bulldogs Taking Action Group received a lot of positive feedback after a presentation on their work during a professional development time.
"People are taking responsibility to inform themselves and educate themselves more deeply than before, and they want to be involved," he said. "We're not experts, we don't know it all, and it's OK to not be correct and not know the right thing to say. But it's important to speak up and make clear what you care about."
Extended to Kimpton Middle School
Bulldogs Taking Action has also been extended to Kimpton Middle School, after Principal Michael Love invited parents to his home for an outdoor conversation this summer about how to move the school forward.
For the past three months, the 20 students initially selected to join have been driving the direction of the group, Kimpton counselor and DEI Committee member Christian Griffin said. Like the high school group, Kimpton's iteration has celebrated Black trailblazers through posters and morning announcements.
"We're trying to be intentional about creating a new culture in general, instead of just having one month dedicated to Black history," Griffin said.
Assistant Principal and DEI committee member Steve Deitrick added that he sees the group continuing and evolving.
"We have a lot of great ideas that we can't put into action yet, so we're trying to figure out what we can do right now and what we can do as we move into next year," he said.
Throughout the district, Collier said she has seen a change in the adults because of all DEI work, and that change became most apparent the day after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
"There's been a change in the discussions that I have with teachers," she said. "I see teachers more cognizant of what's happening in the world, and asking questions about it. When the Capitol was breached, I sent out resources in case they needed to have conversations. A lot of them reached back to me and said, 'I didn't know how to do this. Thank you for being able to be open about these conversations.'"
Collier said she is aware that not all parents agree with having those conversations in the classroom, but "education and morals go together. You can't avoid that."
"If you get caught smoking in a bathroom or got into a fist fight, it's a moral conversation that we're going to have. So why are we waiting to be reactive instead of proactive?"
Committee members are also hoping to present at a Stow City Council meeting to further explain what they are working toward, and will continue to work through their action plans. Bratten said they are also working to improve the DEI website to offer updated information about their progress.
"I'm really proud of the executive committee and the general assembly," Bratten said. "They've put their nose down, and they're going after it. They have great momentum and conviction to make this a real change."
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.