Schools' diversity council outlines plans to bridge gaps

April Helms
Kent Weeklies
Superintendent Joe Clark spoke to the 50 people who attended a virtual forum on diversity issues on April 28.

NORTHFIELD CENTER -- Encouraging families to embrace unity. Opening up educational opportunities at younger ages. Increasing exposure to authors of color. Providing ongoing staff training in diversity issues.

These were a few of the ideas outlined during a virtual forum April 28,  sponsored by the Nordonia Hills City Schools and the Nordonia Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. The Unity in the School Community forum, conducted over Zoom, had 50 people in attendance. 

Superintendent Joe Clark said the district's work on discrimination and diversity issues started about 15 years before he joined the Nordonia Hills Schools. In 1993, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had "uncovered trouble spots in our district that they said constituted a 'racially hostile environment.'" The parents of a Black student filed a complaint with the OCR, complaining the district was "discriminating against minority students and failing to prevent students from discriminating against others." Examples cited included racial harassment, such as "use of the n-word" and Nazi insignia found on a classroom wall. 

More:Nordonia Superintendent describes district efforts to build 'unity'

Clark said that by the time he joined the district, things had improved, but work still needs to be done. One step was creating the NDEIC, a committee of parents and administrators, which sponsored the district's first Unity Week this past October and helped coordinate events at the schools for Black History Month in February.

Jason Tidmore, the president of NDEIC, said that the district's student population racial makeup is  "similar to our nation's demographics." The percentage of students identifying as white is 86%, Black is 9%, Asian is 3% and mixed race is 2%.

Clark said of the more than 200 staff members at the district, six were Black. "That is not representative."

Dr. Adriennie  Hatten, the chair of the district policies and procedures committee, said one step the district can take was to "explore the idea of immersing literature or culture into the curriculum to help students become more engaged." She said students experiencing and witnessing discrimination were experiencing it more from their peers than from adults, according to a recent survey given to students in fifth through 12th grades; 1,811 students completed that survey. She also encouraged ongoing staff training through the year.

"Students across the district appear to struggle with the idea of self-acceptance," Hatten said. "We want to increase representation of persons of color so all students can have the benefit of being educated in a multi-cultural atmosphere. African American girls appear to have fewer positive relationships with adults at the high school level than their other peers."

More:Nordonia Hills schools recognize Black History Month


More participation in accelerated courses

Another focus for the district is encouraging more students of color to participate in more advanced and AP classes. Casey Wright, the principal at Nordonia High School, said "African American males average one GPA point lower than white females."

"It wasn't that they were getting different grades, it was the courses they chose to take," Wright said.

Clark added that AP classes were weighted, and "that is why there is a difference."

Wright said that the district is looking at ways to increase course selection for eighth and ninth grades, and contacting students of color specifically if they did well on the PSAT.

Shon Smith, the associate principal at Nordonia Middle School, noted "we did some changes in the way we are delivering courses."

"We opened it up so if a seventh grader is capable of taking a higher math, they can do so," Smith said. "We are working to scale this up over the next few years. The goal is to have students engaged in higher level courses."

Clark said the district is working with Summit Education Initiative, which has a goal for all Summit County school districts to have at least 50 percent of their students receiving an algebra credit before they reach high school.

Bryan Seward, the principal at the middle school, said the ability to take Algebra 1 by their eighth grade year "is a big indicator of academic success in their future."

"By the 2022-23 school year, we hope to have 60% to 70% of our students taking Algebra 1 by eighth grade, which will prep them for geometry in high school."

Clark added that he wanted to be sure this 60% to 70% "are including all students."

"If it's most or all white students, we have fallen short," Clark said.

Hatten said that another goal was to encourage students "to advocate for themselves," and encourage critical thinking.

Several parents spoke at an April 21 open forum to bring up concerns about social media use and other issues.

Possible community pushback?

Nate Loman, who teaches U.S. History and Economics at NHS and is president of the Nordonia Hills Educators' Association, said he was worried "there might be a number of parents who might push back against this initiative," and asked the administrators and NCEIC members if they had given any thought "to how to combat that pushback."

"Eight states recently passed legislation to limit the ability for teachers to talk about divisive topics," Loman said. He mentioned a recent forum the district sponsored, where some people who spoke up raised questions about the initiatives. 

Loman said that at the forum, someone brought up concerns about a magazine that some teachers had in their mailboxes.

"They considered that leftist literature, that had no place in our buildings," Loman said. "If you have a group of people who are willing to vilify a magazine teaching tolerance, they may have a hard time getting behind an initiative like this."

One man said he was concerned about the social media posts he had seen from teachers and administrators. 

"I think we recognize that we all have the right to our own opinion," he said, adding that several, he felt, were mixing official school news with their personal information and views. "Our students are seeing this stuff. I've brought up at least a dozen high-ranking staff members, and their posts show who they are endorsing, what their views are. You can tell just by looking at their accounts." 

The man said Clark had once sent a Tweet about how he was promoting the book "White Fragility" and other "liberal-leaning authors." Another author the man said a staff member had promoted was Ibram X. Kendi, author of "Stamped from the Beginning" and other books.

"He's an anti-capitalist activist, and he's said that 'white terror is as American as the Stars and Stripes,'" the man said. "He has a new book out, directed at children, to teach about race." The man added that in November, a librarian with the district had tweeted that "this will be ordered for sure for our students."

"There is nothing on the other side of the political spectrum," the man said. "I found nothing."

The man added he would encourage the school board to have a policy on social media, and clearly define personal and professional accounts.

Cark said that he would reach out to legal council "to see what is appropriate and what is not" in terms of the district's staff posting on social media.

A woman who spoke up at the forum questioned whether the district and community were exacerbating race relations.

"I have lived in Nordonia since I was 4, and I've never seen so many race related problems in our community as I do now," the woman said. "I believe the constant talk about race is constantly dividing us. We need to just treat our kids like kids. I believe our path that started out with good intentions has made things worse."

Another man who spoke up at the meeting agreed there should be a clearly defined line between personal and professional social media accounts.

"When our own children went to Lee Eaton, there was a preference with students to use social media to communicate with other students about homework," he said. "I did not like it." He added that he allowed his children to use social media in this way, "and I regret it." 

"Teachers and staff should have separate and private accounts," he said. "Students can see these personal posts. If we are going to continue using social media, they should have personal and professional, separate accounts."

Steps for change

At the virtual forum on April 28, Tidmore said they have "heard the subtle mutterings, but it's not the time to retreat to the corners." He added greater communication will lead to the community being better informed. 

"This will require some very critical conversations," Tidmore said. "We will need to address historical facts, current facts. There is a wave pushing for diversity in all places. People are very passionate in the positions they stand on. We need to come together to do what is right for the kids and what is right for the community."

Clark said he would encourage people to take the 21-day Equity Challenge sponsored by the YWCA in Cleveland. He said the activities, which are about 10 minutes a day, were eye-opening.

"For me, personally, it was a lot of reading," Clark said. "I'm a 54-year-old man who grew up in white neighborhoods and went to white schools. As a white man, I learned of issues I never thought of. I've grown more in the past year than in the 10 years prior."

Sheryse Henderson, the chair of national events for NDEIC, said that during Unity Week, when families were encouraged to post signs in their yard to support unity, she saw "a few signs." She said she would encourage families to show their commitment to unity, such as participating in activities with people of different backgrounds. 

"If we get others involved, it will help our culture of community, even if there's resistance," Henderson said. "There will be a unified message. We don't ignore our skin colors, we don't ignore our cultures, we celebrate our differences. That's what it means to be a knight in Nordonia at Nordonia."

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com