Nordonia Superintendent describes district efforts to build 'unity'

Dr. Joe Clark
Superintendent of Schools
Dr. Joe Clark

October is my favorite month. The weather is beautiful, and the Browns are still in contention for a playoff spot. This month I want to share with you the work we are doing in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Please allow me to share some Nordonia history with you.

In 1993, 15 years before I was hired into Nordonia, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) uncovered trouble spots in our district that they said constituted a “racially hostile environment.”

The parents of an African American student had filed a complaint with the OCR after their son was involved in a fight with a white student. The complaint accused the district of discriminating against minority students and failing to prevent students from discriminating against others. Chiefly, there were incidents of racial harassment, such as use of the n-word. Some white students bore Ku Klux Klan tattoos. A Nazi insignia was discovered on a classroom wall. Most worrisome to the civil rights investigators was the district’s inconsistent policy for dealing with racial harassment.

While investigators found no evidence of civil rights violations, the schools reached an agreement with the Department of Education to correct those problems with the formation of a human rights committee. It also called for a part-time Title VI coordinator to be hired by the district to be an advocate for minority students, work as a school liaison with black parents when conflicts arose, develop in-service programs for teachers, and set up goals for the program itself. 

Michael Douglas, a district teacher and one of two black teachers on a high school faculty of 64, was tapped for the position. At the time of his appointment, there was enormous tension throughout the community, he said. But instead of denying that problems existed, school officials worked with the community to deal with them head on. 

When I came to the district in 2008, tensions had reduced dramatically. This change was due to 15 years of heavy lifting by the staff, students, and community to work through issues and provide more opportunities for minority students. The district trained its staff to better deal with racial harassment and worked with students to help them understand unconscious bias.

Today, nearly 30 years removed from the complaint, our district still spends ample time and resources on promoting inclusion and equality. While the person holding the role of our diversity consultant has changed over the years, we still focus on professional development for staff, learning opportunities for students, and feedback opportunities for the community.

For example, for the 2019–20 school year, we are providing varied programming. Every student in grades three, five, seven, and nine will participate in four 1-hour lessons in “Respecting Our Differences.” 

Teaching staff will participate in a professional development series called “How Does Diversity Affect the Classroom?” Classified staff members will receive professional development as well through a program called “Reaching and Teaching All Students,” while the administrative team will participate in a four-part series entitled “A Necessary Conversation.”

Recently, we have taken another step forward with the creation of the Nordonia Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council (NDEIC). The NDEIC is a committee of parents and administrators whose mission is is to ensure that students of color are able to thrive academically and socially without barriers presented by prejudice and racial discrimination.

The group has been meeting for about four months and is led by president Jason Tidmore, vice president Jeane’ Holley and secretary Dameka Baynes. Committees focusing on policies and procedures, school culture, hiring practices, professional development, curriculum, national events, and community outreach are researching and advising the district in their respective areas.

Despite the decades of work the Nordonia Hills City School District has spent training staff and students in areas of diversity, it is clear that we need to do a better job putting our training into action. Gaps still exist, and that is not acceptable.

For example, our students of color are twice as likely to be suspended at least once in a year as compared to their white peers. White students are 20% more likely to take honors or AP courses, and they take twice as many honors classes compared to students of color. So while we have been spending a lot of time in diversity training, we still have work to do to ensure that equity exists for all students.    

To that end, I intend to be more assertive in making decisions that will be more representative of our minority students. For example, I have set an expectation that 20% of literature we use in our English-Language Arts classes K-12 comes from authors of color.

I expect these additional materials to be in place by the start of the second grading period. This is not a curriculum change; it is an expansion of the resources we use in the courses. It is good for all students to see people from diverse backgrounds represented in the materials we use in our classes. 

In the longer term, we will spend the year looking to enhance our social studies curriculum, through our curriculum council, to be more inclusive of the history of minority groups. This will likely involve the creation of some electives at the high school and additional materials in other buildings. In addition, plans are in the works for creating a survey for all parents and all students in grades 5-12 to give their feedback on areas related to race and our schools.

We still have work to do, and I do not see our work ever ending. As long as people interact with each other there will be conflict, so our district will continue providing learning opportunities for all to keep moving toward a discrimination-free environment. The NDEIC will be a helpful component in seeing we keep these issues on the front burner.

Unity Week: The NDEIC is sponsoring Nordonia’s first Unity Week Oct. 26-30. The dates are set purposefully before Election Day to remind the community that regardless of the outcome of the election, we should always treat each other with dignity and respect.

The week will include the following:

Monday: A community-wide book read of We're Different, We're the Same.

Tuesday: A Unity Pledge, where students who take the pledge at home after discussion with their families are given a sticker, much like an "I Voted Today" sticker.

Wednesday: Paper unity chains will be created and hung in each building, with each student writing on their link what unity means to them.

Thursday: My Good Knight Nordonia will feature the book I'm Like You, You're Like Me.

Friday: We will announce the winners of the Unity in Creativity contest.

Board Open Forum: The Nordonia Hills City Schools Board of Education will host a Special Meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 21 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Northfield gym. And will be broadcast via Zoom. Sign-in information will be available on the district website. The evening will feature State of the Schools presentations by me and the building principals, with time allotted for the public to ask questions and give ideas to the board and administration. We hope to see you there or online, as the circumstances warrant.

As always, thanks for supporting the Nordonia Schools, have a great month, and remember to follow me on Twitter @DrJoeClark.