OPINION

Superintendent's Corner: Nordonia Schools chief highlights awards, efforts toward diversity as year draws to end

Dr. Joe Clark
Nordonia Hills City Schools

I can't believe another school year is coming to a close. Honestly, it has been a year like none other, and one I hope never to repeat. As we wind down another year, I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to serve in the best school district in Ohio!

Free Breakfast and Lunch: We recently received word that all students will be eligible for free breakfast and lunch for the entire 2021-22 school year. These costs will be covered by the federal government, and we are happy to be able to serve all of our kids next year.

Senior Awards: On May 6, students in the Nordonia High School Class of 2021 were honored at the annual awards assembly. As of today, NHS seniors have won more than $7.5 million in scholarships, including more than $70,000 in local scholarships. Thanks to the generous employees of the Nordonia Schools, students were awarded scholarships from the Nordonia Hills Educators Association, OAPSE Local #246, the district secretarial staff, and the central office staff. 

A variety of local organizations also awarded many scholarships. We have so many generous donors, I risk leaving someone off of this extensive list.

However, thanks to Friends of the Nordonia Hills Library; Nordonia Athletic Boosters; the Nordonia Club; the Nordonia Hills Chamber of Commerce; Rotary Club of Nordonia Hills; the Nordonia Hills Garden Club; Nordonia Hills Lion’s Club; the Nordonia Alumni Association; the Nordonia Hills Council of PTAs; the Olde Northfield Historic Preservation Association; Brandywine Players; Camp Huddle; Macedonia Firefighters Association; OAPSE Local 246; and the PTAs of Ledgeview Elementary, Lee Eaton, Nordonia High School, Nordonia Middle School, Northfield Elementary and Rushwood Elementary for providing support to our graduates as they head off to college.

Many scholarships were also granted by individuals, or in memoriam of individuals. Again, the list is so long I risk forgetting someone, but thanks to these individuals or their families for their generosity: Ray Kujawinski, Nancy Fike, Chuck Sterling, Bob Fitzgerald, Robert Hoeffler, Thomas & Debra Dirmyer, William Boliantz, the Gardiner family, Jeanne and Emery Muncie, , the Mackerty family, the Martin family, the Pendleton family, the Mather Family, Christine & Guido DiGeronimo, Oliver Ocasek, Robert & Janet McMinn, and Roger A. Forman. The generosity of our community never ceases to amaze me.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Work: In 1993, 15 years before I was hired into Nordonia, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights 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 office 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 a racial slur. 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. 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. 

This took another step forward in 2019 when we held a community meeting called “Beyond Color Blind.” At the meeting, we shared with attendees what the district had been doing in terms of diversity work, and asked what things we were missing. The feedback given said that not all students were given equal opportunities, that there may be some discrepancy in how we discipline students of color, and what educational opportunities exist for our students of color.

That meeting caused me to contact the Summit Education Initiative, which did an equity audit. The findings revealed some good and some bad. While students of color were not suspended out of school more than their white counterparts, they were assigned to in-school suspension at a rate twice as high. Also, white students were found to be 20% more likely than students of color to take advanced courses, and they take twice as many advanced courses as students of color.

This data was shared at “Beyond Color Blind II” in February of 2020. Again we asked for feedback about what we might do better. From that came the brainstorm to develop a council of parents to help advise me and my team on issues of diversity. The group developed a leadership framework and several committees, and began working. Soon the group rebranded itself the Nordonia Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council (NDEIC). 

The NDEIC is a committee of parents, teachers and administrators whose mission 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 now been meeting for about 10 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.

The NDEIC sponsored Nordonia’s first Unity Week Oct. 26-30. The dates were 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 NDEIC also prepared a unified guide for Black History Month. Behind the scenes, the NDEIC has been looking at district policies and procedures to determine where we may be inadvertently creating barriers for students of color, and they have been instrumental in recruiting teachers of color to apply for jobs in our district. We currently have six Black professional staff members out of 250, which is not representative of our student population. 

Most recently we were awarded a grant from the Ohio Department of Education in the amount of $70,000. This grant is to help diversify the education profession, and it will include components to provide professional development for staff; create an elective African-American history and culture class at NHS, and create a “grow your own” program whereby we will seek to encourage students of color to consider the field of education, and provide them with supports along the way. 

You may have seen some national news reports allege that public schools are teaching kids to hate America by teaching them that our nation is inherently bad. I have seen those stories, and I can tell you that is not what I am seeing in my experience interacting with superintendents around the state. For example, at Nordonia, we continue to say the Pledge of Allegiance in every building every day, celebrate our veterans every November, and honor our students who enroll in the military. We have outstanding relationships with our local police and are grateful for their presence in our schools. 

While we work hard to be inclusive of traditionally underrepresented populations, Nordonia Schools does not currently teach or plan to incorporate Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project into our curriculum. We follow the Ohio state standards to formulate our curriculum and will continue to do so. 

Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives are components of our efforts to help create inclusive and safe learning environments for all students. DEI at Nordonia Schools is not about placing guilt, shame, or blame on any staff, student, parent, or community member. 

As always, thanks for supporting the Nordonia Schools, have a great month and remember to follow me on Twitter @JoeSuperintend1.