For the most part, students rely on professional educators for their academic foundations — all those science, arts, history, math and language lessons — and not on families or friends or people in the community.
Might the same be said for learning about things like race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty and language barriers and the other things that keep some students from attaining the same success as those in the majority population?
The Lamoille South school district is banking on that, dedicating a significant portion of its policy and curriculum development to the pursuit of equity. The district earlier this summer was awarded a $50,000 grant from the state to help the effort.
“Lamoille South Unified Union is aware that not all of our students feel welcomed, included and safe in our schools and our greater community. Students and families of color do not feel included or represented in our schools,” the grant proposal from the district reads. “The more community members we ask, the more consistent we hear the story: Students of color in Lamoille South schools have been victims of racist acts, experienced discipline practices that are unjust, received labels that are not accurate and are not full members of our community.”
The district aims for four specific goals in its efforts to instill equity: engaging with families and community partners, having the school board revamp district policies, cultivate adult and youth partnerships, and bring more culturally relevant curriculum into the schools.
On the curriculum front, there will be an equity audit process that involves analysis and adaptation of texts and materials anchored in multiple perspectives and equitable representation.
Students will also be given more voice and a literal seat at the table. The current Lamoille South schoolboard has never had a student representative.
“One outcome of the partnership will be student representation on the school board to ensure student voice is present at the policy and district decision-making level,” the proposal notes.
School officials say equity is as important to the community outside the schools as it is within, since youth often learn negative views about prejudice or tolerance from the adults in their homes, or the adults in “third places” such as sports teams, after-school programs or camps.
“Those messages are brought into the school and often play out in racist, prejudice or ignorant actions,” the grant application states.
Politicization of equity
At last week’s Lamoille South schoolboard meeting, Tom McLinden, a Stowe resident and head of the local Republican party, linked the concept of educational equity to critical race theory, a hot topic among political conservatives who say teaching the intersection of historical racism and current-day law erodes nationalistic pride and promotes reverse racism.
Although McLinden said he understood critical race theory isn’t being taught in Lamoille South schools, he said the concept of educational equity is based on two “deeply flawed” concepts.
“The first is that there’s systemic racism in Vermont,” he said. “The second is that Vermont’s education system can and should ensure equal outcomes for all students.”
McLinden said there’s a big difference between equality, which is enshrined in the Constitution, and equity, which “aims for the impossible goal of equal outcomes for all.” He even flipped the concept of equity being sought by the district, saying equity treats people differently based on the color of their skin, which he said runs contrary to the Constitution.
McLinden bristled at the idea that teaching equity in schools is tantamount to blaming affluent white people — of which there is no shortage in Stowe — for any current inequities.
“Equity, according to Merriam Webster, is a final stage of society in Marxist theory, in which the state has withered away, and economic goods are distributed equitably,” McLinden said.
Superintendent Ryan Heraty said the district has worked to come up with specific goals related to equity that are tailored to the Lamoille South communities, specifically the students from those communities. He obliquely acknowledged McLinden’s comments, saying there was “a public comment that defined it very differently than the one we use.”
Heraty said the mere mention of equity has turned into a dog whistle of sorts in some sectors of society, where conversations at the national level have generalized and politicized the far more specific work of what goes on in individual schools and classrooms.
“That’s what I worry about, that people start to have conversations that are so far outside of what happens in our classrooms,” he said. “Let’s set aside our politics for a second.”
According to the district’s equitable systems proposal, anonymous parent comments from a survey issued this spring “overwhelmingly support dedicated focus on cultural awareness and action” in Lamoille South schools.
One respondent wrote, “I believe that we, as a small mostly white community, need to do a lot more in talking and taking action about equality for all. I also know that most of us do not have a clue what it is like to be one of the very few ethnically different humans in our community.”
The district, however, noted there was some feedback calling for a “colorblind” approach — “Stop making race the issue and declare kindness,” read one comment.
Still others expressed outright opposition to equity initiatives.
“There should be no ‘cultural’ taught at school or conversations!” read one comment. “Maybe historical events but I rather my child not be a part of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) nonsense in the world.”
The district proposal said comments like the latter one “highlight components of the school and community context that cause harm and marginalize students and families.”