How equitable are South Burlington School District’s policies? An audit of procedures is one of many new requirements in the district’s newly approved equity policy.
The policy, adopted unanimously at a school board meeting Jan. 5, is 11 drafts in the making, after members Brian Minier and Travia Childs started chipping away late last spring.
Meant to create an equity lens for various branches of the school district, board members centered data collection and reporting on issues of discrimination as one of the top priorities of the executive limitations policy. It is also meant to monitor the superintendent’s performance and policies across all schools, employ restorative practices and recruit and retain more faculty of color, among other things.
In addition to drafting by Minier and Childs, a subcommittee of volunteers reviewed the policy this winter, adding an introduction that defines equity — one of the policy’s critical organs but something not everyone agrees on.
The district defines equity, based on the Vermont School Board Association’s definition, as each student receiving the resources and opportunities they need to thrive, with student success independent of personal characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation or gender.
“Equity goes beyond formal equality where all students are treated the same. Achieving equity may require an unequal distribution of resources and services,” the policy reads, adding that practicing equity means acknowledging biases and creating a “culturally responsive curriculum.”
For Gerry Silverstein of South Burlington, an educator at the University of Vermont who tuned in remotely to the meeting discussion, the phrase “culturally responsive” could become a slippery slope.
“I’m a little bit nervous about that for the simple reason that some cultures have beliefs and activities, which, quite honestly, are illegal in this country and offensive,” Silverstein said. “Are you responsive to everybody’s cultural beliefs, even if they conflict with what are considered to be humane and respectful beliefs in this country?”
One of the subcommittee members, Nancy Hellen of South Burlington, argued that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about endorsing every belief or practice in other cultures, but is about drawing on student knowledge to create a deep curriculum that resonates with all students in the classroom.
“It’s about how you try to close the gap around different cultures,” she said. “I feel like it’s an important aspect of closing the achievement gap, thinking about equity and especially around anti-racism.”
Chair Bridget Burkhardt added that the teaching practice is about respecting where students come from.
“I do also think you can celebrate a place or a culture without celebrating every last little thing about it,” she said.
The policy in some ways leans on the district’s efforts to hire an executive director of equity, a process that has been discussed for over a year but still hasn’t surfaced a hire. The slow pace is purposeful to ensure the district is ready when it finds the right person, officials have maintained throughout the process.
They hope to fill the position by April, although a new director might not come on board until the summer, according to executive director of learning Violet Nichols. When they do finally join the district, the director will be required per the policy to develop a plan with Nichols to address significant shortfalls in student outcomes.