Forum Q&A sets a path to addressing racial inequities

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On hand for the equity event were, from left, Michelle Fahy and Margaret Pratt of the Kyrene Governing Board; Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely; and three of the presenters: Dr. Raquel Salas, Craig Peck and Latrisha Centers. — Photo courtesy Kyrene School District

By Diana Nelson

Connecting constituencies, solving problems and reaching maximum potential: It’s the trademark attribute of a consulting firm that has launched the first stage of its efforts to help the Kyrene School District address racial equity in the classroom.

A forum, hosted by members of the Kyrene superintendent’s Community Council, was designed to provide the 75 or so attendees with a chance to better understand what’s involved in addressing issues of cultural identity and developing methods to increase sensitivity to bias.

The issues have been a hot button of controversy in recent months, resulting in the recent hiring of Corwin Consulting, the firm chosen to implement training throughout the district.

Teachers, principals, administrators and parents attending the informational session were able to ask questions and offer their own perspectives.

Wade Antonio Colwell, who represented Corwin Consulting, said the firm plans to develop
a program over the next year focused on diversity and equity. Colwell, co-founder of Youth Equity Stewardship, whose work aims to creatively engage all generations to transform the traditional educational environment, will serve as a key liaison to work with the Kyrene district.

Growing up in south Phoenix and working previously in the Tucson School District, Colwell said he hoped to give the audience insight into the so-called “deep equity” framework designed to help school leadership establish the climate, protocols, language and common goals of implementing culturally responsive teaching practices.

According to the Corwin website, the deep equity approach is based on the belief that inequities are symptomatic of institutional biases and norms, which must be directly challenged through what Corwin lists as systemic, ongoing and authentic work.

Another panelist, ASU’s Dr. Stephanie Lechuga-Pena, challenged audience members to consider their own identity, ethnicity, race and religion, and then determine how those factors impact their behavior and attitudes toward others.

Easier said than done, perhaps.

Pena, who is Hispanic, said, “There is no real agreement on the definition of cultural diversity or equality. Rather,” she said, “it takes an exploration to consider who is most oppressed and who is the most privileged to reach an understanding.”

Two other presenters, Dr. Carla Mahnke and Yasmine Andrawis, who serve in the ASU Office of Equity and Inclusion, spoke about bias issues that can detract from equal opportunity in any organization.

“Making split-second decisions about people based on previous experiences with a similar race, religion or ethnicity can lead to making the wrong conclusion about someone,” said Mahnke.

An overall view of the session came from Nicole Mendoza, a third-grade teacher at Kyrene de las Brisas in Chandler:

“It was a great opportunity for me to have conversations with fellow educators and community members about how to make sure all Kyrene students feel safe and seen.”

Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely noted that the event came out of a Community Superintendent Council in partnership with the district. Council members have been working for the past year on goals for a Strategic Plan 2022 as the process relates to diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural awareness. The meeting was an outcome of the council’s desire to dig deeper into ways to solve cultural interactions.

“The CSC wanted to provide an opportunity for the community to participate in the dialogue related to equity and inclusion, and they wanted to host an event in which they would invite speakers to address the topics of equity, implicit bias and cultural identity,” said Vesely.

“From the feedback we received…of the group’s progress, the community is welcoming of additional opportunities to engage in this dialogue with the district.

“It is hoped that as Corwin completes its needs assessment and begins to facilitate the development of an equity framework for Kyrene, that we can continue this dialogue with the community as we work toward the goal of closing the achievement and opportunity gaps for all Kyrene students,” she said.

In addition to staff training, Corwin Consulting will develop methods to monitor and evaluate the district’s responsiveness to the equality goals in several areas, including hiring practices and offering a culturally responsive curriculum.

Vesely said she anticipates that the district will meet with the Corwin team soon to begin to outline the work plan and establish a timeline.

“The Corwin team will engage with staff over the summer and conduct an audit of our curriculum guides, to ensure that opportunities are present to celebrate the diverse cultures of our students. Updates on this work will be provided to the Governing Board and the community as they are available,” said Vesely.

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