LIVINGSTON, NJ — Improving the culture and community within Livingston Public Schools (LPS) by “enhancing inclusiveness, cultural awareness, anti-racism and acceptance of individual differences through mandated curricular programming, extracurricular programming and district operations” was named the number one focus area among Livingston’s four district goals for the 2020-2021 school year.
Developed jointly each year between the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) and the superintendent, district goals are officially designated as areas of focus to prioritize for the year.
As he presented the four focus areas for the 2020-2021 school year along with the action plan for each goal, Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block explained this particular focus area is one that is being built upon from the previous year.
“I'm really pleased to see that as I lay out the district goals for the coming year, they are very reflective of the goals that we identified last year, which I think is really important because having consistency and focus areas and goals allows you to get more deeply into work that's important to the district,” said Block. “And particularly after the year that we've had with our Ransomware issue and, of course, everything that's happened with the pandemic—really an issue that we've been dealing with since January—continuing to focus on some of those goals that we identified as important to us last year, I think will do the district very well.”
A deeper explanation of this focus area for the 2020-2021 school year at LPS can be found below, along with links to additional details on each of the other goals.
Focus Area One:
To improve the culture and community within Livingston Public Schools by enhancing inclusiveness, cultural awareness, anti-racism and acceptance of individual differences through mandated curricular programming, extracurricular programming and district operations.
“This is building upon and a continuation of a goal that was identified last summer,” said Block, who described it as a comprehensive focus area with many outcomes that he looks forward to achieving. “We've made some strides over the course of this past year in this area, and we're looking forward to building upon that and taking concrete steps forward in this area. We recognize and we very purposely made this focus area ‘one,’ as we know this is a priority.”
According to Block, the district recognizes that these "are very complicated issues” and is therefore working to identify outside organizations to assist with this process.
“We're looking for people with experience on these issues that can assist us as we move forward,” he said. “We believe very strongly that our schools need to be inclusive places, and that is the core of this focus area.”
In order to achieve this goal, the district aims to:
- Create an equity leadership advisory team;
- Identify and evaluate existing efforts to engage in culturally responsive practices and determine new ways to raise awareness of and promote best practices across the district in every level;
- Work with teachers to make instruction more responsive to diversity and inclusive of various cultures; and
- Strategically implement professional development and school-based programming focused on diversity, anti-racism and cultural inclusivity in teaching and learning in order to create a common language and set of expectations for the school community.
Block reiterated that this is an ongoing focus area at LPS, which has previously worked with consultants and held professional development sessions on these topics.
“We have worked very intentionally to seek out materials that could be in our libraries and resources for teachers and students in these areas as well,” he said.
According to Block, the purpose of establishing the equity leadership advisory team is to “identify district-wide action steps and to operationalize this goal.”
“One of the great things that has happened this summer is, we had several listening sessions with groups of our high school students that I thought were very informative,” said Block. “I think the equity team, pulling in some of that information and input from our student leaders, will be really key to their success.”
Assistant Superintendent Lisa Capone-Steiger added that the equity leadership advisory team currently includes 10 professionals and a broader district team of about 20 members.
“The principals are recruiting teachers and students right now to participate in that larger group, and the high school also has an active team comparable to the equity team called the ‘culturally responsive classroom committee’ that has been working together for about two years on this,” said Steiger. “The hope is that this work actually extends to all the buildings in a variety of ways, but the first important group is that district group so that we can start to define and hit some of these standards that we've established.”
As the team begins to meet and establish goals—one of which already includes community outreach and community participation—Steiger said she expects parents, students and other community members to get involved.
Under this focus area, the district also aims to identify and execute a method for gathering feedback on the current culture and climate within each school, review curriculum documents for evidence of cultural responsiveness and require diversity-connected curricular mandates and resources.
“Once that's reviewed, we need to commit to the work of revising curricular documents where needed enhancements are identified,” said Block. “We do go through a regular process of updating all of our curricular documents, so this work can be attached to that update process.”
Another crucial outcome identified under this goal was “creating curricular and instructional tools for staff regarding matters of social justice equity, cultural responsiveness, stability and empathy.
Additional outcomes include: reviewing professional development offered for teachers to ensure that there are programs attached to these initiatives; selecting a more comprehensive book list; providing training for facilitating difficult conversations around race and social justice; and addressing current events related to these areas.
Although these themes will “look a little bit different” at each school according to grade level, Block said the district aims to make sure they are all “seen in the work that we're doing and all of those levels.”
“Age appropriateness is important at all levels to instill the knowledge and skills required to successfully engage in civil and academic discourse, and I think that sentence is so important,” he said. “This is about helping our students to engage in productive conversations around these issues, and also to engage in community conversations with appropriate members to continue to identify and evaluate the needs of our students and our school community.
“That could include working with the town, working with parent groups and other community members—and then to conduct community outreach connected to cultural awareness, making sure that the community knows our practices and our policies around harassment, intimidation and bullying and our efforts in educating students on issues of social justice…We're going to identify and implement an anti-bias framework that spans academics, student affairs and community outreach.”
Feedback from LBOE and Student Rep
Following Block’s presentation of the district’s 2020-2021 focus areas, LBOE members applauded him for including outcomes as a measurement point for them to use when evaluating the progress of each goal.
The board members also agreed about the need to make inclusivity and mandated curricular programming on anti-racism and cultural awareness a priority this year, with Seth Cohen suggesting that the board continue to update the “outcomes” as needed according to the equity team’s findings.
“It was put as goal number one for a very specific reason, and I think it's something that we should really be open to continuing to evaluate and put new benchmarks in for our district and our community at large,” he said.
LBOE student representative and Livingston High School senior Aditya Desai agreed, stating that racial justice has been “a conflict that [he has] seen with a greater magnitude” over the last few weeks at the high school.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of progress at the local level since the racial awakening that began with the discriminatory killing of George Floyd; yet, there has always been a simultaneous lack of awareness and acceptance by some students,” he said earlier this month. “Now is the time for Livingston to step up not only through creating a more holistic curriculum that acknowledges historical racial movements in greater depth, but also by providing support to its students of color.”
Although there has been “some great education and discussion put forth by student organizations,” Desai said it was crucial for the administration to “take a more active role to cultivate lasting change.”
Prior to his presentation, Block reiterated that district goals “are not the only focus of the board or the administration,” but are “areas that we highlight as deep work to make some adjustments and improvements to our program and the educational experience for our students.”
The other three goals for the 2020-2021 school year include refining strategies to enhance mathematics instruction at LPS elementary and middle schools; incorporating instructional methodologies to create positive social-emotional support; and increasing the capacity of teachers at LPS to utilize instructional technology.
Click on the headlines below to read more about each focus area:
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