WEST ORANGE, NJ — After hearing from West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone, as well as members of the Township Council and Board of Education, the WOPS district hosted a discussion with members of the Diversity, Equity and Access Committee to allow for a discussion from the perspective of West Orange parents, students, and teachers.

Moderated by the superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez, the discussion served to analyze and address the systemic forms of racism and inequity that exist in schools and to provide clarity on what has been and will be accomplished by the Diversity, Equity and Access Committee.

Earlier this year, the Diversity Committee, which currently comprises of approximately 70 community members, began to uncover the inequities that exist in WOPS in relation to staff hiring and retention, curriculum, and the ability for students to access advanced academic programs.

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When asked what they would recommend to decrease racism and inequity in the education system, Dr. Kwamia Rawls, a marriage and family psychologist, suggested that more should be done to hire and retain more teachers of color so that students would be more readily exposed to role models who will make students have “higher confidence in themselves” and “do better in school academically.”

In terms of curriculum, Piscataway High School Dean of Students L’Mani S. Viney explained that from the perspective of history, it must be free of reinforcing black inferiority while promoting Eurocentric intervention and achievement. Adding for example that when efforts made by African Americans are stated in textbooks, they are marked with the caveat that presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, or someone with of Eurocentric descent is responsible for the next achievement.

As a West Orange High School senior, Darlene Folas agreed saying that black history should not be presented in a linear progression so that students can be allowed to embrace their curiosity in exploring the intricacies that history presents.

“A lot of times within our curriculum, our idea of what black excellence is very fixed and even the way we study black history is linear in a way that I’ve never really liked,” she said.

“It’s this idea of enslavement, then Martin Luther King had a dream, then Barack Obama became president, so you can do all of these things, when in reality history has far more intersectionalities and history kind of loops.”

Prior to school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic, the committee also developed a survey for staff members so that they were able to think about their implicit or unconscious biases and think about inequities which might be present in textbooks.

As a medical professional and educator of medical students, Dr. Ana M. Natale-Pereira acknowledged that everyone should be aware of the biases that they may bring to the table. In the same vein, she added that faculty, administrators, and staff should be self-aware, so they can see how bias not only has an impact on students, but also on how they perceive adults and themselves.

Over her 24-year career as a teacher, Roosevelt Middle School science teacher Hillary Rubenstein added that as a white teacher she is still on a “continuum of learning” working to not only be an anti-racist educator and an inclusive educator, but also helping other teachers through teacher training.

“This work takes time,” she said. “This work doesn’t happen after one hour of professional development or even one year’s worth.”

She added that in her classroom she strives to include topics, like race and social justice equity, which traditionally are thought to belong in the history curriculum, for example drawing connections between the eugenics movement and genetics and environmental racism and climate change.

Viney agreed that teacher training is critical but does not believe in professional development.

“It’s a one off,” he said. “We would never ask a student to pass the SAT, to get a 1600 on a one-off.”

He continued that teachers need to have a series of qualitative and quantitative benchmarks, which also need to be observed and measured much in the same way that a non-tenured teacher would get observed.

Dr. David E. Jones, Diversity Consultant and Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Talent Management at William Paterson University, added that the WOPS district needs to create a diversity strategic plan which could look at the district’s plans for the recruitment and selection of teachers and staff over a two-to-five year period, which would allow for accountable growth within the district.

Moving forward, Dr. Sunne-Ryse S. Smith, a former public school executive who has over 20 years of experience covering topics including social emotional learning and restorative justice, said that as conversations continue the district must not exclude parents and the community, because getting to the root of what happens at home, will also help with improving the environment at school.

“This is the beginning of a conversation,” Cascone said, adding that moving forward is going to require more conversations and more listening and learning. He agreed that there is a need for “explicit and deliberate strategic planning” with the use of qualitative and quantitative benchmarks, but that “it’s going to take time.”

“And when we are successful, we will have accomplished something that hasn’t been accomplished,” he said.

“This is not going to be easy. [Especially,] now amidst pandemics and virtual learning and fiscal crises and all sorts of other things [but] this will be, in my estimation, how I seek to define my career in education and … I hope to inspire all those with whom I work, whether it be staff, administrators, parents, board members, to join me in that and get this done.”