On June 19, the Olentangy Local School District announced it would hold three virtual town hall meetings to discuss the district’s anti-racism efforts moving forward and to offer a platform for the community to express the changes it wishes to see in the school district.
On that same day, a “DearOLSD” Instagram page was created separately by students to allow for both current students and alumni to share their experiences with racism and discrimination within the district. The account quickly became filled with more than 200 accounts, each serving to set the tone for the conversations to follow in the town hall meetings, the first of which was held June 24.
“We would be very remiss if we did not start off tonight’s town hall by acknowledging the movement our ‘DearOLSD’ students … have sparked across central Ohio and beyond…,” said Heather Cole, the district’s diversity coordinator, during the first meeting on June 24. “Although it is painful to read their words, I speak on behalf of the entire equity and inclusion team in saying that we are extremely proud of their courage to speak out with a conviction that is stronger than ever.
“We continue to read the letters daily, and we will continue to listen and learn from them. There are no words, really, to capture the array of emotions we’ve experienced while reading these, but we know that our students deserve better. Their vulnerability, their honesty, and their empowerment to speak up is an inspiration and brings to the forefront a collective urgency to making the necessary change. We hope to be able to work in conjunction with members of ‘Dear OLSD,’ as well as community members and staff, to identify action items for immediate and long-term work.”
Cole said the district has approved the creation of a second diversity coordinator position, with the one difference being the second position will be in a full-time capacity. She said the “massive” scope of the work needed for meaningful change created a need for additional resources, which led to the position being created.
“We are thrilled to add this position,” Cole said. “With their support, we will be able to place additional resources behind professional development, curriculum projects, recruitment, hiring, and retention initiatives, as well as expanding community and student collaboration.”
In addition to the diversity coordinator position, Cole said the district’s professional development focus for the 2020-21 school year will be on anti-racism and “sense of belonging.” All district staff — certified, classified and administrative — will receive training on topics such as implicit bias, microaggressions, explicit racism, racism, and systemic and individual racism, among other topics.
“We’ll focus on language, practices, and age-appropriate ways to teach and lead for anti-racism,” Cole said. “We want to assure you that this will be a collaborative process that involves stakeholders at all levels contributing to the formation and development of these sessions.”
Another effort OLSD will implement this school year is an enhanced celebration of Black History Month, Cole said.
“We will ensure Black History Month is visible, highlighted, and celebrated in every building across the district,” she said. “This effort will involve resources for integrating not just the struggles and oppression, but the resistance, achievements, and contributions of African Americans.”
However, Cole went on to say that the integration of Black history can’t be relegated to a single month of the school year. Rather, she said that history will be a part of the students’ learning throughout the year.
A third commitment the district will undertake involves the equity and inclusion team undergoing a “curriculum project” that will include teams of teachers at every level and content area. In the project, entry points for diversity in the curriculum will be identified, as will the points of history and representation that are missing from the curriculum, the areas where more integration can be had, and the resources that can be utilized to facilitate that integration.
Cole said the Student Equity Steering Committee — a group of high school students that began meeting earlier this year, prior to the shutdown — will hold expanded meetings and collaborative efforts this school year. She said the committee is comprised of a “diverse cross-section of the student body,” with approximately four students representing each high school building.
Jessica Selway, a social studies teacher at Liberty High School, said she is glad to hear the discussion about addressing the curriculum, saying, “We need a lot of support there.”
“Myself, as well as my colleagues, would just really benefit greatly from spending a lot more time relooking at our content and remembering that in our collegiate experiences, this is something where we, too, have been taught history a certain way,” Selway said. “And, so, we often teach what we know, and anything outside of our collegiate experiences, we’ve had to read on our own a lot of the time. For me, the thing I want to bring to the table is professional development and continuous support looking at curriculum and diversity and inclusion, specifically for social studies teachers.”
Shan-ni Playko, both a teacher and parent in the district, spoke of the “DearOLSD” movement and the students that have been “alone in their silence.” Playko said she is not worried about the teachers who have read those accounts and been compelled to be a part of the change, but the ones who have read them but don’t believe their validity or haven’t read them at all.
“I think that creating a mandatory, district-sponsored program for continued development will help,” Playko said. “I also believe in the increased educational opportunities for our students in classroom courses. Because I’m thinking, ‘Why stop at teachers?’ We should provide additional courses and opportunities for students to learn about different cultures other than just foreign language cultures.”
Cara Randolph, speaking during the June 24 meeting, said she felt there needs to be a “serious initiative” on diversifying the staff throughout OLSD.
“I have conversations with the district at different levels in regards to diversifying staff and it’s always, ‘Oh, we can’t find Black educators’ … I think the reality is that even the ones that you can find probably don’t want to come to the district because of some of the issues they’ve had for years and years.”
Randolph added the district needs to provide incentives for those educators to want to come to OLSD, as well as offer better support to them. She went on to express her belief that mandatory anti-racism and non-discriminatory training is needed, beginning with the district superintendent and board of education, because she knows “there are issues at the top, and it needs to fall all the way down.”
“The reality is that if we’ve been having these issues for over 15 years that I know of, it starts with leadership,” Randolph said. “People and staff would not have acted in the ways that our students have so bravely shared with us if they didn’t feel like they were going to be backed up or felt like there were going to be no repercussions.”
During the June 29 meeting, Ashley Wise, the mother of two African American children in the district, spoke about promoting ideas that are actually creating change in the district. Wise referenced a districtwide meeting on race relations held a few years ago following a group of students who shared their experiences with racism in the district.
“There was plenty of talk of ideas, but no real action where I could see it,” Wise said of that meeting. “Since then, through experiences we have faced with my own children and reading through the ‘DearOLSD’ entries, it is clear we are going around and around, all while the real problem has not been addressed. We each know the district is highly-rated academically, and on paper, it meets the mark. However, in the area of culture, unity, and equal access, the district is failing.”
Between the first two town hall meetings, 24 members of the OLSD community participated in the public speaking portion of the meetings, using their allotted five minutes to share their suggestions on how the district can find real solutions for change in the fight to end racism. Those community members ranged from teachers and administrators in the districts, to students and parents of students, past and present.
The third and final virtual town hall will be held Wednesday, July 8, beginning at 6 p.m. Like the past two meetings, the Wednesday town hall will be recorded and posted on the district’s website. To access the recordings, visit www.olentangy.k12.oh.us.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.