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NYS Regents urge discussion of racism, diversity in classrooms

Lester W. Young Jr., chancellor of the Board

Lester W. Young Jr., chancellor of the Board of Regents, said "discussion of racism and bigotry is part of the American experience." Credit: Hans Pennink

The state's Board of Regents is calling for school districts to discuss in classrooms the role racism plays in America, to diversify their staffs, and to teach in ways that respond to the increasing diversity of student bodies.

Regents, who set education policy, adopted guidance for schools on diversity, equity and inclusion in May — a year after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by then-police Officer Derek Chauvin ignited calls nationally for social justice reform. The guidance, posted on the New York State Education Department's website, includes a link to a 63-page document that asks educators to affirm students' racial, linguistic and cultural identities.

"Discussion of racism and bigotry is part of the American experience. How do you talk about the development of this nation without talking about that?" said Lester W. Young Jr., a former educator in Brooklyn who was unanimously elected in January as Regents chancellor, the first African American in that position.

Long Island districts have followed through with diversity plans, sometimes drawing complaints from parents and others at school board meetings. Some parents have zeroed in on the topic of critical race theory, a body of academic thought centered around the idea that racism is systemic and foundational to American life and history, though Island districts repeatedly have said they have not been teaching the concept.

Diversity is not the only theme of the Regents' guidance, which Young said was intended to make "it possible that all young people in the State of New York have a sense that they belong." But it is a theme schools must reckon with, he said, adding, "This is not an attempt to indoctrinate, it is not an attempt to make young people feel bad, and it is not an attempt to talk about groups in disparaging ways."

Regents did not make the guidance mandatory for districts.

What to know

State education officials have asked all districts to implement diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Guidance asks districts to consider "specifically acknowledging the role that racism and bigotry have played, and continue to play, in the American story."

Some parents oppose the policies, saying they bring progressive politics into classrooms.

The issue, in particular, has been at the forefront in the Smithtown district. Diversity and equity remain regular topics during the public portions of school board meetings, which have grown so loud and angry at times that district leaders have had to impose 10-minute breaks.

One parent, Mike Simonelli, a Suffolk County PBA official with a child in Smithtown schools, said in an email to Newsday that he supports diversity programs such as school cultural nights, but rejects what he called critical race theory "concepts of institutional racism, police violence, white privilege, white fragility, implicit bias, and that America is not a meritocracy." He described those ideas as Marxist and said they were being infiltrated "under the guise" of diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Joe Gergenti, another Smithtown parent, took a similar tack in his comments at a July 6 school board meeting. "I am against DEI, CRT and any agenda that pushes multiculturalism, global warming and any distortion of American history," he said, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as critical race theory. Gergenti could not be reached for comment.

Young said critics who say work toward diversity and equity is laying the groundwork for socialism on Long Island are arguing in bad faith. "We're in a situation where the truth is under assault," he said. "There is nothing socialist or Marxist about what we propose."

Smithtown Superintendent Mark Secaur wrote in an email to Newsday that his district does not teach critical race theory and has not implemented policies based on it.

"We’re not infusing our curriculum with a rewrite of history in order to serve a political agenda, but conversations about American history can and should include a sensitive analysis of the role race and racism has played in our country," Secaur wrote.

The district's high school course catalog does not mention critical race theory, race or ethnicity. Descriptions of U.S. history classes taken by juniors and seniors include the Colonial and constitutional foundations of the United States, the Civil War and themes of industrialization and urbanization.

The document linked to the Regents’ guidance, titled Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework and released in 2018, does assert that the notion of American meritocracy is flawed. "A complex system of biases and structural inequities is at play, deeply rooted in our country’s history, culture, and institutions … which routinely confers advantage and disadvantage based on linguistic background, gender, skin color, and other characteristics," the introduction reads.

The framework is intended to help educators create what authors call "student-centered learning environments" that affirm racial and cultural identities, develop students' abilities to connect across cultures, empower students as agents of social change, and cultivate critical thinking. Teachers might, for example, highlight texts that feature traditionally marginalized voices, look for ways to connect instructional material with students' daily lives, and familiarize themselves with the communities in which their students live.

Young and others, including Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University Teachers College who helped develop the framework, said its recommendations already have benefited students and are based on years of research.

"This is not new," said Wells, who said some of the framework traces back to the Progressive Era, when educators worked to serve Eastern European immigrant children in tenement housing. "You can't be student-centered if you're not paying attention to work on race and how race matters in our society and in the field of education."

Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative on the Regents board, said in an interview that the guidance carries moral weight, especially on the Island, where surging Hispanic and Asian enrollments have transformed districts that were once majority Black or white, and some traditionally affluent districts now educate more economically disadvantaged students.

Long Island's schools remain among the most segregated in the nation, he said, with majority-minority districts such as Wyandanch and Hempstead — among the poorest in taxable revenue — operating next door to mostly white, wealthier districts such as Half Hollow Hills and Garden City.

As a Regent, Tilles said, "If you don't see the responsibility for equity, to make sure others get that same chance at excellence, then you're not doing your job."

Smithtown leader: It's not about politics

Tilles said he was hopeful that Islanders, who he said had led the state in integrating students with disabilities, also would embrace the cause for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Even in Smithtown, where skepticism and opposition to the state's guidance has been vociferous, district leaders adopted goals for 2020-21 that included diversifying district staff and reviewing curriculum "to incorporate greater empathy, appreciation for diversity, elevation of and representation of diverse perspectives."

Smithtown's 8,635-student district was 80% white, 10% Hispanic or Latino, 6% Asian and 1% Black in 2019-20, according to the state Education Department.

The district this summer uploaded to its website a report on the work of an "equity team" of educators, students, alumni and community members that, while mostly laudatory, identified gaps in student participation and performance.

Suspension rates for boys, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities were higher than average, the report found. English Language Learners, who comprise 2% of the student body, were far less likely than average to participate in school sports. Students with disabilities and those in poverty were less likely to participate in clubs.

Also, according to the report, "Students in our community have experienced being targeted based on their disability, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and income level."

The report did not include details about those incidents. Nor did it include data based on race and ethnicity, but the 81% graduation rate for Hispanic or Latino students lagged behind the 95% district average, according to state Education Department data.

District leaders may do additional analysis of "persistent gaps in access and performance," according to the report. Possible strategies for improvement include professional development, counseling services, increased student leadership, increased club offerings, translation and outreach, curriculum enhancements, and promotion of awareness of a state discrimination law in schools.

Port Washington conducting 'forensic audit'

In Port Washington, guided by the Culturally Responsive framework, school system officials are partnering with New York University's Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools on what Superintendent Michael Hynes in an interview called a "forensic audit" of the district’s work to serve students. That district's population was 63% white, 23% Hispanic or Latino, 11% Asian, and 1% Black or African American in 2019-20, according to the state Education Department.

The intent is to look "systematically, to understand why certain populations of our students are not excelling and in fact maybe not getting the resources they need," Hynes said, citing lagging graduation rates for Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino students.

The district’s graduation rate for all students was 93%, according to state data; it was 82% for Hispanic or Latino students. There were too few Black or African American students to report graduation data.

Graduation rates, suspension and disciplinary statistics, hiring and assessing district policies and the district code of conduct are all being evaluated, Hynes said.

He said the district may in the future do a similar analysis of what and how teachers teach.

Plainview-Old Bethpage seeks 'inclusive environment'

Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Mary O'Meara said her district's mission statement, rewritten a year ago, has made it a priority to create an "inclusive environment where all students feel a sense of belonging." The district was 66% white, 26% Asian, 6% Hispanic or Latino, with just 10 Black or African American students in 2019-20.

Even before the release of the state's diversity guidance, O'Meara said, district leaders had invested in professional development on "culturally responsive activities and ways to ensure equity among all the different students that we educate."

One example is the care that teachers and administrators take to pronounce students' names correctly, O'Meara said. Another is the approach to world religions in the global history classes taken by freshmen and sophomores. The topic has real meaning for a student body that is itself religiously diverse, and "careful attention to materials and dialogue provides opportunities for students to debunk myths and stereotypes and practice empathy," O'Meara said.

Hynes and O’Meara both said they fielded only scattered questions in the spring about critical race theory and the state’s diversity guidance.

"We began the work on culturally responsive education before this became an issue that has caused division we are currently seeing in communities," O’Meara said. "Our community trusts what we’re doing because they’ve been a part of it."

Three Village: 'Their voices were heard'

In Three Village, district officials did not agree to an interview about implementation of diversity and equity policies, but shared a link to the website of its Anti-Racism and Social Justice Task Force. The task force's mission is to foster "inclusivity, value diversity, and promote equity in our school community," according to the website, with goals adapted from the Culturally Responsive framework.

The district is 77% white, 12% Asian, 7% Hispanic or Latino, and 1% Black or African American.

An unsigned memo from the task force summarized the results of a survey of student attitudes and experiences: "Many feel that [the] administration doesn't care because there are no repercussions for racist actions," it read, in part. "Many feel that there is no willpower. Lack of diversity is also an issue."

A list of suggested district actions included "public recognition of culture of racism and that changes will be made," hiring more nonwhite teachers, and diversifying reading lists.

In an email forwarded by a spokeswoman, district officials said that survey had been initiated and led by alumni. "The district took this data and stories told very seriously and is looking at the issues to ensure such experiences are not replicated moving forward. Their voices were heard and are also being vetted by our curriculum committee."

Additionally, officials said they were "always looking for opportunities to expand the diversity within our staff. We believe a diverse staff plays an important role, which serves as role models to our students."

Jeanne Brunson, a Three Village parent and task force member, defended the district's diversity work.

"Building a system that teaches our children to better understand one another creates opportunities for everyone," she said, but "we must acknowledge honestly how we got to where we are."

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