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Resignations decimate school diversity team

‘What do we do now?’

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

False starts and missteps have plagued the Champlain Valley School District’s attempts to move toward diversity and equity since the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests prompted a nationwide racial reckoning. 

But on Tuesday, district leaders were inspired by a path forward illuminated by an equity consultant and school superintendent from Ithaca, N.Y. 

The latest blow to the district’s efforts was the recent mass resignation of its diversity, equity and inclusion team. Convened as part of the district’s implementation of a diversity, equity and inclusion policy adopted last fall, the team began with 10 coaches covering all six of the district’s schools. Only two coaches remain after the October resignation of the majority of the team. 

The district is also making its third attempt to hire an administrative level diversity director to oversee the team. Two previous diversity directors have resigned within weeks of taking the job. 

Christina Deeley, the diversity coach at CVU High School, explained on Tuesday the reasons for the resignations, which included the resignation of Cara Clopton at Allen Brook School. Williston Central School started this school year without a diversity coach. 

Deeley said the work of the team lacked district-level leadership and was undermined by school principals. 

“The women on the DEI team, particularly the women of color, bore the brunt of this important work with minimal compensation and regular opposition from some administrators,” she said. “Push back and micromanaging from principals across the district was common for many coaches.”

Superintendent Rene Sanchez said the job description for the diversity coach positions has been rewritten and will be posted this week. He expects the team will be reconstituted by the end of the calendar year. But Deeley doubts the district will find suitable replacements.

“I’m doubtful there are any educators of color wanting to fill these positions, in part because our district employs so few people of color,” she said. “Will the principals in our district be more willing to listen to (straight), white equity coaches? I’m not sure.”

Mary Golek said the committee she serves on — the Charlotte Community Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee — appreciated the work of the district’s diversity team and was dismayed at the multiple resignations. 

“It now seems there is almost no one dedicated to DEI work at CVSD,” she said, “and this is really concerning. Few people knew (DEI coaches) were at each school and what their roles were, what they were allowed to do and what they were supposed to be doing … What do we do now that no one is doing it?”

Ainaka Luna, a Hinesburg Community School Spanish teacher, is one of two equity coaches remaining in the district. She urged school board members to listen to diverse voices when rebuilding the team.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m working against a wall because, in Vermont, we are so tied to traditions,” Luna said. “We need to unlearn some systems and allow the voices that have been silenced for centuries to teach us new ways to do things. 

“We have had great people get tired and leave,” she continued. “I don’t want to see more people leave because the system is too strong for change.”

Luvelle Brown, the superintendent of Ithaca public schools and a consultant for systemic change in public education, illuminated a path forward for the district in a discussion Tuesday. His appearance in front of the school board was a preview of a presentation he is scheduled to make to the Vermont School Boards Association this Thursday. 

Brown said organizations tend to get stuck behind symbolic equity — things like releasing purpose statements, renaming holidays, removing statues, reading books and attending conferences — and fail to move to authentic equity. 

District leaders should reflect on the organization’s built-in inequities and undertake a wholesale revision of school instruction and policies. Whether its policies on athletic participation, field trips, grading or a general code of conduct, the language of oppression is embedded in all district policies, he said. That language “jumps off the page when we look at it with an inclusive and loving lens,” he said.

Policies and job descriptions should be reviewed for language that perpetuates inequity and rewritten in a way that eliminates it, Brown advised. 

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