The Riverhead Board of Education adopted an ”Equity in Education Plan” at its board meeting last week aimed at implementing the state’s diversity, equity and inclusion framework within the district. 

The plan was created by a subcommittee of the district’s Diversity and Cross-Cultural Task Force, which is made up of staff, students and community members, guided by the New York State Department of Education’s Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education Framework, also known as CR-S. 

Task force members, including high school students Leslie Pacheco Pineda and Carter Richardson, and community leaders NAACP President Lawrence Street and Suffolk County Community College Multicultural Affairs Coordinator James Banks, presented the plan to the board during the meeting. The full equity plan document is available to view on the Board of Education’s website.

“While the equity plan provides goals, actions and direction for multiple years, tonight’s presentation focuses on some of the year one goals and examples of implementation actions for the 2020-23 school year,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Christine Tona, the district administrator who led the task force.

“As with any meaningful plan, the equity plan should continue to be reviewed throughout each school year to ensure best practices and identify goals that are the most appropriate for our students and for the district,” Tona said.

The district’s equity plan has four guiding principles for implementation: Principle 1: Welcoming and Affirming Environment; Principle 2: High Expectations and Rigor; Principle 3: Inclusive Curriculum and Assessment; and Principle 4: Ongoing professional learning around DEI to understand social inequities.

The plan identifies several goals for implementation of each principle, and goes further to identify the steps for implementation, the stakeholder groups that should be involved and resources to implement the goal. 

The goals of Principal 1: Welcoming and Affirming Environment includes:

  • Recognize how prejudice and explicit/implicit bias manifest in our school community by uncovering underlying problems and developing strategies to address them.
  • Practice empathy during all interactions. Think about others’ feelings, taking into account their experiences and imagining what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes. Always striving to accept others rather than imposing negative judgment, in order to create a safe and supportive learning environment that allows for other students to think deeply, share honestly, and take academic risks.
  • Advocate to ensure that school culture and environment are safe and responsive to children’s needs
  • Partner with teachers and school leaders to inform them of, and assist with, school community needs. (Year 2)
  • Build rapport and develop positive relationships with students and their families by learning about their interests and inviting them to share their opinions and concerns. (Year 2)
  • Find opportunities to address and incorporate the opinions and concerns of staff
  • Work with families early and often to gather insight into students’ cultures, goals, and learning preferences.
  • Assess school climate using a variety of measures (i.e. surveys, interviews, focus groups, informal gatherings) to collect diverse stakeholder impressions and experiences, using questions that consider issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Work to improve the recruitment and retention of a diverse teacher workforce (i.e. teachers who identify as people of color, LGBTQIA+, differently-abled) by strengthening pipelines for teacher education and cultivating relationships with local and national partners (i.e. historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic association of colleges and universities, alliance organizations)

“We strive to create a space where people are represented, reflected and treated with respect and dignity,” Principal 1 states.

The implementation of Principal 1, which has the largest number of year one goals out of all,  involves multiple steps, including assessing and updating the district’s current curriculum and resources to align with the goals; creating student to student mentor programs and an “inter-racial council;” and engaging parents through surveys about the needs and cultures of students.

The goals of Principal 2: High Expectations and Rigor include:

  • Challenge oneself to do more than what feels academically comfortable. Set high goals and continuously revise them to push yourself out of your academic comfort zone.
  • Collaborate with teachers to develop tools for persevering in difficult social and academic situations, i.e. growth mindset tools that help students view challenges and failures as opportunities to grow, and view their brain as a muscle that continues to get stronger over time when they take on new challenges and try new things.
  • Be aware of, and collaboratively advocate for, children having access to a wide range of educational coursework and programming.
  • Promote alternative achievement metrics that also support academics (e.g., demonstrating growth, leadership, character development, Social Emotional Learning competencies, or school values).
  • Co-create explicit classroom expectations that meet the needs of all students.
  • Reflect on your own implicit bias, how that bias might impact your expectations for student achievement or the decisions you make in the school, and the steps you can take to address your biases and their impact on students.

“We strive to foster an environment that is academically rigorous and intellectually challenging, while also considering the different ways that students learn,” Principal 2 states.

The implementation of Principal 2’s goals includes informing students and staff about their biases; analyzing and improving the demographics and diversity of students participating in AP/honor classes, graduating, and receiving an advanced regents diploma; improving graduation rates; and implementing social and emotional learning to help grow students’ mindsets.

The goals of Principal 3: Inclusive Curriculum and Assessment include:

  • Advocate for the opportunity for all students to actively give input and share their opinions on the curriculum (book selection, course offerings, elective offerings).
  • Identify gaps where the current curriculum does not address multiple perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds. Advocate for fair representation of these absent perspectives.
  • Collaborate with teachers to connect events deemed relevant by the community to the classrooms.
  • Connecting the real world to school by bringing in authentic voices from different areas such as for a specific heritage month have a speaker come to the school to bring awareness of the culture.
  • Provide regular opportunities for social emotional learning strategies within lessons and as discrete learning activities.
  • Utilize student data points and assessment measures that reflect learning spaces, modalities, and demonstration of proficiency that go beyond metrics traditionally associated with standardized testing.
  • Invest in curricular resources that reflect diverse cultures and voices of marginalized people.
  • Create courses district-wide about the diversity of cultures representative of the state of New York (e.g., Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Gender Studies) in a way that is comprehensive (e.g., across grade levels and not relegated to one specific month) and empowering (e.g., African American history does not begin with slavery, but with African History)

“We strive to elevate historically marginalized voices. This includes opportunities to learn about power and privilege while empowering learners to be agents of positive social change,” Principal 3 states.

The implementation of Principal 3’s curriculum goals includes auditing the curriculum and investing in curricular resources that “reflect diverse cultures and voices of marginalized people,” like the Black Research Collective Black students curriculum, the BOCES immigrant experience curriculum, and New York Times’ 1619 Project. The district would also create virtual events for cultural heritage months with community organizations, including the NAACP and Butterfly Effect Project.

Principle 4: Ongoing professional learning around DEI to understand social inequities.

  • Set goals toward future aspirations and collaborate with teachers and families to make plans about achieving them. Work daily toward accomplishing these goals. 
  • Leverage the knowledge of other parents to create strong parental in-school community 
  • Work with parent organizations to ensure that parents are represented in the school across various identities including race, family orientation, social class, profession, religious backgrounds. 
  • Use professional learning activities as opportunities to better acquaint oneself with the diverse communities in which their students live. 
  • Engage in inquiry groups and professional learning communities with peers and mentors. 
  • Provide opportunities for teachers and leaders to receive training on topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as: critical self-reflection, disproportionality, anti-bias, developing racial literacy, combating racism and microaggressions, etc. 
  • Train and build the capacity of instructional leaders to support teachers in delivering instruction that is rigorous, student-centered, and promotes students as agents of positive social change.

“We strive to support all stakeholders in developing a critically conscious lens toward instruction, curriculum, assessment, history, culture and institutions,” Principal 4 states.

The implementation of Principal 4 involves engaging Parent Teacher Organizations and the Special Education Parent Teacher Association with the equity plan’s goals and including the objectives of the equity plan in the district staff’s professional development.

The CR-S framework the equity plan is based on “helps educators create student-centered learning environments that: affirm racial, linguistic and cultural identities; prepare students for rigor and independent learning, develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; and empower students as agency of social change,” according to the state education department’s document.

The framework is “grounded in a vision of an education system that creates: …students who experience academic success… students who are sociopolitically conscious and socioculturally responsive…” and “students who have a critical lens through which they challenge inequitable systems of access, power, and privilege.”

The board voted unanimously to adopt the plan, with board President Laurie Downs and Trustee Virginia Healy absent. Trustee Colin Palmer said after the task force’s presentation that he sat in on some of its meetings and is excited to see the plan in motion coming the next school year.

”This is not an easy subject at all, and every single person on that committee understands this,” Palmer said. “You guys have done a whole lot of work, but I just want to make sure that, coming next year — especially since Ms. Tona won’t be here — not forgetting that the real work begins…”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]