When it comes to racial diversity, equity and inclusion, the La Cañada Unified School District has been given a road map to improve its grade.
LCUSD Governing Board members showed enthusiasm Tuesday for embracing the beginnings of a plan to improve inclusion, empathy, tolerance and much more throughout the district, after listening to findings gathered over the course of a year by Pasadena-based Christina Hale-Elliott. Hired in September 2019 as the district’s first diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, she is the founder of Elliott Educational Services.
For more than two hours, board members leaned in as Hale-Elliott summarized her findings, based on data collected via numerous surveys, interviews and focus groups involving teachers, staff, students and parents throughout the district at the elementary, middle and high school levels. The report also drew on quantitative data provided by the LCUSD and the California Department of Education website.
The presentation recognized ways in which the district currently supports diversity, equity and inclusion and the ways it could improve in those areas. The consultant’s recommendations — intended to be fleshed out as the LCUSD moves forward — include having a senior administrator spearhead efforts to ensure diversity district-wide, holding parent and teacher workshops on talking with young children about race, and working with school staff and leadership how to respond to hate and bias on campus.
Hale-Elliott relayed her findings through a PDF slide show, interspersed with personal commentaries collected during her year of outreach, and spoke of improving the district’s culture. But before delving into the findings, contained in a 42-page document entitled “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strengths and Needs Assessment: Final Report,” Hale-Elliott paused to address the report as a whole, calmly advising that the findings might make people “uncomfortable.”
She then transitioned with a personal statement to the board and community to recognize the national protests and dialogue in the aftermath of the recent killings of black people by police or while in police custody. The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery spurred Hale-Elliott and her husband, she said, to speak openly with their own children, including their 9-year-old son, which was something she wanted to share with board members in order to give context to her report presentation.
“I spoke with my 9-year-old son about that the color of his skin puts him at risk for violence. … If my son, a 9-year-old, is in a place developmentally that he can more fully grapple with the realities that my husband and I have shared with him numerous times … understanding that there will be those who will hate him because of the color of his skin, and beyond just individuals, there are whole systems that will actively work against him and seek to subjugate and oppress him because of the color of his skin … if my 9-year-old son can courageously, painstakingly, and in the face of fear, confront those truths, and dwell in that uncomfortable reality and use it all to push him ultimately into action, what excuse do any of us have [not to do the same]?
“We should all be deeply worried about what the prolonged exposure to systemic racism is doing to our collective souls and to the souls of our children. So as I prepare to share the results of the [report]… I implore us all to lean into the discomfort that we will collectively feel so that we can get to the point where we declare that we are all feeling a little braver now, and then we can begin to work toward change,” she concluded.
At the outset of the report, Hale-Elliot also urged honest dialogue regarding the history and founding of LCUSD, which according to many reports was a result of white flight. Back then, students living in La Cañada Flintridge attended John Muir High School in Pasadena; however, there was concern over the growing black population at John Muir.
“At the time of that decision, concern was expressed by some in a local newspaper, the La Cañada Valley Sun (1960), that removing students from the more racially and economically diverse Pasadena school could lead to ‘insularity’ for the students who lived in a ‘one class community,’ eliminating an opportunity for them to ‘learn about the larger world,’” the report’s introduction stated. “In many ways, LCUSD has seen that prediction come to fruition, with students now living within what multiple interview and focus group participants referred to as ‘the La Cañada bubble.’
“Recent reports within the past several years of students using racist and/or homophobic slurs at sporting events have shed a light on the need for more intentional and systemic efforts to be made around fostering an appreciation for diversity, supporting equitable student outcomes, and cultivating inclusive environments in which everyone feels a sense of belonging.”
Hale-Elliott’s findings spanned breakdowns of socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, special needs learners, comfortability regarding different sexual orientations or gender identities, staff diversity and diversified curriculum, as well as specific findings of consistent, offensive language used among students.
One of those findings indicated the need for a more diversified staff, which is consistent, Hale-Elliott emphasized, with other districts across the nation. According to one survey of 1,195 LCUSD students, 54.1% agreed to feeling “reflected at my school” via staff, faculty, textbooks and more, while 31% disagreed, 7.8% strongly disagreed and 7% strongly agreed.
“The need for greater staff diversity in particular was highlighted by data provided by the LCUSD human resources department for the 2019-20 school year,” the report stated. “In comparison to the student population, which is just over 45% white, individuals identifying as white make up nearly 70% of certificated staff (i.e., teachers, administrators, and pupil personnel services). This is in contrast to Asian staff constituting approximately 10% of LCUSD’s certificated staff while Asian students make up over 30% of LCUSD’s student population.”
“We know these are things that are not unique to La Cañada in particular … yet it’s still crucially important to reflect what are the ways the district can go about recruiting a more diverse staff, supporting, retaining and promoting that staff so that students can see a representation of a variety of individuals before them.”
The study also found that the use of offensive language — defined as racist, sexist or homophobic slurs — was reported at all school levels.
According to student and staff reports, the offensive language occurs more frequently at the middle and high school, where it “is often intended by students there as a joke.”
LCHS 7-12 student surveys confirmed the prevalence of such language, as nearly 70% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they have heard others being called or referred to in negative or hurtful terms.
Hale-Elliott included some of the survey responses, with one student writing, “I hear homophobic and racist slurs constantly. It’s practically background noise at this point, and that type of language should not be at all acceptable at LCHS.”
Another wrote that teachers rarely intervene after hearing slurs, especially those based on someone’s sexuality/gender orientation, which was largely supported by a student survey on hearing negative terms based on differences. According to the survey, 44.4% of students said they agree with the statement that they have heard others being called a negative or hurtful term based on a perceived difference from other students — such as race, ethnicity, ability or sexual orientation — and 25.2% stated they “strongly agree.” Meanwhile, 21.2% said they disagree, and 9.2% said they strongly disagree.
After hearing the presentation, board members agreed that the enormity of the findings and recommendations were a little overwhelming, with Hale-Elliott concurring. She suggested the board study some of the information and come back with best ways to prioritize areas.
“These are just some initial steps, ideally to be taken within the next one to three years, based on the areas of growth that showed up and strengths that are in place that could be addressed within these next few years that could garner some really powerful returns,” she noted. “I urge you to breathe through this, but also lean into it. We can’t run from the past. We have to recognize that history serves as a foundation.”
Board President Joe Radabaugh praised Hale-Elliott’s work.
“Everything you’ve done here really exceeded my expectations from when we started this journey — the thoroughness of the assessment and robustness of the recommendations to see it really tell the story tonight, it was excellent,” Radabaugh said. “I see one of our immediate next steps as trying to digest and prioritize. We need a short-term road map to a road map, so to speak.”
Board member Dan Jeffries said he was in favor of putting practices into motion as quickly as possible, saying, “It’s incumbent upon us to immediately incorporate some of your suggestions, as many things as we can, maybe starting with curriculum — does it reflect diversity enough, for example.”
Superintendent Wendy Sinnette also said she wanted to recognize the work that awaits the board and the district to improve outcomes regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I think it’s incumbent on the district to embrace responsibilities … really respond to that culture of fear; we have to clearly articulate behaviors, expectations, commitments and create an environment where people are respectful,” she said. “I think as a district … we have to take up the charge to be brave.”
In order to expedite the rest of the board agenda, members agreed that they needed some time to digest and discuss the report findings and recommendations at length. They agreed to form a subcommittee that could coordinate with Sinnette and Hale-Elliott to organize points on how to move forward on structural changes and implementation goals. Further discussion will likely be posted as agenda items in the upcoming meetings in September, they noted.