One month after diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Christina Hale-Elliott presented her findings — collected over a year — to the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board, that panel on Tuesday returned to a discussion of the matter and took what it considered a step toward achieving DEI goals.
During a virtual meeting, the board decided to include progress on DEI as one of Superintendent Wendy Sinnette’s objectives for this school year, to help the district sketch a “road map to a road map,” according to board President Joe Radabaugh.
“I am supportive of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Radabaugh, who will partner with board member Kaitzer Puglia to work with Sinnette in framing the specifics of the DEI goals of creating a welcoming environment for all stakeholders regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors. “It really fits with our historic focus on the whole child, not just academic excellence but making them good people and preparing them for the future, especially staging them for success in an ever increasingly diverse world.”
Board member Dan Jeffries noted it’s a tradition for the LCUSD to place issues that “we consider to be very important” on the superintendent’s short list of goals. Sinnette did not provide details about the next step but acknowledged the importance of Hale-Elliott’s three-year implementation plan, which “identifies clear actions, strategies and deliverables” each year, helping staff members determine the effectiveness of actions and services in meeting the goals. Any plans will be reviewed and voted on by the board.
However, community stakeholders continued to voice concerns regarding what they see as the district’s unhurried response to Hale-Elliott’s report — based on data collected through interviews, surveys and focus groups with students, teachers, staff and parents over the past year — that clearly outlined recommended steps for the district to follow moving forward.
Several parents urged the LCUSD to renew a contract with Hale-Elliott, who currently is working with Flintridge Prep and Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, to give her the opportunity to work with most of the schools in La Cañada Flintridge toward shared goals.
Board members initially discussed the possible formation of a committee or group that would listen to more stakeholders to clearly define diversity, equity and inclusion and determine the best course of action.
“That’s what I want to see as sort of a next step,” said board member Andrew Blumenfeld. “I want to see a mechanism by which we are bringing the community into this conversation completely and using that body, whatever it is — a task force, a coalition, a committee — to put those definitions together as a sort of prerequisite for whatever future steps have to be taken to turn into reality.”
Though not opposed to a committee, Hale-Elliott questioned its potential purpose, considering the fact that she already gathered a year’s worth of data in regard to the DEI conversation.
“In looking to gather more voices and more perspectives, what is it that we’re hoping to gain from that?” Hale-Elliott asked. “I feel as though part of the process — I think I shared this last time — in spending the better part of a year conducting that research was in gaining that input from different constituency groups. The question is: What are we hoping for now in getting more input?”
In her report, Hale-Elliott advocated the creation of an equity team that develops clear, actionable steps rather than more discourse and data gathering.
Puglia defended the idea of forming a committee by saying that it would allow the district and its stakeholders to understand DEI.
“I don’t necessarily think that perspective is trying to see if people are for or against or what else needs to be added, it’s more ‘Let’s help you understand what these definitions are,’” Puglia said. “I also think it’s important to help everyone understand what meanings are, what pain has been experienced, what pain hasn’t, what experiences have been. And so I think we need to make sure everyone is aware.”
Hale-Elliott agreed that “awareness is key,” but advised the board to proceed with some sense of urgency.
“Having spent so much time talking with individuals during focus groups and looking at survey data and hearing from every group about this culture of fear that exists, I just want to caution to not be too hesitant in our approach because I think that fear is real, and I think that can bring about some pushback and some resistance to the work,” Hale-Elliott said. “And I think without being really intentional about forward movement, there’s a likelihood of spinning wheels, and I think this work is too important for that to happen to it. … This real existence of fear around what comes with having these conversations, I think, also needs to be named and that it doesn’t become a stumbling block in moving forward.”
Blumenfeld noted that in order for LCUSD to grow, the community must take part as well, and the district must develop “a culture of openness, which means there has to be a culture of forgiveness and a culture of giving people the benefit of the doubt.”
When asked on Wednesday to clarify the need for gathering more community input regarding DEI, Sinnette and Radabaugh responded in a joint statement that the goal is to listen to all voices in the community to work toward “the best possible outcomes.”
“One of the consistent things we heard related to DEI is that we seek more in-depth community input on the objectives and priorities before we finalize and the board approves. We agree with that feedback and feel a DEI committee comprised of a cross-section of the community is a critical means to that end,” they said.
Meanwhile, at the meeting on Tuesday, Hale-Elliott reiterated her apprehension about prolonging the process: “What’s the assurance for [those who experienced trauma] that there is forward movement, that there’s not going to be delay after delay after delay?
“Yes, people have a lot on their plate right now as they’re dealing with the pandemic, but many are also thinking about how to grapple with this other huge systemic issue,” Hale-Elliott added. “So how can the school system, how can the district support that?”
Jeffries echoed the consultant’s worries and expressed concern for current students as the district determines an appropriate plan.
“From Christina’s report, we know we have students who do not feel comfortable and welcome at their own schools now, and we need to recognize that there are students in that situation,” Jeffries said. “While it might be great to have a committee to study it, make recommendations, implement things in the future, I think we have an obligation to current students and families.”
Not all stakeholders, however, agreed with the DEI report and its recommendations, most notably the suggestion of reviewing and revising district and school policies and curriculum. One parent wrote a letter saying he has seen “no evidence of racism” in the district and that the board should “focus on maintaining excellence” in this “special place” and not lose sight of that “because of this ideological fad.”
Sinnette acknowledged that there will be more difficult discussions to be had with parents going forward.
“Along the way, there have been really powerful contributors to our community who might not agree with [this] work,” Sinnette said. “So it’s my obligation to listen to them. I may not agree with them, but I will be respectful to them, and we will make sure that we’re being inclusive. People might not get the outcomes that they’re looking for, but if they’ve been heard and dealt with respectfully, I think that’s a really important step to take, and that’s a lot of hard work.”
Another parent wrote that the district should postpone its DEI efforts and focus on the reopening of schools, to which Hale-Elliott responded that DEI is an essential element to education.
“The DEI conversation is, yes, a part of social-emotional wellness,” Hale-Elliott said, “but I also think when we’re talking about educating all students as being the No. 1 priority, that’s part of this conversation as well. When students are voicing that they don’t see themselves reflected [by staff] and they don’t feel a connection with the curriculum or they feel as though they can’t have their full humanity shared because there are aspects of their identity they have to keep secret for fear of being chastised or ridiculed or bullied.
“I think those are real barriers to having access to that robust education that I know this district prides itself in. I think it’s important we see these things as together and not as a separate piece because, again, as a public school district, the responsibility is to educate all children. So if any students are feeling as though they’re not having access to that, then that is an issue around really the core goal of educating all students.”
The district has taken some action related to DEI in the past year, Sinnette said, such as forming an alumni community mentorship program that focuses on the issue, engaging in a DEI student and staff book club at LCHS, professional development at all levels and efforts to engage with a more diverse applicant pool to fill open staff positions.
Hale-Elliott told the board that she hopes to continue helping the district, even if it is looking for somebody else to fill a permanent position to take the lead during the process.
“I think there are so many things unique to this work that it’s really worthwhile to have somebody with the background and expertise and who will be a visionary, to whom there can be follow-ups around and accountability for the work,” she said.
During the nearly two-hour discussion, Sinnette read a lengthy proclamation stating that she stands for all stakeholders within the district, especially the children.
“I don’t stand for, as your superintendent, publicly charged divisiveness, unreasonableness and disrespect,” she said. “I don’t stand for intolerance or racism. I don’t believe in entitlement or hysteria, and I will not condone mean-spiritedness or fear. The DEI initiative that I commit to assigning as one of my goals will foster a climate of care and a climate of continuous improvement.
“I am not African American, I am not ‘LatinX,’ I’m not a Korean American, not a Chinese American, but I am an ally. I am an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I am a 58-year-old white woman, but I have been discriminated against as a woman. But I’m here for you to do the work, and we will do it well and we will do it as a community. And if that is what the board wants to commit to, then I can ensure you that the work will get done, and it will get done in the right way.”