LCUSD Workshop Tackles Diversity, Inclusion

Photo by Wes Woods II / OUTLOOK
Attendees from this week’s “Cultivating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop listen to consultant Christina Hale-Elliott and LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette.

At the first workshop to cultivate feedback on diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the La Cañada Unified School District, Superintendent Wendy Sinnette laid out some pertinent themes for discussion, including student safety and how to better create an atmosphere of acceptance and empathy.
More than 50 parents, administrators and community members attended the Tuesday event, the first of two workshops titled “Cultivating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” hosted by Sinnette and newly hired consultant Christina Hale-Elliott, a specialist in those issues.
The LCUSD workshop and consultancy later filled by Hale-Elliott were planned after alleged offensive and discriminatory language was overheard at a series of basketball games during the 2018-19 season.
In late March, the LCHS administration concluded an investigation into the alleged behavior and determined that a “slur” and repeated profanity were used at a CIF championship game. Officials have said discipline was issued.
During the workshop’s open discussion session, Sinnette referred to that reported behavior.
In response, senior Isabella Portantino asked why it took a basketball game to begin the process to discuss social issues and unacceptable behavior.
“I know for a fact here some of my friends have been bullied, excluded, shunned and assaulted and no action has been taken,” said Portantino, 18. “How come this was the event that sparked all of the change?”
Sinnette answered that it was more than just that one event.
“I think it’s a journey and not a singular event that makes a community turn and say, ‘Oh, we need to pay attention to this,’” Sinnette said. “But there are moments in time that surface so people say we need attention to something that’s very important. And that’s why I’m really glad work is starting. Maybe not soon enough. … At least it’s starting and I’m really happy you’re here.”
Meanwhile, Hale-Elliott introduced herself to the audience.
“I’m excited to be here,” she told the gathering that also included LCUSD Governing Board members and administration. “I’m making sure as quickly as possible we’re working toward ensuring all students have that sense of belonging, that sense of empathy, and tools from K-12.”
Hale-Elliott is the founder and principal consultant of Elliott Educational Services, and in that role she provides technical assistance and professional development to groups such as school districts and teacher education and parent advocacy groups, according to her biography.
A Pasadena native, Hale-Elliott has been in the field of social justice education for more than 20 years and received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Harvard University.
During the 1½-hour program, which included slides and presentations from Sinnette and Hale-Elliott, attendees were able to ask questions and participate in small-group discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Two handouts discussing the topics were also available to attendees, along with free sandwiches and light refreshments.
Hale-Elliott explained with slides why the effort matters. As a school district, she said, LCUSD is charged with educating every child and is responsible for preparing all students for success in TK-12 and beyond.
She added she was toward the end of stage 1 of conducting needs assessments and to that end has interviewed district and school administrators, visited school sites and conducted focus groups with current and former LCUSD parents. The next step will be to implement a plan from December through May 2020. On Jan. 16, she said, there will be a family learning series event titled “Bringing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Home” using feedback from her meetings.
Sinnette was asked during the presentation what she might say to parents in the district who have said they don’t believe there’s a problem.
“I think it’s through education and a culture shift, and I think it’s going to take time and it’s going to take work,” said Sinnette, adding that the district is “committed to that work,” but also noted that she’s received emails from families who have said the effort is a “waste of money.”
“I’ll disagree, because I think it’s important that we’re meeting the needs of every learner and that every family feels welcome. And that people aren’t [only] tolerating difference but celebrating it,” Sinnette said. “We are a richer community because of diversity. We’re a richer community because we value each other. And people come to the table with different tools, different skills, different levels of ability. And all of that needs to be equitably recognized. But like I said, this is systemic work and just the beginning.”
District parent and actor Courtney B. Vance spoke about his and his children’s experiences in the community a few times during the presentation, mentioning at one point that “as a black man in this district there are certain things my children have had to deal with that the white children and the Asian children have not had to deal with.”
Afterward, Vance said he feels the diversity, equity and inclusion effort is needed.
“It’s what we need to do more of,” Vance said. “The district needs to do more gathering and talk and talk. And like Dr. Johnetta Cole, the former president of Spelman [College], said, we need to talk about our differences until our differences don’t make a difference. We need to talk about it.”
District parent Jaime Canaday said she feels encouraged the district is trying to tackle the issue.
“It’s great they’re talking about this openly,” said Canaday, who recently moved from New York City and has two daughters in the district.
Ellen Portantino, the mother of Isabella and wife of state Sen. Anthony Portantino, said she feels events like the one Tuesday are important because when local youth leave high school and LCF, they need a broader set of social skills that should be sensitive and inclusive. Isabella Portantino, standing with her mother, also said she found the event valuable because her concerns were listened to.
“I think it was a good experience coming here,” Portantino said, adding that she expects any efforts will take a lot of time to result in change. “It’ll take a lot of work … I know with Challenge Success [the widespread program that promotes ‘whole student’ success], I heard about it two years ago and it’s starting to show signs [of progress], but it’s been two years.
“It’ll just take a lot of time for this program to really show big, significant progress.”
The second workshop was held Wednesday morning.

Leave a Reply