APS tackles diversity issues

Julian Williams, vice president for inclusion and diversity at George Mason University, on March 14, 2019, delivered a report addressing diversity issues to Arlington School Board members.

Will Arlington Public Schools’ next steps to address student-achievement disparities among racial and ethnic groups, and building a welcoming school system for all, be mostly talk or mostly action?

That was the question left hanging after School Board members on March 14 formally received a consultant’s report on addressing diversity issues.

“The core values [to support diversity] really exist” within the school system, but are  not always matched by results, said Julian Williams, the vice president for inclusion and diversity at George Mason University, who was contracted to develop the report.

In remarks, Williams said APS needs to avoid “knee-jerk and reactionary approaches” that “may satisfy communities for a moment” but have no long-term impact.

Instead, he proposed sustained and strategic efforts, including creating the post of chief diversity officer, better recruitment of minority educators and improved training for all staff.

The school system could reap “a ton of value” from targeted efforts, Williams said.

Some parents and activists with intimate knowledge of the school-system’s inner workings wondered if the school system was serious, or attempting to place a Band-Aid on diversity matters.

A chief diversity officer is less important than “boots on the ground in the schools,” said Lisa Blackwell, the parent of a middle-schooler, who worried that the school system would use budget concerns to cut diversity programs already in place.

Emily Vincent, a vice president of the County Council of PTAs, said the report was deficient in a number of areas – she wondered aloud why 10 of the 14 people interviewed for it were white and why it included no input from students and families, among other groups – and told Superintendent Patrick Murphy and School Board members they needed to be more aggressive and empowering.

“We need to stop having advisory meetings and have action meetings,” Vincent said. “We must identify barriers and remove them.”

Alfiee Breland-Noble, a researcher in mental-health issues among racially diverse youth, said the recommendations in the report were fine, but didn’t go far enough. A chief resource officer needs staff and resources to address “almost seemingly intractable institutional racism,” Breland-Noble said, suggesting that the School Board could start by restoring proposed cuts in diversity funding.

School Board Vice Chairman Tannia Talento, who is serving as the board’s liaison on diversity issues, acknowledged that neither the report, nor past actions of the school system, have addressed all concerns.

“We have made many, many steps forward, but we have many, many, many, many steps to go,” Talento said.

She echoed Williams’ theme that attempts at one-time fixes were not beneficial, and asked the community for time to move forward.

“This needs to stand and last for generations to come,” Talento said. “This cannot happen overnight.”

Blackwell added that reports and meetings won’t help unless there is buy-in across the community.

“We need to treat each other with respect – that’s how we move forward,” she said.

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