Friday, June 5, 2009

Diversity Dialog...and the children shall lead

Last night, the school board held a long awaited follow-up to the inaugural meeting on dealing with diversity issues in the district. This time, district leaders recruited school kids within the district to have a group discussion regarding diversity issues within the district.

Let's get the not-so-good out of the way first. The location, the Patrick Marsh Middle School library is not exactly well-suited for a meeting of this type. The arrangement of available tables felt awkward. Participants could not easily see or communicate with each other. We like the idea of getting the public out to see the schools, but surely a better location within the school was a perhaps a roundtable setting in the cafeteria, gym, or auditorium?

The other unfortunate aspect was that by breaking the entire group up into four separate groups (in four separate rooms) provided observers (like us) with only 25% of the input from the kids. Once re-convened, the summaries of the group discussions were presented by school board members or district staff. We would have appreciated experiencing more of the actual discussion from the kids. As with some reality TV, the raw footage often provides far more valuable insight than the director's final cut.

The rest was all good. Perhaps what was most enjoyable was again having the school board be seen and not heard. We think this opportunity to be the audience rather than the talking heads at the head table is a constructive exercise for them in obtaining a better understanding of how those few dedicated observers (you know, the constituency) of the school board feel. This was the kids' show, after all. And they had a lot of great things to share.

The 5 Discussion Questions
1. What does diversity mean in terms of schools?

Every year on the student surveys of 6th, 8th, and 10th graders we ask this question: "Regardless of any differences, students in this school treat each other with respect." The average scores (on a scale of 5 with 5 meaning
'strongly agree' and 1 being 'strongly disagree') have been:

2006 = 2.5; 2007=2.6; 2008=2.8

2. These are low scores, meaning about half the students taking the survey don't agree with this statement. It has been the most disagreed with question of all on the survey and the scores go down as students get older. Why do you think this is so?

3. The scores have been improving steadily. Can you think of any thing that may be helping improve this in your school?

4. This past year have you experienced any challenge, barrier, or problem because you may be different in some way from most other students? If yes, please describe the experience. If no, explain why you think this may be.

5. If you could ask the people in charge of your school to do just one thing to make things better, in terms of diversity, what would that be?

What was most poignant was listening to the students relate their specific experiences. Two girls were each chastised by others for joining a particular (different in each case) club. Another was subjected to clearly racial (whether with or without malice of intent) comments about features. Without question, these experiences are hurtful, to say the least. We have largely become an insensitive people. On the positive side, it was heartening to hear (and believe) that each of these kids has taken the inappropriate comments and behaviors in stride. It seems that they refuse to let those things keep them from their dreams and personal goals. Those seemingly small, yet powerful captured moments, coming from the students, for us anyways, are so much more valuable than the trite anecdotes served up by district super adminisintendentrator Tim Culver.

Perhaps as an appropriate conclusion to the meeting, one of the student participants asked innocently if "this was it", clearly wondering if anything else was in store, or was the night's discussion the beginning, middle, and end of the diversity discussion. We're right with you, young lady. The school board continues to have a problem with making the public--and even the students--aware of what they are trying to accomplish (for any particular issue): what are the goals/objectives, what is the process, what is the timetable, when will we know what you decided?