Following wide division in New Canaan after removing the words ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ or “DEI” from a working draft of the district’s goals and objectives, the Board of Education at its most recent meeting signaled that it would try to reset and de-politicize the tone of its discussion and future work.
In what appeared to be a largely orchestrated meeting—most Board of Ed members read from prepared statements—the elected body on Sept. 7 voted unanimously in favor of including the following language in the district’s goals and objectives:
“Continuously strengthen all schools and classroom communities to ensure every student feels they belong and are safe, connected, welcomed and engaged in inclusive, respectful, equitable and supportive learning environments. NCPS will deepen students’ understanding of a range of differences among people by fostering empathy and respect for all and to celebrate the unique and varied contributions each of us makes to the community and beyond. In this regard, NCPS will initiate a process including the Board of Education and other stakeholders and, informed by research, to develop a district-wide statement supporting this goal with short- and long-term action items.”
Board members said that the last sentence, presented by Board Chair Katrina Parkhill, reflects their commitment to “the spirit” of what had previously been written into the district’s goals and objectives as “diversity, equity and inclusion” or “DEI” (now removed).
Board member Erica Schwedel said, “To me, diversity is valuing and celebrating students for all of their differences, equity is giving students differentiated tools and support to reach their own greatest potential, and inclusion is making sure every student feels valued, accepted, a part of the community and that their voice matters. With these definitions, I support using the words ‘DEI’ in the goals and I have confidence that we as a board will carve a path forward that is authentic, meaningful and right for New Canaan.”
Schwedel added that she’s heard concerns from some in the community with DEI and “how it’s been framed and implemented in other [non-school-related] contexts,” and in other places, but that New Canaan “has always found our way to do things, and I still have confidence in our ability to find the right path forward.”
“But in the interest of moving forward with the district’s work, I have been and I continue to be open to using different words to achieve the intent of that language, which I do think we are able to accomplish together.”
Parkhill and Schwedel, Board Chair Brendan Hayes, Secretary Dan Bennett and members Julie Toal, Hugo Alves, Phil Hogan and Penny Rashin voted in favor of the updated goals and objectives. Board member Bob Naughton was absent.
Though in recent meetings, language similar to what Parkhill suggested received criticism that it didn’t go far enough and amounted to “punting down the field” with respect to DEI, and Board members said during the Sept. 7 meeting that it is committed to acting on the goal.
Rashin said, “I think we need to map out and have specific steps and actions that we’re going to do to bring this new layer of education, new approach really to what we’ve been doing all along, into fruition and fold it into the curriculum smoothly. So I think we need to have a committee, long-term and short-term goals, and work through them with our talented administrators and have a group of stakeholders.”
She added that in mapping out next steps, the future committee should consider the many statements made by alumni and parents “that our students need to be ready to come out of the New Canaan ‘bubble’ or whatever you call it.”
“New Canaan is a wonderful community,” Rashin said. “It’s a small community. And they need to be ready to face everything they’re going to face in the global world.”
Hayes said that what he liked about Parkhill’s language is that “we actually set up a process to do something.”
“We know that this is a deficiency, as we’ve talked about, and it’s important that we come together both as a Board and with the community and stakeholders… and find a path foard to optimize this area of learning for our kids,” he said.
Bennett said some members of the public expressed a concern that the Board was “abandoning” or “not moving forward” on the work outlined in the past in terms of DEI in the district’s goals and objectives.
“This hopefully makes it clear to people that we will work on a statement and do the work and come up with action items,” Bennett said.
If the Board does take action on the goal, it will do more in that respect than the “prior” Board—the school board was largely remade through last year’s municipal election—which had added DEI to the goals in the summer of 2020.
The focus on Goal #3 emerged last month after the school board removed DEI-specific wording while working through drafts of rewritten district goals. Though the Board has agreed on its language, several questions raised in the elected body’s recent meetings remain unanswered. For example, it’s unclear whether the majority of Board members perceive the New Canaan community’s lack of diversity as problematic for its public schools students, what role the Board thinks the district has in addressing it, or whether the Board will hire an outside consultant to facilitate its work and/or assess the school community and make recommendations.
Parkhill opened the relevant section of the meeting by thanking those who had come to address the Board recently and who sent more than 100 emails to members since the prior meeting on Aug. 22.
“Here is the undeniable truth: We are a community that cares deeply about our kids and our schools,” Parkhill said. “And I know that every one of us wants the best education for each child, in a learning environment where every individual feels safe, welcome, respected and included. The desire and belief in this common purpose and collective experience for all of our children is a shared goal among Board members, school administrators, teachers, parents, families, students and our community.”
Education is “what we do best” in New Canaan, Parkhill said.
“We all know that students who feel safe, respected and included are happier to come to school, more willing to engage and participate, and they are more passionate, well-behaved and well-rounded students. So when our classrooms foster openness, curiosity and a learning-driven, purposeful environment, students grow academically and socially. And I know we all agree on this. So I would ask that as a community, we have the courage—led by us, the Board of Education—to go forward on this together for the sake of our children. Let’s celebrate the commonality in our community, while also embracing all the diversity and the differences in opinion that make our town a hub for stimulating knowledge exchange, innovation, progress, caring for others, for one another and supporting those in need. And remind everyone that our mission is singularly focused on our student learning and experience, year over year, class after class.”
She called on the community to “learn from our kids, and we can begin by showing our students the power of lifting each other up, rather than tearing one another down.”
“As a newer BOE with a new set of goals and much work and learning ahead, I encourage us to continue Board of Education meetings in this safe space, where we check our political agendas and affiliations at the door, and in here we do the good work of our schools where we help our kids succeed,” Parkhill said. “So this Board has a long history of bipartisanship and together I know we will continue this tradition.”
Two of those who addressed the Board following its discussion and vote on the revised goals praised the elected body for its work.
Dietrich Moor said that he appreciated the Board’s debate that many comments made “resonated” with him. He described DEI as “a solution searching for a problem.”
“In the face of criticism, I hope that you don’t ultimately decide to reverse course, since I believe that this action is the just thing to do and that preserving an excellent system built over generations is also the most practical path forward,” Moor said. “My appeal to you is to hold faith with your voters, who I believe are watching closely.”
Hang Chen thanked the Board for its diligence and said she was “very impressed by all the hard work everyone did to keep New Canaan a place where kids can focus on their studies.”
Others who addressed the Board after the meeting were more skeptical.
Mike Rogers said that it’s a priority of the schools to help ensure students are well prepared when they leave home” and that “unfortunately removing DEI and then watering down the words of it tonight was a big step backwards toward that goal.”
“This board and our town leans right,” Rogers said. “The real world and the corporate world leans left and they’re leaning more into it. When our children leave this town with its pretty horizontal socioeconomic point of view, they are going to have women blouses, back boosses, gay bosses. They are going to have to navigate through policies that that they will have not encountered at our schools. I mean we have to import our black kids at this high school. We are not a diverse place. We are selling them short by not giving them more diversity.”
Maia Sapanski noted that New Canaan kids have received social-emotional learning for years, and urged the board “as you dig into your work, start doing your DEI or watered-down DEI research … that if a goal of yours is to tackle bullying in schools, DEI work does just that. The reasons that kids are bullied need to be met head-on and differences need to be normalized and celebrated.”
Alicia Meyer, a New Canaan parent who is president of the Board of Directors at ABC House of New Canaan, urged the Board of Ed to seek expert consultation and advice.
Though kids have received social-emotional learning, “homophobia is still rampant.”
“The things that come home that are said on the bus are horrible,” Meyer said. “The racist comments are horrible. I’m Hispanic. Racist things have been said to and about me, and our scholars at ABC House have had similar experiences. Years and years of sort of generic ‘kindness’ platitudes are not the same as actual DEI education. We can’t fix a problem that we won’t name. We can’t fix a problem that we refuse to name. We can’t fix a problem that we refuse to name for political reasons. Politics have no place here.”