Sandy Spring Friends School

 

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Diversity Audit Update 

Most SSFS community members will know that SSFS undertook a diversity audit in the spring of 2019, leading to the creation of a comprehensive report to the school community and the formulation of a diversity audit Action Plan. The action items are listed in the report, linked above. This blog post seeks to update the school community on the work done over the past few months in response to the action items.

First steps involved communicating the results of the audit to the community, and seeking validation of the School’s planned action steps. Presentation and feedback sessions were held in the fall with parents, faculty and staff, upper school students, and the board of Trustees. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is never complete, so the Action Plan is viewed as a living administrative document that will change over time as work is accomplished, new priorities and challenges emerge, and our understanding matures.  As a case in point, four additional action items have been added to the Action Plan as a result of discussions with students and faculty/staff: 

  • Develop an approach and plan for training substitute teachers regarding SSFS values and expectations with regard to inclusion, equity, respecting identity, understanding of student learning plans. 
  • Create a formal plan for making campus buildings accessible to persons of all physical abilities.
  • Examine and respond to the specific needs of our community members in supporting mental well-being and improving mental health education.
  • Seek ways to expand community inclusiveness and support for those with diagnoses and differences that impact work and learning.

As a way to keep work on the Action Plan alive and on a front burner, Tom Gibian, Head of School, asked that a committee be formed to serve as a check and feedback mechanism. A small, nimble, and independent committee of faculty and staff has formed in order to monitor our progress on the Action Plan. The Action Plan Oversight Committee is a subcommittee of the existing All-School Diversity Committee (ASDC) and serves as a communications nexus between the administrative team, the All School Meeting for Business (the employee community to which the ASDC reports), and, by extension, the Board of Trustees (via its Diversity, Community, and Spiritual Life Committee) and the greater school community.

The top priority item that emerged from the audit was to add a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEI) position to the school staff starting in the 2020-2021 school year. It was broadly felt that this needs to be a senior level administrative position that reports directly to the Head of School. Subsequently, a DDEI position description was drafted and circulated, a faculty-staff search committee was formed, and that group is well into the process of soliciting and interviewing potential candidates, with finalist candidate visits to campus expected over the next couple of weeks. It is the search committee’s goal to recommend a candidate to the Head of School, with hopes of having the position filled by early March. This process will involve campus visits of finalist candidates, and these visits will include conversations with representatives from the various school constituent groups.  

Hiring a faculty, staff, and administration that reflect the diversity of our student population has been a school priority for some time, and the diversity audit (as well as emerging research on how students learn best) draws a sharp point on this initiative.  In the spring, the School’s senior leadership team participated in a two-day workshop on implicit bias and the hiring process.  And, in the fall, a group of nineteen teachers and staff members participated in a three-day workshop and training on the same topic.  Both workshops were led by a skilled facilitator from the Center for Professional Education of Teachers at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.  Going forward, one member from the training will sit on each search committee at the School as a diversity advocate for that search.  Over time, the school expects to conduct additional trainings to expand the circle of diversity advocates for searches, as well as the overall institutional skill level. In addition, the School’s hiring guidelines have been revised with an eye towards anti-bias practices and the greater diversification of applicant pools. 

Across different constituent groups in the school community, there is a need for greater support for those  who share a common identity and culture among groups that have historically been marginalized, including among students, parents, and employees. The School is seeking ways to provide stronger support structures, including peer support networks such as affinity groups. The Parents Association is supporting an initiative, via its Intersect program, to identify and initiate affinity groups among parents, as well as promoting cross-group dialogue. The Upper School formed an affinity group committee with the intent of better supporting existing, as well as helping students identify and foster additional affinity groups where needed. The school leadership is looking for ways to support the formation and health of employee affinity groups, and it is expected that the person entering the DEI Director role will play a critical role in guiding and supporting such groups.

Via the audit, students expressed concerns about the uneven application of discipline.  Concerns seem to arise primarily within the daily experiences in classroom and other settings where bias may enter in-the-moment interactions between students and teachers, but there is a desire to also examine formal discipline structures, practices, and patterns across all three divisions, including the development of  clearly articulated, school-wide guiding principles. To this end, the Division Heads Group is utilizing the support of an outside consultant to assist discussions, initiatives, and the development of tools to address the above goals. This work is beginning now and will likely continue into the 2020-2021 year, with running changes made as points of clarity are reached.

The experiences of international students and boarding students is another area of focus.  Natural barriers can emerge from differences in culture, language, and living circumstances among students.  The Upper School is examining these challenges and developing better systems, staff training, and residential life programming to increase cultural competence remove structural barriers. This work includes the dormitory staff working with an independent consultant to examine implicit bias and how it can affect residential living and cross-cultural relationships. The broad goal is to provide enhanced support for not only international students and boarding students, but for their families, as well. Increased utilization this year of translation services, teleconferencing technologies, and teleconference “coffee and conversation” events are additional concrete steps in this area. 

An additional priority area is creation/clarification of pathways for concerns or incidents related to equity and inclusion to be brought forward, addressed, and communicated.  This can be complicated terrain that can involve aspects of accountability and evaluation, potential conflicts between the need for transparency and the need for confidentiality or privacy (both necessary for building trust but very situational). It is common for such structures to involve the DEI practitioner(s) in a school, and we seek to have our DEI Director, a new role in the school structures, to be involved in the discussions to develop these pathways. While discussions have already begun, it is likely that a full address of this action item will come after the new DEI Director is in place and on campus. 

The Board of Trustees has been a leading voice in the creation of the diversity audit, and the Board continues to take a high degree of interest in our progress via the Action Plan.  Moreover, the Board has its own action items with regard to trustee diversity, as well as board training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Board’s Committee on Trustees and the Diversity, Community, and Spiritual Life Committee will continue to be key agents in efforts to have greater Board diversity and to further strengthen institutional cultural competence. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in our curriculum is an additional focus that emerged from discussions as a priority action item. Curriculum is a “big topic” that infuses every programmatic aspect of the school and has many layers of responsibility. The initial commitment is for the School to explicitly include DEI considerations in every aspect of curriculum review and revision. The work to identify exactly how this happens, and what benchmarks are needed, remains before us. 

Finally, the community's noted response to the Diversity Audit action items are only one facet of a complex commitment; a truly responsive community will demonstrate authentic buy-in to the importance of DEI work through all of its existing programming. Specific to SSFS, Upper and Middle School Assemblies, student-led panels, classroom discussions, staff professional development work, and inclusive teaching practices are just a few examples of events and spaces where DEI work has been and will be ongoing. Indeed, one way to mark our progress is by observing the organic way in which DEI work becomes pervasively evident in our programs and practices as communicated out in our many forms of divisional and school-wide outreach. If these grow organically via the School’s many ways of communicating about events and happenings at all levels, and if you are able to see them as part of the daily dialogue about the life of the school, then we will be on our way to being a more fully inclusive community. 

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