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Saranac Lake schools receive grant for diversity work

From left, Alex Delahant, Aiston Lin, Max Karp, Leo Dong and Ella Muldowney pose at Multicultural Night at Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake in February 2020. (Photo provided — Temnit Muldowney)

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education has secured grant funding that will help board members, district staff and local families better understand and address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in its schools.

The $2,000 grant will be administered by the district’s new DEI committee, which was formed after a summer that saw increased national and local engagement in racial justice issues. The grant has been awarded through the Adirondack Foundation’s Saranac Lake Public School Education Fund.

Dr. Dorothy Federman of Saranac Lake established the fund in 2002 for the Saranac Lake public schools in order to “support exploration of controversial topics with curiosity and respect and to recognize the role of public education in preserving our open society, the common good and trust in each other.”

Jessica Jakobe, a committee member and speech-language pathologist with the district who is also a member of the New York State United Teachers Civil and Human Rights Committee, said the grant funds will be used to hire a consultant to facilitate group discussions among students, families, faculty and staff about issues related to race, culture and diversity.

“My grandchildren are now attending Saranac Lake public schools,” Federman said. “Jesse Jakobe’s serious interest in creating a space for questioning, critical thinking and dialogue is exactly what I want my fund to support.”

The school board formed its DEI committee in September 2020, three months after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent racial justice protests nationwide. In June, Saranac Lake High School valedictorian Francine Newman delivered a graduation address that revealed the overt racism and implicit racial biases she and other people of color experience in the local community and at school.

The committee’s 12 members represent the Board of Education, faculty and student body, and are supported by the district superintendent. In the weeks since their first meeting on Oct. 8, 2020, they have developed goals and action items aimed at providing equitable, inclusive and diverse opportunities for all students.

Jakobe and colleague Temnit Muldowney spearheaded the district’s annual Multicultural Night, which celebrates cultural diversity with elementary school students. The project launched in 2018 and has grown every year since, gathering over 300 people last year to view students’ poster displays, taste international cuisine and learn more about cultures from around the world.

Jakobe and the DEI committee have also started a book club that allows participants to explore and discuss DEI issues in a safe space. Nearly 60 teachers, staff and administrators attended the club’s first meeting on Feb. 22 to discuss the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

The SLCSD DEI Committee meets on the third Thursday of every month from 5 to 6:30 p.m. via Google Meet at meet.google.com/csk-zjnw-goz, or by phone at 402-628-0107, PIN *120 856 564, #. All committee meetings are open to the public.

“Our students are graduating into a very global society, and we need to prepare them for living in an increasingly diverse world,” said Nancy Bernstein, school board member and DEI committee chair.

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