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Board of Regents asks all NY schools to focus on diversity

The Board of Regents is calling on all school districts across the state to develop policies focused on diversity, equity and inclusion as part of a new statewide initiative.

Chancellor Lester Young, who presides over the board in charge of state education policy, on Monday outlined a draft framework that states the Regents’ new expectation of local districts and provides areas of focus those policies should address. The board also discussed the role the state Education Department should play in fostering deeper education on history and social studies, strengthening students’ civic engagement and improving the diversity of educators in the state.

“Through this framework, the Board of Regents asserts its expectation that all school districts will develop policies that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion – and that they will implement such policies with fidelity and urgency,” according to the draft, which Young said he expected to go up for adoption in May or June.

The draft framework outlines a series of areas those policies should aim to address: establishing a district diversity, equity and inclusion committee; examining and updating curriculum, teacher practice and training, and how students are sorted and grouped; engaging family and community members; improving workforce diversity.

The framework suggests part of the work districts take on include “specifically acknowledging the role that racism and bigotry have played, and continue to play, in the American story.”

The draft document highlights a confluence of events – including the “senseless, brutal killing of Black and Brown men and women” at the hands of police and a wave of discrimination against Asian Americans, Jewish Americans and other groups wrongly-characterized as “‘not quite American'” – as spurring a need to more strongly emphasize the importance of the diversity work in New York schools.

“Finally, we appear ready to address our long history of racism and bigotry, and the corrosive impact they have had on every facet of American life,” according to the draft framework.

The framework calls for a deeper understanding of American history and the ways that differences have been exploited and marginalized groups have been oppressed over time.

“How can students fully comprehend Westward Expansion without knowing what it was like for Native Americans to be violently displaced from their homes and forced to walk the Trail of Tears?” the framework states, posing various hypothetical questions. “How can they understand the full import of America’s involvement in World War II without hearing firsthand accounts of Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps by their own government?”

Young said it’s important that schools help “dispel that single story narrative” that teaches students an incomplete story of history – often one that shades out the parts that conflict with prized American values.

“All of our young people are entitled to know the whole truth,” Young said. “Many of the challenges we are facing are the direct result of ignorance.”

The frameworks calls on schools to teach new perspectives of old subjects, introducing students to new voices, texts and experiences.

“Schools must create opportunities for all students to learn from multiple perspectives – perspectives that are just as important and valid as the narrow point of view from which history and other content areas have traditionally been taught,” according to the draft.

Some school districts have taken up new diversity and equity policies over the last year, including recent policies in Niskayuna and Shenendehowa schools. A committee for months has been working on an equity policy to guide efforts in Schenectady.

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa cautioned that the framework was not a proscriptive curriculum that outlined specific lessons schools should teach – the classroom-level lessons that make up a district’s curriculum are left up to the local level. But the Regents are pushing districts to find ways to improve the diversity students are exposed to and evaluate the ways that longstanding practices may be fueling racial disparities.

Members of the board highlighted the need to deepen the state’s social studies standards and ensure that other laws and policies meant to mitigate discrimination are fully enforced. They also highlighted the importance of teaching students about the connections between dehumanizing language and the violence that sometimes results from that language.

Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, who represents the Capital Region and North Country, highlighted the fact that some districts have very few students of color and that those schools need opportunities to expose students to more diversity.

“There are schools where there is no diversity among the student body,” she said. “Let’s not forget that we need to expose some children… We’ve got a flip side to the diversity issue when there isn’t diversity.”

The Board of Regents, which will take up the framework again in the coming months for formal approval, also plans to establish a new work group tasked with making further policy recommendations on diversity, equity and inclusion and create more resources to share with schools.

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