Solana Beach School District board approves new equity policy

File photo
(Staff file photo)

The Solana Beach School District approved its new policy on diversity, equity and inclusion at its June 17 meeting. The policy aims to create classroom and school environments where all children feel safe, valued, respected and included and “ to ensure equitable access and opportunity for all students.”

“We have a very rich and diverse community and we want to grow in that diversity,” SBSD Superintendent Jodie Brentlinger said.

The approved policy states that in order to eradicate institutional racism or bias of any kind, as well as eliminate disparities in access to educational outcomes for students from underserved and underrepresented populations, “the district shall identify and correct any negative cultural biases as well as practices, policies, and institutional barriers that negatively influence student learning.”

The policy directs the board and superintendent to develop and implement strategies to promote equity such as building a positive school climate, adopting curriculum and instructional materials that accurately reflect the diversity among student groups, promoting the employment and retention of a diverse staff, and providing staff with ongoing professional development on culturally responsive, anti-racist and social justice-oriented instructional and discipline practices.

The district plans to get to work on its next steps, developing how they will implement this policy, by engaging the community with three community meetings in fall 2021.

Since the May 20 meeting with the first reading of the policy, SBSD President Vicki King, said she received many phone calls and emails sharing very personal experiences that children have had on their campuses: “I learned that there are still several students who do not feel safe and do not feel accepted in our schools and it really does break my heart.

“I really believe that it’s my duty, obligation and responsibility to pass a policy that assures that every single student has a safe and nourishing learning environment, that has them feel that they matter and like their gifts can advance the world,” Vicki King said. “If people don’t feel valued, we can’t get to learning.”

Board member Dana King said he heard a lot of community members’ fears about the policy and he was distressed by what he said were false narratives giving a sense that it was a much more divisive process. He said many of the concerns and fears he heard had nothing to do with the board policy and he believes that the fall’s community meetings to develop the district’s DEI program will create a high level of confidence.

“The hardest thing is going to be the next step and that’s creating ‘the how’. It’s the heavy lifting,” Dana King said. “Everyone is going to be included in this process and there’s an excellent opportunity to verify that the concerns some people expressed are not going to happen.”

While she voted in favor the policy, board member Julie Union still had some reservations about the policy and its unintended consequences surrounding educational impacts. She supported the original plan to have more community engagement and requested pushing the decision until the fall in order to have at least one more staff and one more community meeting before the vote.

“I think it would add more trust in this process and really help stakeholders feel heard,” Union said.

At the June 17 meeting, the board heard from 34 speakers during public comment representing a variety of different perspectives, some in support of the policy and some opposed. The Parents for Equity group submitted a letter in support with signatures from 97 parents from every school in the district, representing many different family structures, socioeconomic backgrounds and faiths.

“As a multi-ethnic and first-generation immigrant family it is critical for us that our children are educated in a safe and inclusive environment,” said Marzio Pedrali-Noy, a Solana Ranch parent. “We believe that in order to eradicate institutional racism and biases of any kind we need to have teachers and administrators that are appropriately trained in anti-bias and culturally responsive practices.”

Parents and teachers said they supported the policy’s efforts to help students feel known, develop empathy and awareness of self and others. Parents said an inclusive curriculum, experiencing diversity and developing cultural awareness in the classroom can help children succeed in a diverse world and could help prevent developing prejudices and harmful beliefs.

Neha Khetan, a Carmel Creek parent, shared how when her daughter started first grade she was hesitant to talk about her Indian culture because she didn’t want to be different and wanted to fit in. However, later in the year when her classroom learned about the many different cultural holidays, including Diwali which she celebrates at home, Khetan noticed how excited her daughter was to go to school and share with her classmates about who she was.

“Representation matters and this policy is about representation,” said Khetan. “It’s not about exclusion or blaming or making anyone feel bad. It’s not about theory or politics. It’s about letting our youngest children be seen.”

“(The policy) is about who we have been, what we are willing to do now and who we want to be as a community,” echoed parent Jay Bijlani.

Work on the policy started in June 2020, when the board adopted a resolution affirming a commitment to fight institutional racism. A 14-member advisory board created last August consisting of staff, administrators, parents and community members met monthly since October to draft the policy.

Parent Diana Baldwin, who served on the policy subcommittee, said there are still concerns that need to be addressed.

“This policy as written has the potential to completely transform education as we know it in this district,” said Baldwin, who has shared her concerns with the board that the policy “echoes the tenets of the controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory”, compromises academics, confuses gender and promotes hated and a “victim-mentality”.

Those who spoke out in opposition of the policy worried that developing culturally responsive, anti-racist and social justice-oriented instructional practices might have the opposite to the desired effect and will instead “separate and divide.”

Parents who were opposed described the policy as demeaning and exclusionary, encouraging teachings that are contrary to some families’ religious beliefs and worries that it could be used as justification for equal outcomes and not equal opportunities, such as equity-based math programs and the elimination of honors programs.

Other parents said that the policy is attempting to solve “a non-existent crisis.”

“We’re not clear about the reasons or timing…we thought we were doing a good job,” said Mingming Zhang, a Solana Pacific and Solana Highlands parent. “We think little kids are simple and innocent and overemphasizing differences in color, race and creed may cast a shadow on their hearts and create more division than unity.”

Marie Roll agreed.

“This is a middle to high income community with plenty of resources to aid anyone in need. What needs are not currently being met that this policy addresses in our district?” Roll asked. “If there aren’t any, then this policy is nothing more than virtue signaling, race pandering and extremely patronizing to the non-White residents in this community.”

In their board discussion, Vice President Debra Schade said there was nothing in the policy that gave her pause. Vicki King said she believed that many of the parents’ concerns will be addressed as they develop how they will implement the policy.

Brentlinger said it is not true that massive changes will be quickly implemented as a result of the policy and she said nothing in the policy lowers standards, sets children back academically or creates a more divisive society.

“It is not about promoting any one perspective or any one political or ideological viewpoint or any one group over another,” Brentlinger said. “This isn’t about imparting or promoting one opinion or historical record over another. It’s about helping our students develop the skills that will help them create a better and brighter future and will help them compete in a global, diverse economy.”

She said she has heard from parents that “everything is fine” but she has also heard stories of when it hasn’t been fine. In Brentlinger’s own experience during a school read-aloud, she said a fifth grade student told her that as a first grader another student said they didn’t want to play with them because of the color of their skin. She said the district needs to recognize its role in creating a safe and healthy environment where every student feels included and represented.

“The next step is the hard one. People are going to have to engage,” Dana King said. “And I think they are going to see that this is not the boogeyman that some people have been saying. This is the opportunity to make this district even greater.

“We’re not losing honors programs, we’re not losing the opportunities for greatness …we’re really saying that everyone is able to be lifted by the rising tide that floats all boats. That doesn’t mean that every boat is the same but every boat has a certain opportunity that is unmatched in taking their best skills and creating that best outcome.”