At Monday night’s Valley Central School District Board of Education meeting, Gess LeBlanc gave a presentation on the district’s efforts to promote social and racial equality.
LeBlanc is associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling Programs at Hunter College. The district hired him in order to make their schools a more inclusive place. During the 2019-2020 school year, LeBlanc held focus groups with students to learn about their encounters with racism in the district. Over the summer, LeBlanc held a training with administrators that focused on building a framework for racial equity, fostering belonging and engagement as well as a strategic plan for hiring minority teachers.
On Monday, he updated the board of education regarding his recent work in the district. LeBlanc noted that there are two main goals of the district: enhancing the school climate so students as well as families feel a sense of belonging and to develop a sustainable approach to addressing issues of equity.
LeBlanc continues to collect information from the community. He continues to conduct focus groups with faculty and staff as well as parents and students. LeBlanc has also told teachers that they need to understand who their students are as well as their developmental needs. In addition, teachers need to know how to address those developmental needs in a culturally responsive way. In order to promote awareness, LeBlanc has provided district-wide professional development, which includes a district-wide presentation talking about stress and trauma. At the middle school level, LeBlanc has conducted meetings with faculty members talking about culturally responsive instruction.
The majority of LeBlanc’s work has been done at the middle school level. He plans to make more progress at the high school level by holding focus groups with teachers this week in order to address the challenges they are facing.
LeBlanc has been working with teachers to help them identify signs of stress in their students. Conversely, he has worked with children to help them support their teachers in order to navigate this difficult time.
“So helping teachers to understand what it means to be experiencing stress. What stress looks like during a time like this,” he said. “I’m talking about things like remote instruction and hybrid instruction. What are some of the stress responses that students are exhibiting and what those look like in real time in class.”
LeBlanc is also working on a plan regarding how to move forward with the district’s racial and social equity committee. He is working with the faculty to improve the curriculum in order to make it more culturally responsive. In addition, LeBlanc has been working with teachers to develop ways to keep students engaged.
“That’s really the thrust of the work that I’ve been doing over the last couple months,” he said. “Really focusing much more on how to keep kids engaged particularly through remote learning.”
On Dec. 8, 9, 10 and 14, LeBlanc held focus groups with seven families from the elementary school level and four families from the middle and high school level. There he talked with them about their experiences during hybrid instruction, whether their children feel engaged and ways the faculty can better support their children in school. LeBlanc also talked with them about their experiences regarding racism and discrimination in the district.
Through the discussions, parents noted that they have experienced microaggressions and bias in the district. Parents also felt that the curriculum reinforced stereotypes at times. They also felt a lack of multicultural awareness by the staff. Another key theme is the need to hire more minority staff in order to better represent the Valley Central community. In the new year, LeBlanc will continue to meet with these families.
Moving forward, he also wants to meet with students, as he has not spoken with them during the pandemic. He will be shifting more of his time to working with the high school faculty. There will be more professional development work in order to improve remote learning. He wants to reduce the time children spend in front of a screen, as it has caused many of them to become fatigued.
“The teachers have done a fantastic job learning on the fly, making modifications,” LeBlanc said. “What we’re trying to do is really take the feedback from the consumer and build it back into lesson design.”
He added that another one of his goals moving forward is building a district equity plan for the racial and social equity committee. LeBlanc plans to help the committee develop goals for the plan.
“One of the big pieces of any equity plan really focuses on the curriculum and enhancing the cultural responsiveness of it,” he said.