The Valley Central School District responded to accusations of racism at the board of education meeting last Tuesday night.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Marianne Serratore disagreed with accusations that the district is not doing enough to combat racism.
“We are very aware that some of the residents in the Valley Central School District believe we are not doing enough to address the issues surrounding race and culture that exist in Valley Central,” she said. “And I would just like to say that we strongly disagree with that view. It is my hope that very soon the board of education as well as the residents of the community will have 100 percent confidence that the Valley Central School District has been and will continue to be committed to creating a culture of diversity and tolerance. We agree that more can be done and we agree that more must be done and we know that more will be done.”
Serratore added that the district has been working especially hard to make the district a more inclusive place the past few years. In 2017, there was a mandate from the New York State Education Department to implement social and emotional learning. In 2018, the New York State Education Department Board of Regents directed the district to form a committee to create a framework for cultural responsiveness.
After the directive from the Board of Regents, the district hired Gess Leblanc, associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling Programs at Hunter College. 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.
This school year Leblanc will be in the district several days a month where he will hold focus groups with middle and high school students to gather feedback on how to make the district a more inclusive place.
After the death of George Floyd, complaints of racism poured into the district. Leblanc advised the district to meet with 10 parents and students of the black community and listen to their feelings.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Serratore said. “Many of those children that were around the table I had known at Montgomery Elementary School as even kindergarteners, so to hear stories about how they felt that they were not heard was discouraging.”
This experience inspired the district to create the Valley Central Community and School-Based Racial Equity in Education Committee, which met almost every week over the summer. The group has formed several goals.
One of the goals of the committee was to create a mission statement. This was created in July and shared with the board of education over the summer.
Another goal was to modify the dress code and code of conduct. The Board of Education voted on revisions to the dress code and the code of conduct this past summer. Students are now able to wear headscarves as well as head wraps and hats. They are unable to wear anything that displays the Confederate flag. The code of conduct was revised to ensure that racist or provocative dress, actions and speech would not be tolerated.
The district also plans to provide professional development to all stakeholders. In addition to the training Leblanc provided to all administrators, all board members and central office administrators received racial literacy training. This training gave administrators the opportunity to read narratives from minority students expressing their feelings about their experiences in the district. The district is in the planning process to determine the best way to train all teachers.
A subcommittee has created surveys to evaluate the climate of the district in terms of racism. This will be distributed to parents, students, teachers and administrators.
Over the past several years, the district has added to its collection of literature to make it more diverse and representative of all cultures. This is an ongoing process. Valley Central will evaluate the curriculum to ensure it is representative of all cultures. The Racial Equity Committee also hopes to improve recruiting and hiring practices in order to increase the number of minorities employed at Valley Central.
“I say with 100 percent confidence that the Valley Central School District is and has been committed to working towards a school district that all students can feel safe in,” Serratore said.
Valley Central Parents for Social Justice are not satisfied with the efforts made by the district.
“One hundred percent confidence will come when the board of education and administration agree to sit down with community stakeholders and groups and offer an actionable plan to address these issues,” the group said in a statement.