At its Tuesday, August 30, meeting, the Verona Board of Education heard a presentation from Grand River Solutions, a diversity consultant that it hired this spring to evaluate the climate and culture of Verona’s public schools as well as the hiring and retention of teachers and staff.
Jody Shipper, a lawyer who is the managing director of Grand River, opened by stating the steps that the firm took to conduct the evaluation. It reviewed documents provided by the district and a voluntary student survey, conducted interviews with staff, and met with the six subcommittees of the district’s Diversity Committee, a group of volunteers that includes parents and school personnel. Grand River also received emails and calls from Verona residents, Shipper said. She reminded the BOE, and the sparse in-person audience, that Grand River’s work was not an audit or a compliance review. “These are simply suggestions for the Board’s consideration as to ways they might address those things that were raised,” she said.
Shipper said that several of the issues raised centered on classroom management. “Both students and teachers recognize that there are times when it was difficult to manage certain classroom discussions,” she said. “Some students reported feeling left out of discussions. Others reported hearing slurs directed at them and around them. And some teachers shared that they themselves were uncomfortable and not clear on how best to manage some of those conversations.”
Grand River recommended that the district consider advanced training on classroom management for teachers, to bring consistency to the way that different teachers handle discussions, as well as alerts about topics that are going to be discussed in class so that a student who is uncomfortable can talk to his or her parents ahead of time about how to handle the discussion.
Shipper said that Verona also needed more clarity about what could constitute a violation under Title IX, the federal law that regulates harassment and discrimination relating to sex or gender, and New Jersey’s law on harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). She said that this could help the school community to understand what is, or is not, a violation, and why. Shipper recommended that Verona avoid using guidance counselors as investigators in these cases and that it adopt neutral language, rather than terms like perpetrator and aggressor. She also advocated for a communications strategy that could disseminate information when possible and quell the rumor mill that can develop around investigations.
On the issue of how discipline is handled, Shipper said that many schools are now tracking the impact of both suspensions and time out of class, and data on disciplinary referrals. She also strongly recommended that the BOE consider learning more about restorative justice. “It’s a practice by which someone who is alleged to have gotten engaged in wrongdoing acknowledges the harm to the community and works to repair the harm that they have done,” said Shipper. She cautioned that a district should only hire trained facilitators for that process, if it chooses to adopt it.
Even though Verona doesn’t have many openings or departures for teachers and staff in any given year, Grand River also looked at Verona’s process for hiring and retention, and how that squares with its diversity goals. It recommended a formal mentoring process for new teachers, actively gathering data on who is hired and why they leave, and possibly setting up affinity groups with teachers in other districts.
The BOE seemed largely in agreement with issues outlined in the presentation. While the Board’s past discussions about hiring a diversity consultant had often been marked by angry comments from a small group of parents, there were no questions about the report in the public comments portion of the August 30 meeting. The next step will be for the new superintendent, Diane DiGiuseppe, and Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Charlie Miller to draw up a plan for putting some or all of Grand River’s recommendations into action. That plan is likely to be presented at the September 27 BOE meeting.
You can watch Grand River’s presentation to the BOE here.