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2022 BOE Election: Question Five

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Americans have been taking a hard look at diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in recent years.  DEI is about racial issues, to be sure, but also about different genders, the treatment of people with mental and physically disabilities, and other issues that can appear to set people apart, but shouldn’t.

Verona schools and the Board of Education have been among those participating in this examination and there have been many fears around it. Fears that working to improve DEI will somehow change Verona for the worse, and fears that Verona will not do enough to address the growing diversity of town. The discussions that began in a DEI action committee convened by the administration culminated in a contract with a national firm that specializes in DEI and Title IX reviews.

The issue is also the last of the common questions for the five candidates vying for election to the BOE in November. Two of the five–Diana Ferrera, Denise VerzellaMichael BooneSara Drappi, and Aaron Spiegeland–will work with the district on implementing Grand River’s recommendations next year. So we wanted to know what they thought about it and what they would do about it. Their responses to the fifth of MyVeronaNJ’s BOE candidate questions are below, in alphabetical order by last name:

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Recently, the BOE got an evaluation of Verona school culture from Grand River Solutions. What is your assessment of diversity, equity and inclusion in Verona schools?

Boone: The Grand River Solutions outreach was a wonderful idea. Diversity, equity and inclusion is part of my daily life where I work, whether it is my teaching job or in my advertising job, and then also part of my journalism job in the past. D & I should not be a divisive, polarizing issue because all it is doing is giving us a framework for how we want to relate with each other in our daily lives. Some people feel, wrongly, that they are being told they are doing something wrong. It is helping us learn about other communities that we may not have a full appreciation for. Verona is a diverse community, and I do hear unfortunate tales from families that feel excluded because of their backgrounds. We should always be welcoming of “the other” and what I mean by “the other” is just people that are coming from uncommon backgrounds. D & I serves as an opportunity for us to learn more broadly about our community and how we can help people. I just don’t see why it should be a divisive issue, because part of the learning process is really tied to feeling that you are in a safe environment. And again, I used this term earlier, you have agency and control over the direction of your life. If a single student feels that they cannot participate in whatever it is that they want to, then we are failing that student. No student should feel that they do not have access to the same opportunities that every single student that walks through our schools doors has. D&I goes a long way to helping those students feel as part of the process and feel truly part of our community, and that is our responsibility. Our job as a school board is to put students in the best place where they can succeed. D&I is an incredible tool that helps students feel that they are in a position to succeed. Also, I think it helps. It helps teachers build a better understanding of their students and where their students are coming from because not all students learn the same way. A better understanding of D&I can help our teachers learn how to better help the students as well. We are also doing our students a disservice by not providing them an entryway into D&I discussions. The minute they walk into a college or university or trade school or just go straight into work, they are going to be in an environment where D&I will matter even more in their daily work lives. In the corporate world, regardless of your profession, we have performance metrics that are tied into how well we work on D&I issues. And the sooner that the students understand that it is going to make them more productive in whatever educational or work journey that they pursue, the better.

Drappi: That answer is really twofold. I base my assessment of culture and climate on information we gain from the public, particularly the students who come to speak at our meetings and who email us, and information from our faculty and staff. And based on that, I think we have a tremendous amount of work to do to make sure that everyone in our district feels safe, and feels valued and heard and seen. And that is particularly true for our students. I agree with Ms. Shipper’s [Jody Shipper, co-founder and managing director, Grand River Solutions] recommendation to institute annual or hopefully biannual climate and culture surveys for all of our staff and for our students at the appropriate age level. And to make sure that those surveys look different for each and make sure that the information that we’re getting is qualitative and quantitative. No recommendations have been brought to the board from the superintendent yet but that is one that I would hope to see as something that we could institute on a regular basis and make part of our annual practice because measuring in a standardized way is really important. It gives people in our community and people in our school district, particularly our students, a voice where they may not feel heard. This is just one tool where we can help them feel more valued. But as it stands right now, I don’t think our climate and culture is moving in a positive direction. I hope for the opportunity to continue the work to change that.

Ferrera: I was happy to have the opportunity to listen to the findings from Grand River. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t really too shocked or surprised with any of the findings. I think that a lot of what we heard in response to Grand River are things that we hear in many different districts. And I think that, you know, it’s important as educators to take data and to move forward and to think about how we can best serve our students using the data that is collected. It’s a simple best practice, really.

Spiegeland: Well, I would say that Verona is a welcoming community. We’re all for a diverse and inclusive community. When speaking specifically about Grand River, I listened to their assessment, at least the one that was presented in the open session. I thought they had some good contributions such as Title IX. We have to make sure we’re monitoring our Title IX policies. They do change quite often and being on the wrong end of them can see some serious fines and naturally we want to follow along with them. There are some other things that were up for discussion. And I know that they were discussed, whether it’s the HIB [Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying] policy, whether it’s how to handle discipline. But I think the way the school board addressed it at that meeting was a good start. I think a conversation should continue. Again, I welcome everybody into it and this is one where I think it’s important to hear what everybody has to say. But on the whole, I’d say, we welcome inclusivity and diversity. And I think everyone’s for that. It’s just that it should be discussed in a transparent and open fashion.

Verzella: I was part of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee. I attended multiple meetings. It’s actually an issue that I have discussed at board meetings, even prior to COVID. I know it came up kind of during COVID with the Black Lives Matter protests and what-not, but it was something that I was discussing even before COVID. Verona is an increasingly diverse town. We are in either the top three or top five diverse states in the union, in one of the top three counties in New Jersey in terms of diversity. So it’s not about how we’re going to send our kids out into the world. The world is coming to us; Verona is the world. I remember one of my daughters being the only black child in her entire elementary school for several years and, by the time she graduated, there were several other black children in her elementary school. That’s just anecdotal. I’m sure there’s other schools where it went the reverse way. But we’re increasingly becoming a more globalized, more integrated world. So learning how different people feel about comments or how they feel about being or reading books that they don’t see themselves in. Listening to that and understanding it doesn’t take away from anyone else’s rights. It’s not a pie. Because someone else has a right doesn’t mean that you lose a right. It just means that we’re acknowledging that they’re able to live and to be happy in the world. I truly, truly, truly believe there is a place in Verona for every student. Every student should feel at home someplace in Verona schools, whether that student is an ethnic minority, or whether that student is disabled, because that is also part of diversity and inclusion. We have a lot of students with disabilities that we send out of our school district that we could educate in our school district if we took the time and the effort to do that. You know, as a member of C.H.I.L.D.’s board, as the SEPAC [Special Education Parent Advisory Council] we’ve had many conversations at our public SEPAC meetings with Dr. Mauriello [Verona’s former director of special services] about students with disabilities who go to school and talk to no one all day and sit every day and eat lunch alone. And walk home and have no friends. We’re getting a new director and asked as the board members try to help change the culture so that these students are included. I’ve seen school districts as an education attorney. I’ve gone to school districts and I’ve worked with school districts, where students with disabilities are part of the fabric of their school and don’t sit alone at lunch and don’t feel like they don’t belong. You know, one of the one of the organizations I’ve recommended Dr. Mauriello look into and I’ll recommend that the new director look into is the New Jersey Coalition of Inclusive Education that provides free professional development for teachers and staff and parents on how to include kids with disabilities in school. So they’re part of the school and not just a student who attends school. While a lot of the focus of the diversity, equity and inclusion has been on race and religion, and if you listen to the students that came and spoke about how they felt, I remember being at home listening to them saying someone has to listen to what these kids are saying because we’re missing something as a school district. Let’s listen to them. Let’s take the recommendation seriously. And let’s start working through them. It’s not an overnight process. It’s not something that next year, this time, everyone will be hunky dory. It’s going to be rough, I’m sure. I’m sure there are going to be people who are not going to be happy. But it will make for a better Verona in the end.

You can read the answers to question one, about the role of a school board, here; question two, about the aftermath of COVID, here; question three, about parental involvement in education, here; and question four, on the politicization of school issues, here. All of the candidates’ answers to all of the questions asked, including questions about their individual platform, are here.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]

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