School district continues to take additional steps to fight discrimination

By Gary Weckselblatt

Before students return to school, administrators in the Quakertown Community School District will take part in summer leadership training at Pearl S. Buck International (PSBI) to continue our focus on sustaining a welcoming school district while identifying and managing issues of discrimination.

The work, part of PSBI's "Welcome Workplace" program, follows more than 300 confidential assessments given to district employees, including administrators, teachers and School Board members assessing their own personal views. PSBI followed up those surveys with confidential, one-on-one discussions with each Board member and administrator, and held group meetings with teachers at each school.

It's among several steps the district has taken since an incident last fall, when a few Quakertown students shouted abusive epithets at Cheltenham's cheerleaders following a football game at Alumni Field.

Once school begins on September 4, teachers will have the opportunity, if they choose, to sit down with a member of the PSBI team to review their own individual survey that explains their level of cultural proficiency and a development plan to adjust attitudes, increase knowledge and build skills to insure that every child has a positive learning experience at Quakertown.

The ultimate goal in the several layers of training is to "prepare our students to participate in culturally diverse settings," Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner said. "When our students leave the boundaries of Quakertown, and they go off to college or a work environment, we want them to be capable of fitting into any social fabric and continue on a successful journey.

"This is not a once and done process. It's vital for all of us as educators to be culturally sensitive to meet the needs of each of our students."

Laura Lomax, PSBI's vice president of programs, described the educational process as "evolutionary, not revolutionary."

"We're not just here as a fly by night," Lomax said during an interview at PSBI headquarters in Hilltown, Bucks County. "To examine the district, requiring each person to open themselves up to this type of scrutiny and self evaluation, to look in the mirror and find flaws and correct them, it takes time. This is about individual and group change, which is a challenging process. You have a group of people working to become more effective educators, looking to better themselves and develop a self-awareness, an awareness of others, and how to bridge those differences. We believe people can change if they learn."

A key component of the district's effort will be the formation of a Steering Committee to develop specific action plans related to diversity and inclusion. The committee will be made up of volunteers from the administration, teachers, non-instructional staff, parents, students and community members. It will focus on school climate, classroom management and parental engagement, Lomax said.

"As we've learned more about ourselves, we're in a better place to understand what we need to do moving forward," said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lisa Hoffman. "Now we can start getting community input on things that affect all people."

PSBI will provide the framework and help with the committee's goals and vision statement.

"We'll be looking for people from a variety of backgrounds for this committee," Lomax said. Community members might come from a faith organization, law enforcement and businesses. This is not a problem in one building or one school district. It's a community problem. It's a national problem."

While the impetus for the district to undertake this type of transformative change stems from a racial incident following a football game against Cheltenham High School, the system-wide diversity and inclusion training includes prejudice against sexual orientation, gender, religion, age, those with special needs, and racism.

Since the October 6 game, the district has attacked the issue on a number of fronts, including the hiring of PSBI. Harner held a dinner for parents of African-American students to hear their concerns and explain district plans to address them. "I have apologized for our greater community," said Harner, who visited Cheltenham to speak with students, parents and educators in the days following the incident. "Since October, our community has had a ton of courageous conversations. It was a great teachable moment."

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro voiced a similar comment when he gathered together two dozen student representatives from the two schools on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Shapiro said what happened after the Cheltenham-Quakertown football game has been seen as a "dark moment. I view it as a moment of opportunity."

Since last October, Quakertown officials have been working to seize that opportunity.

The School Board hired the Langhorne-based Peace Center to teach its curriculum of diversity and acceptance to all QCSD fourth graders. Peace Center programs are designed to reduce violence and conflict through a multicultural, community-based approach.

While each individual assessment is private, Lomax said the district's overall results "reflect the same results as most schools nationally, which is both good and bad. We all need to better appreciate areas of difference and not just commonalities."

She said individual plans will be created to help employees and Board members "connect more with people who are different from them. That's the whole idea, to create a welcoming environment. There are teachers that really care about these students. But perhaps they don't have the perfect tool to respond in certain ways. We'll help them learn to better navigate these situations. They really want to get this right for all students."

Lomax said the journey the district is on "is admirable." Taking the Welcome Workplace approach is more than just going through the motions, but about creating real change.

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or [email protected].

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