First published in the July 1 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
The South Pasadena Unified School District is making some changes to its academic culture after a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report was presented at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.
“It starts with a willingness to do things differently,” consultant Kikanza Nuri-Robins said. “Oftentimes, doing things differently not because you’re fixing a problem, but because you have found some strategies to resolving a puzzle that either has been hidden or ignored or not noticed by a large number of people.”
A committee was formed in late winter of the 2020-2021 school year after a district-wide “all call” application was sent out. The application included open-ended questions like, “What does social justice mean to you?” to gauge what the community was saying about the district.
In addition to using the questions to choose committee members, the responses were used to set priorities for DEI strategies and actions, along with the district’s current mission statement.
“If this is what you say you believe,” Nuri-Robins said, “then how does that relate to the work with equity and inclusion? We started with your values and mission to see how, even though it doesn’t say ‘diversity, equity, inclusion and justice,’ that the intent and the outcomes of these values and this mission are implemented will indeed address issues of equity, inclusion and diversity.”
Parents, students, teachers, administrators and classified support staff developed four strategies with corresponding actions based on those values.
One strategy focused on refining the Gifted and Talented Education program. The OLSAT test will continue to be given to 3rd graders but instead of having an opt-in passive consent, SPUSD implemented an opt-out system. The result was more students taking the test, but data on how many were accepted into the program is not known yet.
The test results letter that parents receive was also revised to give more details about what the results mean and what the next steps are so that parents who might not have been aware of GATE benefits can fully take advantage of the program.
Previously, Honors and AP courses were seen as the strongest measures of academic success, but a new DEI strategy hopes to change that. Academic achievement will be celebrated at every level of course and parents are encouraged to help their kids recognize other areas they excel in aside from academics.
“The high school has an uphill battle in some ways,” board member Ruby Kalra said. “Clearly, there are many parents that recognize that their students are overburdened and overworked, but there are equally many in our community that feel our students need more, and more and more at a younger and younger age.”
The DEI report also seeks to redesign discipline, suspension and expulsion policies. Teachers will learn how to help students transition to school culture through restorative justice and progressive discipline. The district also seeks to avoid unjust punishment by making sure students receive meals and school-provided services when they are disciplined.
The final outlined strategy examines how teachers and staff are hired. Those involved in the hiring process will be paying more attention to candidates from historically Black colleges, state colleges and city colleges that have education tracks to make sure all possible hires are being considered.
Recommended actions from the DEI report are being put into districtwide plans like the Local Control and Accountability Plan and strategic plan as well as school-site plans. Metrics associated with the strategies and actions will record progress.
“When we do the work, it is important to take small bites that people can handle,” Nuri-Robins said. “Some people try to do everything all at once and that usually ends up in a long process that gets a lot of people upset and often ends up not making the difference you want to make.”
Board Approves Drug-Detecting Canine Service
The school board voted 3-2 to approve a contract with Impact Canine Solutions on Tuesday night to periodically bring a drug-sniffing dog to South Pasadena High School.
The agreement, which will cost $3,500, allows for a handler to bring in a dog to sniff out traces of controlled substances once a month at random. The idea is that the canines will act as a visual reminder that controlled substances do not belong on school property.
“Showing the students that we are serious about deterring this type of behavior and we’re being proactive rather than being reactive about it really sends a strong message and helps them to understand and maybe think twice or really, really hard about doing this on campus,” SPHS Principal John Eldred said.
The action was prompted, in part, by reports of students using marijuana in school bathrooms. Board member Michele Kipke also said she had multiple parents reach out to her and ask for help with drugs on campus.
SPUSD previously had canines on campuses, but did not renew the contract after budget cuts roughly two years ago. The lack of students on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic also did not require the dogs on campus.
The measure drew an uncommon split vote for the board, with Zahir Robb and Kalra voting against the item.
“I see this as one step in the wrong direction,” Robb, the board president, said. “Part of it is perception. It’s been gone, we’re bringing it back. What does that say about the trust in the students and the community if this is something we’re doing?”