HV School Board discusses equity in education, anti-bullying, and vaccinations

The Hopewell Valley Regional School District presented its Equity in Education strategic plan at the first school board meeting of the year on Monday.

The plan outlines goals the District hopes to achieve over the next three years in three areas: curriculum development, professional development, and community forums and communications. It was created in partnership with Catalyst Consulting Group and is the latest effort by the District to develop a more culturally sensitive school community as articulated in a comprehensive equity policy that was adopted in 2009 and revised three years ago.

The plan envisions that HVRSD will be “a district known for advancing and achieving equity for its students.” It outlines ways to realize that vision that include investing in cultural capacity, enhancing curriculum, empowering students to drive change and changing policies.

In presenting the plan, Catalyst President Adriana Abizadeh emphasized the importance of including all stakeholders – students, parents, and staff in particular. Links to the strategic plan and Abizadeh’s presentation cards are here: Plan and Cards.

For example, an initial step on curriculum development is surveying parents, teachers, students, and staff on what additional equity-focused topics they would like covered at school with an emphasis on history and culture.

The effort is designed to be data driven, with metrics in place to ensure accountability along the way. On the community forums and communications fronts, one of the priorities is to improve the District’s website to include its diversity-equity initiative tracker.

The District held a daylong retreat recently that helped inform the plan. Among the concerns raised by Board members during that session was a lack of general diversity in the District and particularly so in its advanced placement and honors courses. The plan includes an examination of equity access for such specialty courses as well as clubs and extracurricular activities.

Superintendent Dr. Rosetta Treece said all staff would be accountable for aligning their professional goals to the strategic plan and helping realize its goals.

“We’ve had expansive plans like this in the past, and we’ve all gotten through this work together,” she said.

The School Board was receptive to the plan and praised the work, as did several parents who spoke during public comments at the meeting.

“I want our teachers, administrators, other staff, and school board members to be aware that there is an outpouring of support for these initiatives,” said Catherine Fulmer-Hogan of Hopewell Township. “I am grateful that, in this moment, the District remains committed to this equity work. There is nothing like a crisis moment to highlight how vast and widespread a community’s equity issues are.”

Sylvia Kocses of Pennington raised concerns about the curriculum being taught in the schools, saying community members should have access to what’s being taught and opportunity to provide input. Dr. Treece responded that Kocses had been supplied the information she requested previously and that the District is working to have information available online so that the public can access it more readily.

“We’re making a lot of revisions this year with many mandates that are coming down, including social studies standards that have changed [and] the LGBTQ mandate we’re still aligning to,” Dr. Treece said. “Our standards are evolving all the time.”

In addition to the equity plan, the School Board discussed the results of the District’s anti-bullying efforts. A self-assessment scored the district at a 74 for the 2020-21 school year, which was consistent with years past. A score of 50 is needed to meet state requirements.

Dan DiStefano, who is the District’s anti-bullying coordinator and supervisor of school counselors, also shared some of the ways the District is trying to prevent problems from arising, including school assemblies about bullying, peer leadership programs at the middle and high school level, and campus safety officers, as well as school safety teams at each school.

Several parents raised concerns about bullying connected to vaccination status and masks at the schools, incidents that Dr. Treece said would not be tolerated and have been investigated and addressed in the past.

Alison Yiacas of Hopewell Township said students can find out who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 because the District’s safety protocols require those individuals to quarantine for longer if they contract the virus.

“Many of these [incidents] go unreported because children feel intimidated and bullied against at every angle,” said Jennifer DiDonato, also of Hopewell Township.

“We’re getting emails that ‘all these children are being bullied’, but you’re not reporting [specific incidents],” Dr. Treece said. “When you report these things to us, they’re dealt with. It’s not okay if that’s happening.”

Other parents rose in support of the District’s COVID-19 protocols.

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