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All-inclusive schools – Breaking down institutional barriers

Paula Lima Jones (photo above) is getting her colleagues to think about their work in different ways. As the first Dean of Equity and Inclusion at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, the bulk of her work begins with a simple, albeit often unrecognized, fact: Every single day, students enter institutions neither designed nor intended for them. As a champion of social justice, Miss Hall’s added this position to demonstrate the school’s commitment to the ongoing work required to be an inclusive community.

“It’s not just about adding diversity, but creating a place at large,” says Lima Jones, for the myriad of individuals from increasingly diverse backgrounds filling classrooms across Berkshire County this fall. The work of schools to be inclusive is constant, everywhere, and hinges on understanding the institutional barriers that keep marginalized students from being as successful as their peers, those the institution was created to serve. Lima Jones is committed to getting all three cylinders—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI—firing at the same time so that every community member feels valued and experiences a deep sense of belonging. “What is coming from the ground in the inclusion is sprouting from the diversity,” Lima Jones says. And she’s not just talking about race and ethnicity, but rather a diverse spectrum spanning class, gender, and sexual orientation. Anything that creates bias and hinders an inclusive community.

The real work of making all students feel like they belong must be embedded into the culture of the institution and reflected in the policies and practices of a school—many of which impede diversity in the first place. Jake McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools, calls this work “part of a great system that should be dedicated to deconstructing systematic, purposeful bias, and leading the community in work to uncover and undo our own inherent biases.” It is a process inextricably linked to the day-to-day experiences of all children in school, and McCandless is working to ensure the curriculum includes people, events, and realities that extend beyond the dominant history and literature traditionally presented in classrooms.

Those goals are slowly being realized in classrooms across the county. Taconic High School’s Jamal Ahamad is using his own experience as a Black man in Berkshire County to inform his teaching this fall. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was “never Black enough”—from the way he spoke to the way he dressed. When he attended MCLA, he was “the blackest thing anyone had ever seen.” This dichotomy led Ahamad to a crossroads: finding something that helped him identify himself other than his skin complexion and where he was from. He landed on dance, taking up teaching the art form in 2011. He made a commitment after graduating to stay here and contribute to the community. Following a stint at Berkshire Works teaching to individuals seeking a GED, then at BART Charter School in North Adams, he had a realization: “If I am going to serve the minority population so they can have an easier time going through the same experience I had, I gotta be where those kids are.”

Ahamad found his way to Taconic last September, following his belief that every school needs a more diverse faculty and culturally sensitive teaching. This year, he is at the helm of the school’s inaugural African-American Studies class, a 90-minute block fulfilling both English and history credits. His goal is to represent and welcome students who have been historically underrepresented. “There are so many students of color who don’t even see themselves as students to begin with because that’s not the messaging they receive from curriculum,” Ahamad explains. He hopes to build his students’ self-esteem by creating a classroom culture in which those already disenfranchised with school will want to excel. And he’s stressing to his students that the information isn’t limited to books.

Ahamad devised a central question: Can we experience and celebrate Black culture without relying heavily on the traumas associated with it? First up on the syllabus is “When They See Us,” a Netflix series about five teens from Harlem falsely accused of a 1989 attack in Central Park. From there, Ahamad plans to examine history through the lens of Black culture, but not in chronological order. “I don’t want to put slavery [and] civil rights in the forefront,” he explains.

Although Ahamad does plan to discuss these topics, he is opting for a dialogue based on meaningful work with hopes of empowering his students—which means struggling with texts that can be transformative. Titles range from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, about the realities associated with being Black in the United States, to Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson, historical fiction from the ’90s—when Ahamad grew up—chronicling the evolution of hip-hop through the story of three friends working to get another friend a record deal after his death.

Ahamad knows he may make mistakes. But he’s up to the challenge. “You’ve got to do radical things, and that means doing things people aren’t used to,” he says. When building his lessons to speak to the African American experience, Ahamad found that much of his material referenced “we” which—in hindsight—isn’t accurate if he has white and Latinx students on his class roster. “If I am going to do good in teaching this, I have to make it as inclusive as possible while being as honest and true to the material as possible,” he explains.

Being sensitive to others’ stories is a key component in SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), founded by Dr. Peggy McIntosh in 1987. The peer-led professional development program that promotes change through self-reflection and interpersonal dialogue builds capacity for more equitable curriculum, campus, and community. Berkshire School in Sheffield has participated in SEED since 2014, and Associate Dean of Students Kristina Splawn is a facilitator.

“The work we do in SEED with adults and students really helps us to understand each other and what changes we might need to make in order for the community to be more inclusive,” Splawn explains, pointing to a single dress code (not one for boys and another for girls) and gender-neutral bathrooms as two outcomes of SEED work. Another integral part of the programming is the balance of speaking and listening. “We are creating a space where everyone feels they have a voice, and that voice is valued,” says Splawn.

Once inequities are identified in an institution, change agents are needed to disrupt the system. Lima Jones calls them agitators, often seen as disturbing the process, when in fact they are propelling things forward. Conflict is a wonderful vehicle for actualizing this vision of the world, she says, and agitators can be the single best way to turn oppression and privilege into agency and action.

Jeff Lowenstein of Housatonic became a Race Task Force volunteer two years ago—his way of helping to “make the Berkshires a better place for everybody, not just those who look like me,” he says, noting the privilege he has as a “straight, white, middle-class guy.” This Multicultural BRIDGE-led initiative was established a decade ago to address conflict around racism—with the understanding that it is part of a systemic issue rather than an isolated issue.

Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and co-founder of BRIDGE, has seen an uptick in calls for help addressing bias incidents around race and gender identity in schools. Last year, elementary-aged kids were using the n-word in Pittsfield. In response, VanSant partnered with Ty Allan Jackson, founder of Big Head Books, to present an assembly on character strength aimed at empowering the city’s youngest students to be readers and thinkers; the pair will visit six more schools in October.

VanSant has been instrumental in providing Cultural Competency strategies in schools across the county—she calls it the new age of diversity training. The work is a deeper way of addressing bias: Everyone has it—but where does it come from? For VanSant, it all boils down to impact versus intent and being accountable to both. “We are all going to make mistakes,” she says, “it’s all about being willing and receptive to hear when mistakes happen and the ability to grow from our mistakes—together.”

McCandless cuts straight to the chase: “The key ingredient is possessing a mind that is willing to wrap around the facts that white privilege is real, that organizational/institutional racism is real, and that we all have a part to play in untangling this horrific and inhumane knot that has been centuries in the tying.”

Jamal Ahamad, teaching African-American studies at Taconic Highschool in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.



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