NHS takes steps towards greater equity

By Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief

Now that it seems the island is finally being released from the grips of COVID-19, the Nantucket Public School (NPS) system is beginning to gain back the energy it needs to turn its attention to other topics, ranging from sports complexes to in-person clubs to the curriculum-enriching Vision of a Graduate program. One area of focus for NPS staff and administration, as well as students, has been equality.

After students at the high school raised awareness about homophobic and racist graffiti in bathrooms and speech in the hallways at the beginning of this year, Nantucket High School (NHS) principal and vice-principal Mandy Vasil and Jennifer Psaradelis stated that they would be taking action to make sure the school community was accepting, and students felt comfortable talking to administration if they witnessed bigoted behavior or graffiti. Vasil named NHS’s participation in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curricula program, and her hope to bring members of PFLAG to the high school again.

Progress towards a more diverse and inclusive school has been difficult, especially with so much of teachers’ and the school system’s attention focusing on dealing with COVID. A recent email from Vasil commented on an “increase in anxiety, mental fatigue, and an overall need for social/emotional support with our students,” but this has been felt by teachers and administration as well. However, the difficulty and discomfort of dealing with these kinds of conversations has always been there. 

High school English teacher Page ​​Martineau suggested that NPS “reflects the greater country to some extent when it comes to the kinds of conversations [about diversity and inclusion] and the kinds of backlash that we get as a result of them.” The school system is making progress, but not always consistently: “Systemically, we have had fits and starts of focusing on making sure that there is equitable access to education.”

However, despite the drain that COVID has been on everything and everyone, Martineau highlights the efforts of NPS Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Hallett, who is herself fluent in Spanish, and has pushed the DEI training forward: “[Hallett] has taken steps towards making diversity and equity an important element of what we do.”

The Nantucket Public School system has several participants in the district-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program, including Martineau, middle school teacher Marita Scarlett, and high school TA Sean Allen.

The purpose of the DEI program is to “provide equitable, inclusive, and challenging learning experiences where every student and adult feels seen, heard, valued, and respected,” as displayed on the NPS website. This program is in its beginning phase at the moment and is currently investigating the state of equity within NPS. One of the things that the group has been looking at is MCAS scores. According to Martineau, they have been exploring patterns in MCAS scores across racial groups and delving into root causes and what the patterns mean. MCAS scores are a good assessment tool to help find problems because they are objective, giving quantitative data on equity at NPS.

The population of Nantucket Public Schools has changed a lot over the years, and recently one of those demographic shifts has been an increase in the Latinx population. In the 2020-21 school year, NPS became majority minority, meaning that over 50% of the population of the school system is made up of people of color. The increase has come from the Latinx population, and it is reflected in the increase in the size of the English Language Learner (ELL) program at NPS, which hosts students whose first language is Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, or French, just to name a few.

“When I first arrived here we had one person in the district who was on staff who was specifically working with ELL students,” commented Martineau. “It has just grown exponentially since then and continues to grow and should continue to grow. I think that is the area where most work needs to be done.”

The ELL program at the high school alone now has many students. Many students “graduate” the ELL program while at NPS, and move out into other classes.

TA Sean Allen, who has some students who speak primarily Spanish, and is conversational himself, pointed out that working towards equity and inclusion is often difficult, and time consuming, so while it is worth it, it is impossible for it to happen all at once. Teachers can only focus on one area at a time in PD (Professional Development), so improvement and education will be continuous, not immediate.

He suggested that a “Rosetta Stone class” for teachers and TAs so they could be at least conversational in Spanish, which is the first language of many students at NHS, and the only language of some of them, would be a good step, but admitted that having the time to take on any project like this is difficult.

Allen, who is also head of the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), said that “we have certain things at the school that have always… or habitually been done ‘this way’, but need to change.”

He recognized that while change is difficult, it is necessary to create a more inclusive community that is fair for all students, not just the ones benefitted by the school the way it is now: “The change is causing anxiety for people who want it to stay the same, but the lack of change is causing anxiety for people who need that change, you know, so that their rights are valued, and so they have an equitable educational and social experience.”

Equitability in social experience, for Allen, also means seeking social equity for students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The high school has worked with members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a network of chapters that focus mainly on connecting allies to the LGBTQ+ community with resources and information, as well as other people like them who are trying to learn more, in the past. Darren Lucas-Hayes, head of the GSA at the high school, had previously brought in representatives from PFLAG to talk to students and faculty about LGBTQ+ issues while they were on the island before the pandemic.

In February, representatives from PFLAG did come to NHS and addressed a small group of students to talk about living as a transgender person and to answer questions. The representatives talked to a small group intentionally. Vasil and Lucas-Hayes picked “the group we thought would benefit most from it”. PFLAG also spoke to staff, who had, prior to the meeting, written questions and decided on topics that they wanted to learn more about.

“When it is a sensitive subject, we want to make sure how it is received and make sure the group of students feels affirmed,” Vasil explained. She worried that in too large a group, the message could lose potency or get missed. Hearing a student who failed to take the subject seriously laughing or being disrespectful could put someone who is in the closet or trying to figure out their identity in an uncomfortable situation.

However, she hopes to bring members of PFLAG back again: “There is the potential to re-invite PFLAG to speak to team captains… our student-athletes, especially captains, help bridge the gap.” The group who met with PFLAG in February was diverse, but not representative of the athletic population of the school. Vasil feels that this group of students would benefit from a conversation with the PFLAG representatives.

The team captains have already “put themselves in positions of leadership, but it could help them to help the situation” if they witnessed inappropriate language or behavior, Vasil explained. “I’m not 100 percent sure that students in these positions have the confidence to speak up now.”

A training would help bolster their confidence, and give them the skills necessary to step into a situation and know what to do. It can be hard to stand up for yourself or others, especially as a teenager. The question for administration and teachers is: “How do we help our student leaders have the courage to speak up?”

According to Vasil, there have been no more reports of bigoted graffiti in bathrooms since the article about these incidents was published at the beginning of the year; however, some teachers have made reports about comments they are unsure about. Vasil attributes the lack of hateful graffiti to teachers being aware of the students’ needs: “teachers are pretty cognizant of what is happening in the classroom, and they do report what they see that could be issues”. Vasil explained that in her opinion, a big part of creating a safe environment for students comes from the teachers. They are role models to students and also act as guardians to students for a part of their day.

“Teachers have become much more aware of how the decisions they make in the classroom affect everybody,” Martineau explained. “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect; however, we are having more conversations about how all students within our rooms are learning, and what their lived experiences are, and how that affects how they learn.”

Vasil also commented that the shutting down of the bathrooms due to the TikTok Devious Licks trend, which coincided with the incidents of hate speech graffiti, may have been fortunate and aided in shutting it down.

Another project that Vasil hopes will encourage equity and inclusion at the high school is the Best Buddies Program. The Best Buddies Program is an international program connecting kids with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs). It also provides opportunities for employment and leadership development to kids with IDDs. At NHS, Vasil said that this program gives “a mentor or someone to spend time with to someone who doesn’t always have that”. The Best Buddies Program kids meet two times a month during advisory and do activities on weekends, getting together to go on adventures all around the island. This program promotes equality for students with disabilities.

Vasil did a program at her previous school called “Start With Hello”, a program created after the Sandy Hook school shooting which attempts to promote a happy, safe environment, where everyone feels able to be themselves. The idea is that by starting with just a hello, you can touch someone else’s life. Social isolation is a factor in depression, and a warm greeting can change someone’s day. Vasil is a big believer in this idea. She pushed that implementing this program, or just its ideas, at NHS would create a more positive and inclusive school culture.

She said that it is “heartbreaking” to her to see students feel left out or unsafe: “School should be a safe place where you can come and where you can explore who you are and what you want to do.”

The point of the DEI program, PFLAG meetings, and Start With Hello are all the same in the end: to create an environment where all students are safe, accepted, and challenged. Vasil concluded that “overall, we have an accepting atmosphere at our school of all people, however, we do have deficiency gaps where students don’t feel like they are accepted 100%.” As Allen commented, equity and inclusion is a process, not a point to be reached.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but at least equity is up there on the priority list in a way that it hasn’t been in the past,” Martineau added.

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