Walking the walk: Westford DEI efforts in action

February 14, 2022

Student+scans+the+Civil+Rights+Complaint+Form+posted+in+the+WAs+bathroom+stall.

Sophia Keang

Student scans the Civil Rights Complaint Form posted in the WA’s bathroom stall.

After Westford Academy’s student section verbally abused a Wayland player at the girls’ basketball game on Friday, January 28, Westford has frequently brought up its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts during interviews as a response to the incident. However, many don’t seem to understand or recognize the types of work that the Westford Public Schools DEI Committee and the Town of Westford DEI Committee are devoted to. Nevertheless, both groups have been put into the spotlight for an appropriate response to the racist incident. Here’s the breakdown of Westford’s DEI workgroups and their efforts.

What is DEI?

  • Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, nationality, language, (dis)ability, or political perspective. 
  • Equity promotes justice, fairness, and impartiality within procedures, processes, and the distribution of resources by institutions or systems. Understanding the root cause for issues is part of how to handle disparities in communities.
  • Inclusion is an outcome that ensures those who are diverse feel welcomed. Inclusion is met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all, to the point where diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within a group or organization.

Westford’s History with DEI 

Westford has two main DEI groups – the Westford Public Schools (WPS) DEI Committee and the Town of Westford (TOW) DEI Committee. Both groups tackle very similar issues upon diversity, equity, and inclusion among students and faculty in schools and the town as a whole. 

Around the time of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, the town of Westford began to emphasize recognizing injustices throughout its own community. 

As the nation demanded social justice through protests and an increased presence on social media, the rise for change spread to the suburbs of Westford. In the summer of 2020, a number of Westford residents organized a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in response to both Floyd’s and 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor both as a result of police brutality. Participants protested at the Westford Town Common holding signs that read “Silence is Violence” and “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”. 

While the town of Westford had already begun thinking about establishing a town-wide DEI committee for a while prior to the summer of 2020, the TOW DEI Committee was officially established in November 2020, after the events of the summer propelled Westford residents to act more rapidly.

On the other hand, the WPS DEI Committee was a voluntary committee first established several years ago. While Superintendent Christopher Chew had been a part of the committee since his early days as Stony Brook principal, it wasn’t until the last school year that more representatives from each building began to be involved.

The Team has grown quite a bit and we have wonderful participation with teacher representation from every school, all of the building principals, parents with students in different buildings, students from WA and members of the Westford Community at large,” Chew said.

What is DEI working on?

  • Educating staff about DEI

Meaningful equity work starts from within any organization. According to Chew, to ensure that students, parents, and other community members feel comfortable, faculty and staff must first educate themselves on what it means to bring DEI efforts into their own classrooms.

“Our entire leadership team has been doing professional development this year that has been focused on what we call cultural proficiency, which is really […] making sure that we are responsive and proactive in establishing environments where everyone feels like they belong, where everyone feels like their experiences are reflected in the curriculum,” Chew said

Chew acknowledges that while educators at WPS are quick to stop blatantly discriminatory language when it comes from a student, there is room for under-the-surface implications that also cause harm to other students.

“There are a lot of things that they [educators and staff] might not be aware of. There might be different micro-aggressions that students are saying […], or even [micro-aggressions] that an adult might be saying to a student. They’re just not aware of it. [However,] that’s not an excuse. So we’re trying to be more educated in that,” Chew said.

DEI has organized several Professional Development Days solely devoted to teaching educators about DEI efforts under the guidance of Kalise Wornum. Leadership from all WPS buildings also meet with Wornum bimonthly for professional development. Wornum is the Senior Director of Educational Equity at Brookline Public Schools, as well as the founder of KW Diversity, a company that provides cultural proficiency training.

According to WA Principal Jim Antonelli, this has been especially important for educators who do not know how to approach situations involving discrimination.

“We have a very—I would say, just to put it in layman’s terms—we have a very white leadership team, right? We really do. So when you look around, there’s not a lot of people of color or a different race and so forth. So sometimes we can become nervous about how we talk about things. So, we need to become more comfortable with that,” Antonelli said.

On top of efforts to educate the entire staff at professional development sessions, there is also a district-wide DEI discussion group, as well as discussion groups at every single WPS building, in which interested teachers gather to discuss how they can be actively anti-racist. These discussion groups had been active for the past four to five years before seeing an increase during the spring of 2020 due to the accessibility of asynchronous meetings. 

Although this group was originally known as an initiative based off the Baltimore-based organization BARWE, or Building Anti-Racist White Educators, it is open to all teachers who want to make sure that that anti-racism in their curriculum is not a passive, performative measure.

  • Civil Rights QR

In addition to WPS’ efforts of easing teachers into DEI training, WPS has now implemented the new Civil Rights Complaint Process. This allows for students to report any incidents of discrimination that have occurred in their school based on race, skin color, nationality, ethnicity, origin, sexual orientation, religion, or any other forms of bigotry. Additionally, students are able to report both their peers and teachers.

“When there is behavior or offense that could possibly be a violation of someone’s civil rights, by law there are very specific things that our schools need to do,” Chew said.

All buildings, grades K-12, have QR codes posted in the main offices and bathrooms, while the middle schools and WA also include codes in student bathrooms, libraries, and cafeterias. 

WA’s Civil Rights Complaint form posted in the girls’ bathroom. (Kristen Su)

After a complaint is filed, an email will be sent to the principal of the building notifying them about the new report. After the report has been classified as a violation of one’s civil rights, an investigation will take place. This includes determining to talk to witnesses to gather as many facts as possible. However, the school will only be able to provide limited information regarding the incident as the aggressor’s civil rights must also be protected. 

“One of the things that people don’t understand is that by law, we cannot discuss individual student discipline because that’s a violation of student privacy,” Chew said.

Antonelli, along with the WPS DEI committee, hopes that this will bring a better sense of safety and security for students and faculty knowing that their voices will be heard. 

“This QR code will provide people the opportunity, if they feel as though their civil rights have been violated, to bring it to our attention and that automatically goes into us doing an investigation,” Antonelli said.

  • Calendar Committee 

Furthermore, efforts have also been made towards further acknowledging Diwali – the five-day holiday that symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness. With a large Indian demographic in Westford, the Calendar Committee, a committee that works in conjunction with DEI, aims to persuade WPS to have no school for all WPS on the third day of Diwali every year. This will alleviate much of the stress of students who celebrate Diwali and spend time with their families without having to worry about missing classes.

“The days surrounding Diwali can become a very stressful time for students and teachers. Not only do people have to go to temples and help out with festivities, but they also have to juggle schoolwork on top of that,” DEI Committee Member junior Kush Gami said.

WA English teacher Rashmi Kumar is hoping to pave the path to increased awareness about Diwali for future students and staff. She previously sent Chew and the administration a calendar of when Diwali will land in the next ten years, in hopes that this information would be passed onto the Calendar Committee for their consideration when planning school schedules. 

“For my classes, I try not to give any assessments on the day after Diwali, for example. And that’s not for Indian students, not just for the Hindu students, but it’s for everybody,” Kumar said.

After a presentation by Wornum regarding “hidden rules” at WA—or in other words, built-in expectations that don’t hold true for everyone—Kumar reflected on her own experiences celebrating Diwali at a faculty meeting. She brought up how the deadline for teachers to submit quarter one grades had been pushed back this year for the first time in 20 years, and why that was important to her.

“One of the hidden rules for some of us, as teachers, is that we can finish up our quarter one grades without any problem. […] But, there are some of us who celebrate Diwali and the deadline for [quarter one] grades comes right at the time when it’s a holiday. […] I always take Diwali as a religious holiday, but I usually sit at home and I grade all day. This [schoolyear] was the first time when I actually could take a day off and hang out with my family, because I knew that the deadline wasn’t right there,” Kumar said.

During a Jan. 18 school committee meeting, junior Spoorti Tadakamalla and sophomore Natalie Strauss proposed removing one day from either February or spring break and using that day to give a holiday on the third day of Diwali.

Taking into account that a day off from school is not a possible solution, other alternatives include mandating teachers to have calendars for each unit they are teaching to let students know ahead of time about future assignments and assessments. 

What do future DEI efforts look like?

While the WPS DEI Committee has focused a lot on educating teachers and faculty on handling situations relating to civil rights violations, the Anti-Defamation League, A World of Difference (ADL AWOL) is committed to informing students about how they can re-examine their own biases. The organization is working at both the high school and middle school levels to make change.

At WA, ADL is a mainly student-run initiative that reaches out to other students to discuss topics relating to micro-aggressions and discrimination. Co-adviser and WPS DEI Committee Member Beth McGregor recounts an experience that first brought her to learn about ADL and led her to eventual participation in ADL. 

When my [current] advisory [students] were freshmen, ADL came into my freshman advisory and I was so impressed at how well they handled really difficult issues. And they’re students; they’re not teachers. They’re students and they came with a very clear agenda. We watched the videos; they had questions. And I just think they’re really important topics to address,” McGregor said.

However, pandemic-related complications have meant that many of the activities that ADL normally holds have been put on hold. McGregor, along with WA English teacher Kim Hart, stepped up as advisers this year, after job complications led to inconsistent leadership over the past few years. ADL at WA has also wanted to hold training for its newest members to understand inclusion efforts before teaching it to others, but because the pandemic has made it hard to find branch-delegated trainers in Massachusetts, it has been pushed back until at least August of this year. 

Most importantly, while ADL did reach out to freshmen advisories at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, ADL’s anti-bias presentations have not happened since then. The aim, beyond just giving a presentation during a single advisory block, was to periodically lead anti-bias discussions to that year’s freshman class up through graduation. All of this has been prevented due to the asynchronous nature of learning in the past two years.

In spite of the challenges facing the organization, McGregor is hoping that ADL can begin to rebuild momentum in the coming years. ADL has started discussions of both short-term goals, and longer goals that can be achieved in the next three to five years. McGregor emphasizes, however, that these plans can only be fulfilled when students are interested in leading the cause.

I think it always plays out best when students can be the main voice, and it’s not like a top-down, ‘We’re [staff] presenting this to you [students]’. Rather than [staff presenting, it should be] ‘we are students who are interested in these issues and think they need to be addressed.’ […] So I think grassroots support for students is really important,” McGregor said. 

One such idea has been to revive the idea of a diversity panel. Having had days dedicated to diversity and DEI efforts pre-pandemic, albeit unaffiliated with ADL, McGregor acknowledges the return of a panel as a possibility for the near future. In an effort to keep spreading the conversation, a WA ADL Instagram page has also been created, and will be posting regularly to continue the cause beyond ADL-led presentations.

At the end of the day, McGregor hopes that ADL, as well as the WPS DEI Committee, can be resources for people that want greater inclusion in the community. 

“It’d be nice [in regards to] the ADL and DEI Committee, for people to [say], ‘This is where I go if there’s an issue I think is important,’” McGregor said.

The WPS DEI Committee has also collaborated directly with ADL programs across the district, to guide them in the right direction. At the middle school level, ADL has also been working on ways to go into sixth, seventh, and eighth grade advisories to run workshops as educational DEI material.

They have also shown up to represent ADL at various town-wide DEI initiatives, such as the Indigenous People’s Day celebration last summer, which WA ADL was not able to attend.

While ADL at the middle schools is decidedly separate from ADL at WA, many ADL members at the middle school level also continue to be an active part of ADL at WA, bringing with them the momentum from their prior involvement. 

  • DEI Surveys to assess community needs

Last spring, after having previously surveyed the students about learning during the pandemic, the WPS conducted a DEI-related survey meant to focus on student feelings relating to what Chew terms the “sense of belonging” in the WPS school community.

“We talked about […] whether people felt like they belonged—[whether] they feel like they were connected to their classes, [whether] they feel like they were being supported in the environment,” Chew said.

This data was then shared with the TOW DEI Committee as well, to allow both DEI committees to assess what issues they should be tackling. This survey will also be repeated this upcoming April, with the goal of seeing whether DEI work has translated into improved student experiences in the classroom over time.

Similarly, the School & Education Subcommittee of the TOW DEI Committee is collating responses from their fall 2021 Town Family Survey, made in collaboration with Chew, to determine the next steps for inclusion. They sought to understand how, namely parents of school-aged children, felt with regards to micro-aggressions, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and safety in WPS. As the TOW DEI Committee is still fairly new, this data will also be used to guide their next steps. 

“We really try to get at the meat of how people are feeling when it comes to the DEI, whether people feel they have the resources they need. If not, […] [we] allow people to provide suggestions, whether it’s general comments, or specific policy recommendations on what they see as needed to be able to help our community better understand DEI [and] to make our schools more welcoming,” School & Ed. Co-Chair Derek Lo said.

  • Rapid Response Teams

In response to DEI-related incidents at the school and town level, both the TOW DEI Committee and the WPS DEI Committee have formed Response Teams to quickly react and formulate a response, especially if incidents occur in between committee meetings. 

On the town-wide level, in relation to the Jan. 28 girls basketball incident, the TOW DEI Rapid Response team drafted a statement for the committee’s Facebook page, condemning the taunting, supporting Antonelli’s response to the incident, and perpetuating the vision of DEI. Antonelli has also been working with the WPS DEI Committee more closely to assess how WA should move forward, according to Chew.

  • More inclusive hiring tactics

While the pandemic has made it difficult to recruit teachers, by diversifying hiring tactics, WPS looks to attract teachers from diverse backgrounds who have knowledge relating to DEI in the future.

When evaluating potential candidates, Chew describes that a “true understanding of equity” is the baseline for being hired. 

Beyond what occurs in the interviewing process, however, WPS is also increasing the candidate pool by looking in more places. WPS looks at job fairs and teacher training programs beyond just the area surrounding Westford. Although teaching licenses restrict the candidate pool to mainly within Massachusetts, there are a variety of teacher prep programs in Massachusetts, as well as agreements with other states allowing teachers with licensure elsewhere to teach within WPS. 

Another factor that could be a barrier to attracting candidates is the lower pay rate in Westford compared to large districts in large cities. However, Chew thinks that the quality of WPS as a high-performing school district and as a community is what will bring in new recruits.

“If they’re [candidates] looking for quality of life, and they’re looking to work with excellent resources and have the opportunity, to be in a truly expansive program, then, I feel like people do want to work here. It’s just a question of [whether] we are getting our notices out there,” Chew said.

The importance of taking action

Through the mobilization of students, teachers, and the entire community, DEI efforts will push Westford in a positive direction. In the aftermath of the Jan. 28 incident, the continual process of re-examining diversity, equity, and inclusion within the town and WPS is what will hopefully spark change. 

“We don’t want the same mistakes repeated, but new mistakes will happen. […] But [whether] all of our students and staff and family members have faith and trust that everyone’s going to be well taken care of […], to me, is the most important piece. [The fact that] people believe that we walk the walk—[that] it’s not just talk [and] that we’re actually going to make change—[is the most important piece],” Chew said.

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