SOUTHINGTON — The work of a coalition formed in 2019 to address issues of diversity and equity within the school district is ongoing.
The 42 members of the Southington Coalition for Social Justice include school staff, students, elected officials, and other community members.
The coalition has delved into issues including disproportionate rates of discipline experienced by students of color and how to diversify the school workforce. Other areas include improving curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse student population and addressing problems that have become more visible as the pandemic unfolded. Those issue included disparities in access to technology along with other socioeconomic factors, including food and housing instability and the students’ overall emotional well being.
District officials formed the group more than a year ago, after a video circulated online depicting a Southington High School student threatening black classmates.
Recent events, notably the killing last month of George Floyd — an unarmed black man — at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have spurred protests throughout numerous communities nationwide, including Southington.
Protesters’ demands include addressing police brutality, increased accountability and addressing what they’ve described as systemic racism.
Locally, coalition members acknowledged the own group’s work is far from complete.
More than 98% of the school district’s teachers employed during the 2019-2020 school year were white, according to data compiled by the state Department of Education. Of 609 teachers districtwide, three are African-American and four are identified as Hispanic or Latino.
For the same school year, nearly 80% of the district’s 6,336 students were identified as white, according to SDE-reported enrollment data. African-American students, at 151, made up just over 2% of the district’s overall student population. The district’s population of 619 Hispanic and Latino students, meanwhile, accounted for just under 10% of the overall student body.
Southington is hardly alone in these challenges. More than 90% of educators statewide are white, according to state data.
Robert Brown, a Board of Education member on the coalition, said “it’s absolutely vital we do a better job” recruiting and retaining minority teachers. He suggested the recruiting process may start as early as high school.
The coalition’s work hasn’t just focused on hiring. Members are reviewing policies and looking at professional development and other opportunities to improve educators’ understanding of implicit bias, which is often described as maintaining unconscious beliefs toward others, without fully realizing one holds such biased beliefs.
“I think the number one issue we’re going to face next fall, besides whether or not schools reopen, is the emotional and mental health of our students, and our staff. You've got people who have been isolated for a long time,” said Brown, a retired Southington High School teacher.
Steven Madancy, the school district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the coalition can play a role in addressing the inequities magnified because of the pandemic. Work has already begun toward developing a COVID community support network.
The coalition issued a letter addressing racial injustice, urging families, students and educators “to seize this moment to create a movement… that brings an end to systemic racism in our own backyard.”
“I think we have to raise and promote the racial consciousness of every member of our community. With that comes an awareness of the areas we can improve,” Madancy said.” Whether it's hiring, promoting diversity equity and inclusion.”
David Falvo, a first-term member of the Board of Education, is keenly aware of the issues around inclusion and diversity.
Falvo, who teaches in Willimantic, said he grew up experiencing prejudice in Southington as one of a small number of Latino students in the district.
“For my childhood it was pretty traumatizing coming home wishing I wasn’t brown and that my skin was white,” said Falvo, who is not a coalition member. “It’s something no child should ever feel.”
Falvo said the first time he had a teacher whose background was similar to his own was when he attended Wilcox Technical High School.
Falvo described the difficulty of diversifying teaching ranks because of an “ongoing cycle.” Most of the students in his college class obtaining teaching degrees were white.
“Minority students don't see teachers that look like them,” he said. “It's important for our students to have teachers that look like them.”
Those experiences do little to encourage students from wanting to become teachers, Falvo said.
He said the coalition’s work is long overdue.
“I think the work they're doing is great. I think there should be a little more transparency and dialogue,” he said.
Missy Cipriano, a first-term member of the Board of Education, was appointed to the coalition as a community member when it was formed prior to her election to the board last fall.
Cipriano said while the pandemic has curtailed the group's in person meetings, it's work is still ongoing.
Addressing matters related to race, improving curriculum, providing more educational resources and increasing the number of minorities in the teaching ranks will continue to be a focus, she said.
But first, Cipriano said, the coalition needs to ensure that no families “fall through the cracks.”
“If there is something that needs to be balanced, we as a town need to take care of it,” Cipriano said. “I think as we're moving forward, we need to be making sure those needs are met. We need to make sure the emotional needs of our youth are being met.”