Darien looks to form diversity, equity and inclusion group

Exterior, Darien High School in Darien, Conn. Nov. 7, 2014.

Exterior, Darien High School in Darien, Conn. Nov. 7, 2014.

Ned Gerard / Ned Gerard

DARIEN — The school district is looking to create a diversity, equity and inclusion group that officials say is part of the strategic plan and will ensure the schools are welcoming.

“We really want to get this group going because it’s a year-one goal of our plan and we have people anxious to be part of the work,” said Christopher Tranberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The DEI group, which has yet to be formed, will have administrators, staff members, students, a school board member and a community member.

“In my experience, it’s not uncommon to see equity as a core value in a school district, but you don’t always see the diversity and inclusion piece separately,” Tranberg said, adding having them as such showed the thought and care that went into the strategic plan.

The district has already done workshops, held book clubs and hosted an expert on the topic, Ken Shelton, as a key note speaker.

There is also a DEI group at each elementary school, as well as the middle and high schools, he said.

This group will help create a district-wide approach with a formal equity statement.

“I don’t think it’s helpful everyone is doing this work differently and we don’t have a common language to talk about what does DEI mean and specifically what does DEI mean for our community,” Tranberg said.

From a teaching and learning perspective, Tranberg said the district is also looking at how they create a positive school environment, ensuring students are represented in the curriculum and learning materials and looking at how expectations are set for students.

“How are we setting expectations for all learners, no matter what they bring to the table?” Tranberg said. “That’s all differences. That’s learning differences, that might be racial differences, that might be anything they might face that might give them a challenge other students don’t face.”

The equity audit will be a key part of that effort.

The audit examines four categories: the climate and disciplinary action, program participation, student achievement and professional capacity.

“Do students see themselves in the people who are leading and teaching?” Tranberg said.

The district is already looking to diversify its staff, including building on the teacher residency program that recently started.

Programs examined in the audit include both academic levels, as well as participation in the arts, sports and other programs.

By doing the audit, officials hope to see if any groups are disproportionately represented or underrepresented in different areas, determine why and find a way to address it, including removing possible barriers.

It will also establish an equity network and help share information with the school and larger community.

Several board members said it was important to include parents not only in the group itself but at the various stages of the group’s work, especially as certain topics arise.

“There might be some that engender some real tough conversations and if there are then maybe we find a way, or the administration finds a way to meet with parents at different levels and talk through their findings,” said Tara Ochman, a board member. “I generally find Darien is a community willing to learn, just looking for information.”

Debra Ritchie, the vice chair of the board, agreed it was important for parents to be a part of the DEI process.

“We absolutely need them to partner with this and be invested in the process because it’s important work,” she said. “It’s important to our schools, it’s important to our students, and it’s important for our community as a whole. I hope our larger community becomes a part of it because it’s important for everybody in Darien.”

Board Chairperson David Dineen said there are already energized groups of parents at the schools.

“I think that will help the overall project as we kick it off,” he said.

The use of pronouns has already been adapted this year.

Tranberg said teachers were offered the chance to start the year by asking students several questions, including their preferred names, pronouns and if they could use those with their parents.

“Those questions mirror the questions that students are asked on the Common App and they mirror the questions students are asked when they go to any college website and ask for information,” he said.

He said high school counselors said they had more students coming in to discuss gender expression and identity and the questions were a way to start addressing it.