First diversity consultant for Darien’s schools outlines approach, addresses parent concerns

Alan Addley is Darien's superintendent of schools.

Alan Addley is Darien's superintendent of schools.

File / Contributed by The Neag School /

DARIEN — The district’s first diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, who is scheduled to meet with students after instances of antisemitism, racism and homophobia were reported in the schools, explained his approach to the school board at a recent meeting.

School board members interviewed Ken Shelton, a California-based educator with over 20 years of experience with teaching, mostly at the middle school level, during a special Nov. 18 meeting. He has also been a policy adviser for several state departments of education, according to his website.

“My approach to the work is to align what I know with the needs of the community, the values of the community and the values that are set forth in the strategic plan and to support and uplift the community as a whole,” said Shelton, who appeared via Zoom. “My core basis is simply to support everybody so that they are a better version of themselves, me included, as a result of our interactions together — and so that every child, at the end of the day, can say, ‘You know what, in my schooling experience, I felt seen and I felt heard, and I know I was loved.’”

Shelton was considered the top candidate for diversity and equity work after the district reviewed several resources and programs from others, Superintendent Alan Addley said in an Oct. 26 memo.

In this role, Shelton will guide and advise the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee and make recommendations on district policies on inequities and diversity measures, according to the memo. He is scheduled for over a dozen visits with students, faculty and parents to lead workshops and develop inclusive and culturally responsive curriculum.

During the board meeting, members grilled Shelton on issues he has written and spoken about in the past, including think pieces pushing back on class ranking systems and questioning conventional grading standards.

Members pointed out that Darien’s schools, considered among the best in the state, are attuned to high standards of excellence and performance.

“One of the things I think we hear from the community is the concern that our focus on excellence and innovation could be compromised,” board member Jill McCammon said, asking Shelton how he would ensure that would not happen. “There’s a feeling that we could be trying to pull everybody back instead of lifting everyone up.”

His approach, Shelton said, is that a rising tide raises all boats. In classrooms where not all students were performing at the same level, he said he requested additional supports for lower-performing students and made those same resources available for higher-performing students as well.

“I don’t believe in pulling back from anybody,” Shelton said. “You know, this is not a zero-sum game. You don’t take from, you add to.”

Shelton has already met informally with a few Darien High School students. His key takeaways, he said, are that students wanted to talk more about social issues, get a better understanding of how those issues fit into their curriculum, and know “adults are actually listening” when students share their thoughts.

Members — and some parents — said they were concerned that Shelton, as a Californian, would be advising Darien’s policies as an outsider.

“What I’m hearing from the community is that there’s this fear ... a concern that this is inviting a Trojan horse into the school system,” board member Dennis Maroney said.

In response to community concerns, Shelton proposed forming a community partnership that could involve parents, an approach he has used for other districts. Those partnerships serve as “advisory technical working groups,” he said, and are typically made of a small group of teachers and students as well as community members.

While the administration has already outlined what Shelton will be doing with students in the next few months, the board has not yet approved the final budgetary process for his work. The district has budgeted $56,000 for the consultant, according to the district’s Nov. 9 financial report.

Some members also questioned why they did not have the opportunity to interview other candidates for the role.

Addley pushed Shelton forward as the most qualified consultant he had seen for Darien, and said he wanted immediate action.

“I don’t want to be continually in this mode of reacting to things and, you know ... the actual instances themselves continuing,” Addley said. “These are just not acceptable.”