KENNEBUNK — Representatives of a Maryland-based consortium that works with organizations, school districts and communities on issues of equity and social justice told the RSU 21 Board of Directors and community members Wednesday that the work "takes time and patience."
"There's no quick fix," said Dr. Karmen Rouland, associate director of technical assistance and training for the Center for Education Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Consortium. "But if you stick with it, it can be rewarding for all involved."
During Wednesday's meeting with the RSU 21 board, Rouland and Susan Villani from WestEd, an organization that provides equity and social justice assessment services through the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, shared examples of the work they do with school districts and some of the services they can provide to address equity and racial bias in RSU 21 schools.
The school district and community members are searching for resources to help address racial bias after race-based allegations in a complaint filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission by a black former teacher became public. In her complaint, former Kennebunk High School history teacher Rosa Slack said a student brought a Confederate Flag into her classroom, while another student recorded her reaction, and in a separate incident another student threatened to burn her house down. Slack said she was not supported by RSU 21 administration. She also said in the complaint at least one other family of color was driven out of town by racial threats.
The community is looking for answers from the school district in an independent investigation of the district’s handling of the incidents that led to Slack’s MHRC complaint, as well as any other potential racial incidents, while looking to move forward with resources that can address the systemic issues of bias and equity. The consortium was invited to meet with the board, and members of the public, to discuss in detail what an equity assessment would look like.
Community member Traci Gere asked Rouland how the breakdown of trust in the district administration would affect efforts to work on equity together.
“Building that trust is the work,” Rouland said. “We would provide spaces for that honest conversation. I would say it’s part of the work we would do.”
Board member Sarah Dore asked how the independent investigation would relate to the process of an equity assessment, and asked if it would have to be completed before they could begin their work.
Villani said the investigation will offer data that will be very useful in tailoring equity and social justice work specific to RSU 21 schools and the community, and that data can be funneled into their work at any point when it’s available.
Rouland and Villani both work with the Portland school system in Maine, along with districts serving more than 4 million students from Maine to West Virginia. The Center for Education Equity’s goals are to improve and sustain the systemic capacity of public education systems to address problems caused by inequities, and increase equitable educational opportunities for all students regardless of race, gender, religion, and national origin.
“The more that we can listen and learn a lot from all members of the school community and the more we can listen first, we can then design together a comprehensive plan for what to do about it. I think the tendency for any of us is – we have a problem, let’s solve it, this is bad we need to do something. But for lasting change, you really have to spend some time understanding the problem," Villani said.
The group often starts with focus groups and community forums to help people feel heard. "We spend a lot of time listening, and facilitate focus groups to gather data, with no judgement," she said.
“It’s to gather as much information as possible. Building the capacity within the community and the schools is really the main goal. If people within have been a part of the process and learn skills of collaboration and process then it gives some additional skills on how to talk about things that are difficult to talk about and how to go beneath the surface and dig down deeply to the things some people are experiencing, and others don’t even know what’s happening,” she said.
The cost surrounding services from MAEC is still unknown. Rouland said her organization is government funded, so many of the services it offers are at no cost, however, bringing in some of the organizations it partners with, including WestEd, would include a cost to the district.
Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano gathered information from other districts that have used MAEC for equity work and estimated at an earlier meeting it would average roughly $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
The RSU 21 board will meet Monday, March 18 and the agenda includes taking action on Wednesday’s presentation. The board will also hear a presentation from Peter Lowe, an attorney from Brann & Isaacson who was chosen to help lead the board in the steps needed to proceed with the independent investigation. The meeting will start with an executive session at 6 p.m. on "legal consultation," followed by the public board meeting at 7 p.m. in the KES board room.