Schools pursue equity, equal representation

Committee members are looking to encourage participation from the Portuguese-speaking community.

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The Edgartown School —MV Times.

Updated, Feb. 15

If the Martha’s Vineyard school committees were graded on their makeup compared with the Island’s school population, they would receive a failing grade.

Members of the Island’s four school committees say that they are lacking representation from  the Island’s significant and increasing population of Portuguese-speaking people. School officials and administrators say there’s not one member from the Brazilian community.

But many of the elected school committee members acknowledge that they need to do more to reach the Island’s population of residents with a primary language other than English and to encourage them to get involved.

Tisbury School committee member Amy Houghton says that encouraging diversity in school committee membership is important.

“Maybe what we’ve been is remiss in making sure we have enough voices of enough diverse backgrounds at the table, to make sure that [the] programs we have in place are really the right programs,” Houghton said. 

“There is not much diversity on the … All-Island School Committee,” Houghton says. “So, are the voices being heard? I don’t know.”

The comments come as Island schools announced they are undertaking an equity audit to find the gaps in education. The audit is to be conducted through surveys going out to parents, and will be done in partnership with a national educational nonprofit called the Mid Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC).

Edgartown School Principal Shelley Einbinder publicized the audit last week in a letter to the Edgartown School community. 

The purpose of the audit is to review the fairness of an institution’s policies, programs, and practices as they relate to students or staff relative to their race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, and several other socioculturally significant factors.

“The audit,” according to Einbinder, “will compel us to take a hard look at our existing policies, programs, and practices, including school choice, discipline, and curriculum, to ensure that they are equitable, and address the needs of the full range of learners in our classrooms.”

Einbinder’s letter comes in the wake of dozens of parents voicing their frustrations over the school failing to meet students’ needs. Many parents complained that classes were unable to address all students’ needs together, and that administrators did not communicate properly and promptly. This comes as the school’s English-learning population has doubled in the past decade.

Superintendent Richie Smith, reached following the audit announcement, said that the idea is to collect data to make informed decisions, as the school adapts to a changing student population.

“Part of what we need to do — the world has changed since COVID,” Smith said. “Demographics are changing.”

He said that the survey will help the schools understand where they may be excelling, and where they may need to do better. He said that his administration has heard the concerns Edgartown parents voiced recently, and while they want to address those concerns, he said, he wants to make adjustments the right way, even if it takes some time.

“The parents’ concerns echo our own staff’s concerns,” Smith said. “We need to respond to what parents are saying. We’re not just sitting by and looking at these changes. Our job is to respond in responsive ways.”

“We need to have the data to back it up,” he said, “rather than anecdotal evidence.”

Former Island educator Marge Harris is also involved in implementing the audit. She said the idea grew out of a desire to look at equity in the schools following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Harris said that funding for the program comes through a federal grant, and that she is excited for what the results might show.

“I don’t know what the data will show, but it’ll show what we are doing right, and where we could improve,” Harris said. “If we can get any better, that’s great.”

Work on the Vineyard as part of the audit is expected to wrap up at the end of February, before being sent to MAEC officials to compile the research.

As the public school system undergoes an internal equity audit — and as the Edgartown School has responded to criticism from parents — elected officials say school committees should have more members from English-as-a-second-language (ESL) or other high-needs backgrounds.

Houghton, in Tisbury, says more could be done to accommodate parents. Altering meeting times, says Houghton, could increase parental involvement, especially for working parents. “If you are a working parent with young children, it’s next to impossible to be on a school committee,” she says.

Houghton adds that school advisory councils (SACs), which include students, parents, teachers, administration, and community members, can meet at more accessible times.

Houghton notes that she has been concerned about some of the recent discussion about accommodating student needs in Edgartown, where parents — among other complaints — said that some programming for high needs students was draining resources. “I think the worry I have about everything that’s happening right now is that we’re singling out each category of kid, and it’s not about that,” Houghton said. “It’s about identifying what each child needs, and getting the scaffolding in place to make them successful.”

Committee members also point to language accommodations for committee meetings that could help families get involved. With school committee meetings already over Zoom, a translation could be provided on the stream. 

But committee members say that parental involvement — not just from the Brazilian community — has been sparse across the Island. 

“I would like any parent to show up,” says up-Island school committee member Robert Lionette of their meetings. “We get one, that’s a great [thing]. One parent, I don’t care what language they speak … Oftentimes, I think our meetings exist in an echo chamber.”

He also says that Vineyard school committees should be hearing more input from people in charge of ELL programs, and that currently they primarily hear about those programs indirectly, from administrators.

Louis Paciello, on the Edgartown School committee, says two spots will be up for election in April, and that he has talked to friends who immigrated from Brazil about running. 

“I would love to see somebody, with a background in Brazilian Portuguese especially … that would be beneficial to the student body, and to the school and to the community,” Paciello says. “The [Edgartown] school committee welcomes all input, always.”

Superintendent Smith also says that schools should try harder to recruit parents from more diverse backgrounds to committees. He says joining a committee can take lots of work and time, but that schools can be strategic in their search for candidates. 

“Where we are falling short is our deliberate pursuit. It’s not without effort, but maybe lacking strategy,” he says.

He adds that the gap in representation is noticeable: “There is an effort at the school to recruit people. I wouldn’t say our efforts have been good enough at this point. The outcomes and representation speak for themselves.”

Sam Houghton contributed to this report.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Setting aside politics, which seem to infiltrate any topic these days, what a fabulous thing to have Marge Harris involved in this. I am among the generations of students who were lucky enough to have her as a teacher. She maintained high standards while creating a warm and lively learning environment. I think I speak for hundreds when I say- We Love You, Mrs. Harris!!

  2. Hope these surveys are permitted to be done anonymously. Want real data with real honest answers, folks need to speak without fear. Fear of what…… use your imagination especially at the high school.

  3. I’m quite old. I do understand the definition of equity. Yet, when applied to a random group of young scholars is any basic educational objective achieved by endeavoring to mandate that “everyone” is on the Honor Roll? A simple question.

    • Thomas, you do not understand equity. Equity is equal opportunity, not equal outcome.
      Everyone has the opportunity to be on the Honor Roll. Being on the honor role requires ability, diligence and at least some luck.

  4. Only to echo the above comments.
    Great to have Marge Harris cintinue to be involved in education on the Island. No one better. I well remember when the Harrises arrived in the Superintendent’s office to inquire about an opening for Marge! Equally impressive Jamie’s contributions at the hospital and on stage. The Island is definitely a better place for these two!
    I also wondered about the percentage of honor roll students. Blessings on those hard-working students.

    • Jaime was there in the operating room when my daughter was born- I remember what a proud moment it was years later when I got to introduce her to him and tell her that this was the man who helped Dad calm down when he started getting nervous and let him know that it was all going to be OK. The Harrises are the best.

  5. I am happy to say that my husband and I are good friends with Marge and Jamie Harris. I worked at the hospital years ago and became friends with Jamie, and after a while I met Marge and we became friends as well. They are certainly two of the most upstanding couple I know. They both value education and that is evidenced by the fact that their children and now their grandchildren have been accepted into top tier colleges and universities to pursue very meaningful careers! The Island is lucky to have such a revered couple.

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