Equity study sparks debate in Westport

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WESTPORT — Parents and school board members are divided over a recent equity study that looked at both academics and student experience among various subgroups.

“I consider that making a seat at the table for everyone does not take away a seat from others and I think that is really the problem,” said board member Neal Phillips. “Success can look different for everyone and it’s important to look at a student’s experience, whether it’s race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status.”


Superintendent Thomas Scarice said while it’s important to look at student achievement and any disparities, it’s equally important to look at how students feel about school. One of the reasons for the study was hearing about experiences from different students or families where they were unwelcome or felt unsafe, which was also identified by another survey.

“Good luck teaching kids if they feel like they don’t belong,” he said. “Good luck teaching kids if they feel like who they are isn’t valued.”

Proponents of the study said the work was needed to address disparities within schools and create a more welcoming and tolerant environment. In some cases, even pointing to their own experiences or those of their children.

Opponents said the report was biased, focusing too much on race and not enough on other identifying groups, such as gender, religion or sexual orientation. Several parents and council members were also frustrated that they had not given concrete next steps or identified the root causes of the disparities. Some have also raised concerns about the data, calling some statistics misleading.

“I don’t see the change here; I don’t see the action,” said board member Robert Harrington. He said that the small steps in the report need to be identified.

Scarice said it’s up to the district to figure out what those action items are and what the possible root causes might be. He said officials agreed and disagreed with elements of the report and that it was up to the district to determine how it worked for Westport.

“We will determine our path, just as we do when we receive a report on the facilities, the program or anything else,” he said, adding that the work could take place over the summer or autumn.

The report was prepared by New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, which several speakers objected to, saying the organization had inserted its biases and political agenda into the report.

The board approved the study in February 2021, selecting NYU from 10 applicants and awarding the $50,000 contract. The work included surveys and focus groups, collecting feedback from students, educators and parents.

Although it does not provide specific steps, the report makes four recommendations: developing welcoming school communities, increasing access to educational programs for all students, investing in continuous professional development and reviewing the way data is collected, analyzed and used.

Some school board members questioned the continuation of these recommendations without first knowing the root causes.

“I don’t know how you can develop actions without knowing the causes of the problems,” said Vice President Liz Heyer.

Other members and some of the Westport educators working on the study said the recommendations would help them determine what those issues are, particularly by developing systems to better track data, including disciplinary referrals, or pathways. borrowed by students to be in certain grade levels to see what the trends are, if any.

“It’s going to take a few years to see if those patterns are really there,” said Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas.

Officials said some of the recommendations were already underway in the district and could be expanded upon, including professional development, working with students with special needs to ensure they have access to programs and making Westport a welcoming and assertive community.

“Student and family focus groups noted a lack of spaces that are welcoming and affirming the mold in which it feels they need to fit in at Westport,” said Janna Sirowich, Principal of Westport Primary School. Coleytown.

She said it could be the toxic and competitive culture in the district and the pressure students feel to follow a certain track of high grades and high-level coursework. This can further marginalize already marginalized groups.

Some of the other recommendations that school officials seem to be leaning towards are revising the code of conduct, which several speakers said should have student input, and focusing on restorative measures rather than discipline. Officials also said they needed to build on their work to diversify the teaching staff, a point also echoed by parents who said their children did not have adults in their school who looked like them.

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