As students were in the final week of summer vacation, the Old Rochester Regional School Committee voted to adopt an Anti-Racism Resolution and create an Anti-Racism Subcommittee during its September 9 Zoom meeting. With Mattapoisett School Committee’s unanimous votes on Monday night, all the ORR district school committees have adopted the resolution and the subcommittee.
“The work is not done in one year… it’s a commitment,” said Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson, who had called ORR’s Policy Subcommittee together during the summer, an uncommon practice. The Anti-Racism Subcommittee would take ORR beyond the initial “starting conversations” step as outlined by Nelson.
ORR School Committee Vice Chairperson Heather Burke explained that the Anti-Racism Subcommittee would seek the feedback of all of the ORR committees, staff, students, and community members as its members author policy and examine existing policy against the resolution.
The school committees voted unanimously to create the Anti-Racism Subcommittee and adopt the following Anti-Racism Resolution read below as read to the ORR School Committee by Burke during its September 9 meeting: “Whereas, as schools have the responsibility to equip students with their civil right of obtaining a free and appropriate public education, it is the responsibility of each school to ensure we create a welcoming community for all students. And, whereas it is the responsibility that every district provide to all district staff including school committee members annual professional development on diversity, anti-racism, equity and inclusion. And, whereas every district will commit to recruiting and retaining a diverse and culturally responsive teaching workforce. And, whereas every district will examine their policies for institutional and systemic, racialized practices and implement change with sustainable policies that are evidence-based. And, whereas every district will incorporate into their curriculum the history of racial oppression and works by diverse authors, and works from diverse perspectives. And, whereas we as school district leaders can no longer remain silent to the issues of racism and hate that continue to impact our public and private institutions. It is resolved that the Old Rochester Regional School District and all school districts in the commonwealth must guarantee that racist policies are eradicated, and diversity, equity and inclusion is embedded and practiced for our students, families, faculty, and staff. We must ensure our own school culture and that of every school district in the commonwealth is actively anti-racist.”
ORR School Committee member Joe Pires asked Burke to expand on the phrase “evidence-based.” Burke referenced the work the Policy Subcommittee did with the school district’s legal team and said, ”the policy has to give guidance to the building administrators on how to act or how to respond to certain situations, and so you have to make sure it is in concert with your other policies. And we want to go through and make sure all our policies are aligned with any new policy we would put out there so that they don’t contradict or (cause) confusion.”
Nelson clarified that the resolution, as opposed to policy, is “more of a commitment or endorsement to drive this work.”
When open comments were invited late in the meeting, Pires took the opportunity to discuss his and his wife’s Cape Verdean ancestry and his gratitude to the ORR faculty and administration for its professionalism and support. He singled out Nelson’s work in leading ORR’s response to racism in the district’s schools.
“During my election (to the school committee) it was tough. I got ridiculed, I got shamed, I got attacked, even to the point where some of it was racial,” said Pires, who grew up in the 1970s and said he had dealt with racism from both sides. “The fact I can talk to you about this and have this conversation is great. I have a great hope and I know where we’re going. At the end of the day, not only for my three children, I want everyone to feel inclusive.”
Pires said teachers have been dealing with accusations and said they need the same support as students.
After voting to accept the Anti-Racism Resolution, ORR School Committee member Margaret McSweeny identified policy as the key step.
“Now the hard work begins,” she said. “Let’s just say the resolution should be the beginning, it shouldn’t be a band-aid. The policy work has to be done because the policy work is what’s actually going to make the difference for our students.”
According to Burke, ORR’s Policy Subcommittee met on August 11 after the Joint School Committee requested it adopt and craft a policy on anti-racism. “We realized we needed to audit all of our policies so that there was no conflict that would trip us up in the future,” she said.
What she explained would necessarily be a multi-step process, Burke stressed that the Policy Subcommittee “didn’t want to wait or put anything on hold to state our position and make our pledge to our stakeholders.” Therefore, Burke proposed a two-fold approach, first and immediately to state the Anti-Racism Resolution, and the second step to audit ORR’s policy handbook and probably its student handbook as well.
From the ORR School Committee, McSweeny will represent Marion on the Anti-Racism Subcommittee, Frances Kearns will represent Mattapoisett, and Pires and Tina Rood will represent Rochester. Kate Duggan, a new Rochester Memorial School Committee member, is representing Rochester on the subcommittee, and the other town school committees will also be represented.
Chairperson Cary Humphrey lauded the effort, saying, “It has a lot of teeth in it, and that’s what we need.”
Before a vote was taken on the creation of the Anti-Racism Subcommittee, Rood suggested including students in the subcommittee and also making Tritown Against Racism a part of its meetings. “We have some very valuable resources that we can draw on,” she said. “Over my time here, one of the things I’ve always looked forward to having more on was community partners.”
Burke explained that an official subcommittee is a little different than a taskforce and that its creation will need some advice on protocol.
“I think it’s crucial that students have the opportunity for feedback… That should be part of the process… We can learn a lot from them,” said Pires.
Committee member Jim Muse said, “As much information as possible and the idea of students providing us with information is great.” But he also stressed, “If it is a subcommittee, it should have (school committee) members and advisory members. But the subcommittee should be made up of school committee members in my opinion.”
“There is no doubt the community has the right to be heard,” said Humphrey.
Two ORR High School students were invited to take part in the meeting.
Junior Eddie Gonet alluded to a Civil Rights Taskforce he saw at work in Fairhaven, identifying similar objectives in a different form. “Us students didn’t have any voting privileges, but the group really liked hearing from the students. It’s definitely a great group to have,” he said.
Senior Peyton Lord said, “I’ve seen a lot of students that are looking forward to having these discussions and students that would like to make our school much more accepting and just a better environment for students that are minority groups at our school. There’s plenty of students that would be interested in speaking at something like this. Like Mrs. Rood was saying, student voices are something that would be very important.”
In a meeting that lasted well over two hours, the ORR School Committee tackled a number of other subjects.
The committee voted unanimously to include grades for grad-point (remote) courses be included in grade-point average (GPA) and class rank.
High School Principal Mike Devoll sought and got the school committee to put remote-only students’ curriculum that includes grad-point courses into grade-point average and class rankings. Over 70 students have opted for fully remote learning.
“From where I come from and from where the school comes from – we have a committee known as the Standing Committee for Graduation Requirements – we feel that it is not equitable for this current school year to not include the students in the (full) remote plan in class rank and GPA,” Devoll said. “We don’t feel like that is equitable for them so it would be my recommendation for equity purposes that we rank our students and assign GPA credit for all.”
Because doing so would constitute a change in the Student Handbook, the school committee was required to vote on the matter.
Citing overall concerns, Muse suggested graduation requirements be put on the next meeting’s agenda, but he agreed that the remote students’ grades should be included in GPA.
Devoll noted that students were in the process of making selections and requested a conclusion to the grad-point and GPA/class ranking discussion. While some students matriculated to ORR’s age 18-22 population, Devoll noted that all 2020 seniors graduated.
Many schools are said to be going test-optional, but the lack of testing scores puts an extra emphasis on GPA as it pertains to college applications.
Justin Shea, ORR Athletic Booster Club president, proposed naming the new football stadium press box in memory of Howard Stillman Bates, a longtime benefactor whose multiple donations enabled the building of the press box.
“The Howard Stillman Bates Foundation wanted to help us build a press box that we so badly needed,” said ORR High School Athletic Director Bill Tilden.
Per policy, the school committee took the recommendation under advisement and will vote on the naming no sooner than 45 days out.
After returning from Executive Session, the committee voted unanimously to approve a Memorandum of Agreement with the union to get the school year underway.
Nelson issued an update on ORR’s reopening plan and said the time spent with faculty in the days prior to welcoming back students was the first such meeting of faculty and administration since March 13, the day school was closed.
The cohort ideology will send half the student body to campus on Tuesday and Thursday and the other half on Wednesday and Friday.
Nelson said he is pleased with HVAC and air-quality evaluations and the overall of the district’s school buildings. Desks are placed at a six-foot distance from one another. As of September 9, ORR was still completing work on in-school signage.
ORR has been finalizing Chromebook distribution, busing plans, and in-school schedules.
Nelson introduced his new Central Office team: Jannell Pearson-Campbell, assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning; Howie Barber, assistant superintendent of Finance and Operations; and Craig Davidson, who finished his work for Bourne Public Schools and officially joined ORR on September 15.
The committee authorized Barber to get rid of 10 damaged library chairs, 12 old wooden cabinets, five obsolete cafeteria cash registers, 10 old overhead projectors, 17 cassette players, and 38 non-operable headsets.
Per the committee vote, student parking fees for 2020-21 will be reduced from $50 to $25.
Pires also stated his belief in choice for or against vaccinations and said that the term “anti-vax” is derogatory and unfair. Nelson said most questions are stemming from the religious exemption. Homeschoolers have an exemption, but remote-only students are still required by policy to accept mandated vaccines. The state directive on flu shots has not changed for 2020-21, but Nelson said more information is coming from the commissioner.
Pires said some parents are considering homeschooling or relocating. Burke said state-mandated immunization programs are not funded and come without adequate notice; she encouraged residents to talk to their state representatives about unfunded mandates taking education away from their students.
With reorganization on the agenda, Cary Humphrey was renewed as chairperson of the ORR School Committee.
In calling the first meeting of the 2020-21 academic year to order, Humphrey asked for a moment of silence in memory of former ORR student Nolan Gibbons, saying the musically gifted teenager had “such a bright future.”
Humphrey also introduced the idea of moving to a hybrid format for school committee meetings. A debate ensued, but the school committee relented on moving toward meeting in person.
The next meeting of the ORR Joint School Committee is scheduled for September 24. The ORR School Committee will set its next meeting in November.
ORR School Committee
By Mick Colageo