Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) have long been topics of discussion in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), but, for many years, Executive Director of Elementary Schools Steve Richardson said efforts to improve in this arena have “largely been inspired by hope but resulted in little change.”

“Despite the great effort by extraordinary educators over the last few decades, we still have fallen short of meeting the needs of our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community,” he said.

Richardson said this changed in 2020 when the murder of George Floyd sparked a group of SMMUSD middle school administrators to commit to taking concrete steps to “disrupt the inequities in our system.”

Now, two and a half years later, Richardson and other staff presented this work at the Nov. 3 School Board meeting and said improving DEI has become a District-wide focus and has resulted in critical assessment of practices through the use of a “DEI litmus test” made up of three key questions: “Is it good for kids? Is the benefit for some kids at the expense of BIPOC? Is it sustainable?”

These questions, Superintendent Ben Drati explained during the meeting, are at the core of the District’s new approach and have resulted in changes including adjustments to staff on-boarding and training process and the restructuring of some classes.

New Teacher Induction Coordinator Tristen Gartrell and Social Emotional Learning Teacher Kimberly Marshall shared with Board members how asking themselves these questions prompted them to shift the focus of the New Teacher Academy (the two day on-boarding process for teachers in the District), which they realized emphasized logistics more than culture and values.

“We realized we needed to flip that hourglass and we needed to start with culture and values and look at all of those culture and values through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Marshall said.

Following the new training, she reported that 63% of the staff who participated said that the DEI approach “resonated with them or was the key takeaway from the New Teacher Academy.”

Ending the division of students into “honors” and “regular” English classes at John Adams Middle School several years ago and more recently at Samohi, was given as another example of the District’s DEI work.

“It created a tract system,” Richardson said “And when we looked at the data over multiple years we realized it wasn’t really doing a whole lot for the kids in the honors class and it was disproportionately hurting the kids who weren’t in the honors class, so we decided we were no longer going to do that.”

Board members as well as a slew of parents, educators and other community members voiced support for the work at the meeting but also said more still needs to be done, including expanding DEI training to more staff and the board and more parent involvement.

“After 22 years of being in this district, we’re moving that needle,” said longtime Board Member and current president Maria Leon-Vasquez.

A District Leadership Team made up of over a dozen staff members from different areas of the district is scheduled to meet every two weeks to further discuss and evaluate DEI throughout the school year.


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