12/13/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Sharing Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices

Boston office staff meeting Skyping with guest

Over the past several weeks, we at CS&A have been holding Skype conversations with diversity and inclusion leaders at independent schools across the country. While we're not new to the independent school space and are heading into our fourth-annual FORUM/Diversity event, we take very seriously our own continuing edification around topics that are affecting our schools and the world of education.

This morning, we spoke with Sumant Bhat, Head of Middle School at St. Anne’s Episcopal School in Denver. In addition to his work on curriculum and programming, he leads diversity training and growth for all faculty and staff and the school’s Multiculturalism and Inclusion Committee. As Sumant shared, he hasn't always done work in diversity and inclusion. Prior to St. Anne’s, he worked at three other independent schools in various capacities including as a teacher, coach, department chair, and dean. It wasn't until later in his career in education did he realize the importance of being a person of color in independent schools, and now he works to answer the question of how St. Anne's (and independent schools in general) can nurture educators who are committed to diversity and inclusion (D&I).

The landscape of D&I work has evolved in recent years and Sumant has witnessed the changes in multicultural work at St. Anne's. “Our mission used to be in making good people. Now it's about not only nurturing good, kind people but also in shaping people to be ready to have conversations and take action around equity and diversity,” Sumant said. So far, this has included more collaboration between schools to share best practices and a slew of new initiatives at St. Anne's. In the Denver area, for example, a “diversity happy hour” is held every few weeks at a different school in the area. Educators gather to talk about their schools' initiatives and share what has and hasn't been working for them. The community at St. Anne's engages in D&I work in a number of ways, including through the school's Multicultural and Inclusion Committee, affinity groups for students and parents, opportunities for both students and teachers to attend national diversity conferences, international travel, community service, and more.

Additionally, the school is in its first year of a Teaching Fellow program which brings in recent graduates of color and provides them with the training and professional development opportunities to set them up for a successful career in independent schools. Sumant hopes that more schools in the Denver area will buy into the program and create a larger pool of diverse recent graduates who are interested in working at schools in Denver. “Denver is not known as a highly diverse city,” said Sumant. “We're hoping to attract more people to these schools so we're not all drawing from the same pool.”

A CS&A staff member who is also a former Middle School math teacher asked our guest about St. Anne's goals for the diversity and inclusion program in the Middle School. Identity is key in this division, and Sumant said he has students engage with stories about people and characters other than themselves in order to get them to reflect inwardly via the character. “A lot of what we do is self-reflection,” he explained, “and moving beyond the binary of gender or sexual orientation or race or religion. We talk in detail about bias and provide students with the skills to have a critical eye for bias in order to move past it.” Sumant said it's important to normalize these conversations so there is constant discussion in the community.

When asked about what he does to reach the white educators at St. Anne's, Sumant said it's all about meeting people where they are. When first challenged with educating the faculty and staff, he began by taking inventory of the skills people believed they already had and those they felt they needed more help in. He then developed a strategic plan for intentional training in the areas of highest need. He also noted that at all-school meetings he ensures he and his colleagues have at least 10 minutes to share and discuss the diversity work they are doing on and around campus. This helps create gateways into larger school-wide diversity and inclusion work.

Throughout our chat, Sumant mentioned the importance of schools sharing best practices with one another. So what are some best practices from St. Anne's that we can share with our schools? “You need to make sure you're creating an environment that will be attractive to people of color,” he explained. “Affinity groups are key in making faculty of color feel supported and welcomed and not like the only reason they are at your school is because they are people of color.” Having resources for things like where a new faculty member can find his or her favorite food or where to get a haircut are small but powerful ways to create such a space. There should also be clear opportunities for faculty to grow and lead within the school. Another best practice Sumant shared is being sure a school is consistently present in spaces where D&I work is going on. “Schools need to be going to PoCC [NAIS People of Color Conference]. Schools need to go to your FORUM/Diversity event even if they're not hiring. It's important to be in front of candidates of color to show them your school is committed to this work and values being in the same place where educators are gathering.” (Thanks for the plug, Sumant!) Finally, he advocated for schools creating their own D&I guidelines for hiring. “A school's director of diversity should be involved in school hires, not just with those who are people of color, to be sure that everyone is committed to diversity.” Sumant also said he makes sure that at least 25% of the candidates he calls are people of color.

Sumant was a wealth of helpful information for us as we prepare for our fourth-annual FORUM/Diversity. Schools and active CS&A candidates are invited to join us on January 26-27 in Philadelphia for this combined hiring and professional development event–which is now two days!

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