Olentangy Schools' town halls are 'step one' as district aims to diversify

JIM FISCHER
editorial@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

On June 19, Olentangy Schools posted a statement on its website about the history of Juneteenth and the importance of ongoing work on racial justice and inclusion in the district.

The statement included an announcement about three virtual town-hall meetings to be held before the end of June, during which community members could share experiences and ideas that would help the district continue to make strides in those areas.

The same day, a new account launched on Instagram, @DearOLSD, featuring firsthand stories from students and alumni who say they've experienced racism and bias in the schools.

The timing of the town halls and the Instagram account was such that each has amplified the other, and district leadership hopes to be the better for it, as Superintendent Mark Raiff addressed both during a virtual board meeting June 25.

"To @DearOLSD, we hear you. We have been working to address these issues for years, and we have much left to do," Raiff said. "We're sorry. You deserve better. We're going to work to ensure you receive better."

That work began in earnest in 2010 with the formation of the Superintendent's Diversity Committee, now called the District Diversity Committee. The district's equity and inclusion team now includes three full-time staff members – the district hired a second district diversity coordinator last week – and a supplemental position.

Diversity coordinator Heather Cole said staff has put a structure in place for diversity in the district that includes policy, training, engagement and recruitment.

District chief operating officer Todd Meyer addressed the recruitment aspect during the June 25 board meeting, telling board members of targeted efforts to bring in diverse candidates, including improved networking, expanded advertising and job-fair participation and heightened awareness of changing student demographics at the building level.

In the past two years, Meyer told board members, 28.5% of new administrators, 9.5% of new certified staff and 12.3% of new classified staff were "diverse."

"I'm personally proud of the progress we've made, but understand there is work to be done," Meyer said.

Jackie Merkle, the district's assistant director of equity and inclusion, told board members of progress made on other fronts, including curriculum, student orientation, professional development and community engagement.

The recent town halls, Merkle said, are part of that ongoing effort.

"With everything going on around racial justice, we felt it was imperative to have a forum, to invite the community again to help us collect ideas moving forward," she said.

More than 100 people attended the June 24 town hall, including students, alumni, parents, teachers and other district staff.

Topics raised included professional development, course offerings representing diverse cultures and backgrounds beyond the study of foreign language, an improved reporting process for instances of racism and bias, increased diversity among district leadership, a parent hotline to discuss instances of racism, incentives for educators of color to come to the district, cultural competency for participation in academic honoraries and sports teams, and PTO liaisons.

Shanni Playko, a parent, teacher and district resident, acknowledged that the district offers "a top-notch education, (so) we need to provide a top-notch experience."

Cole said it's too soon to know how information gleaned from the three sessions will be incorporated into the district's diversity plans, but that there will be opportunities to participate in the process moving forward.

"This was step one," she said.

"We came out of that (June 24) town hall feeling empowered, that all of those people came together with passion and ideas and many with the intent to continue to collaborate with us," Merkle said.

Videos of all three town halls will be shared on the district's website, and both Merkle and Cole invited those interested in continuing the conversation and their participation to email them and to get involved in the District Diversity Committee.

Merkle also said a newly formed Student Equity Steering Committee met twice prior to schools being closed in the spring. She said the group will have an ongoing voice in the process.

Cole and Merkle both said they were inspired, not discouraged, by the stories shared at @DearOLSD.

"It's inspiring to see our students claiming their experiences and sharing them and being a part of a movement," Cole said. "It's a piece of a larger picture that is absolutely amplifying the need for change and for voices to come together and make the change.

"Our (equity and inclusion) team is not afraid. It's our job to listen and to honor experiences and to change the system."

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