Olentangy Schools' new diversity coordinator focuses passion on inclusion

JIM FISCHER
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Mikela Thomas, who has taught at Cheshire Elementary School for 11 years, has been added to Olentangy Schools' equity and inclusion team as diversity coordinator. She is pictured Aug. 21 at the Olentangy Schools administrative offices in Lewis Center.

Olentangy Schools' new diversity coordinator has been building cultural connections in the district for 11 years.

Prior to being named to the newly created position, Mikela Thomas was a first-grade teacher at Cheshire Elementary School for more than a decade.

She has served as the building's diversity liaison and as the K-12 dIstrict diversity chair, but her commitment to diversity extends beyond committees and into the classroom, where she has led the school's annual Cultural Connection event, as well as units in Black history and Hispanic heritage in her classroom.

"I never expected to leave the classroom," said Thomas, who taught for three years in a charter school in Columbus before coming to Olentangy. "But this is something I was passionate about. When the opportunity came up, I decided to go for it.

"I want our district to continue to create an inclusive atmosphere," she said. "That's part of how we get students ready for society."

The district's equity and inclusion team, led by curriculum supervisor of equity and inclusion Jackie Merkle, now has three full-time staff members -- including Heather Cole, also with the title of diversity coordinator -- and the K-12 district diversity chair, a supplemental position.

"As a beloved elementary teacher and former diversity liaison at Cheshire Elementary, there is no question that Mikela is woven into the fabric of our Olentangy community," Merkle said.

She said in her new role, Thomas will spearhead a wide range of projects in the areas of community outreach and support, staff development and student engagement.

"She is committed to listening to stakeholders, identifying areas of improvement and following through with transparency to ensure every child receives the educational experience they deserve," Merkle said. "We are so grateful that Mikela took this leap out of the classroom."

"I'm going to miss my students, seeing their faces every day, but I'm excited that I get to devote my full time to this work," Thomas said. "I want our students to know we're in this as a district."

Thomas' work will support the district's five focus areas of inclusion -- measurement and accountability, policy, recruitment and retention, training and education, and stakeholder engagement -- but she recognizes the grassroots efforts also necessary to create an inclusive atmosphere, in particular in the wake of the @DearOLSD Instagram page launched earlier this summer featuring firsthand stories from students and alumni who say they've experienced racism and bias in the schools.

"My goal is to do everything I can so another student doesn't feel that kind of discrimination," Thomas said.

"We're working tirelessly to rebuild trust."

Thomas said her own experiences growing up in Akron as a Black student in primarily white schools were more often internal, as she struggled with "being comfortable with me.

"There were times I felt not white enough for the white kids and not Black enough for Black kids," Thomas said. "I think there is a lot that students can learn from each other."

Not long after she finished high school, Thomas' family relocated to the Columbus area, eventually settling in Powell. Thomas' mother is a bus driver in Olentangy; her sister is a recent Olentangy Liberty High School graduate.

"We're home here, and we definitely want to see (the district) flourish," Thomas said.

She hopes to play a role in that flourishing, creating not just awareness but allies for students of diverse cultures and backgrounds.

"I'm interested in making the schools a place where people feel safe, included and loved," she said.

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