South-Western City School District initiative focuses on diversity, equity, inclusion

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group

Schools in the South-Western City School District will be required to include a goal in their continuous-improvement plan that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion.

The directive is one of four action items that have emerged from the district's initiative to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion for students.

Bill Wise

Schools including a specific outlined goal as part of their CIP makes the overall goals of the DEI initiative "more concrete," Superintendent Bill Wise said.

It's also important because each school serves its own unique student population, said Shayne Downton, a Grove City resident who is serving on the districtwide work group, one of four committees that have been involved in the DEI process. Downton also serves as chief diversity and inclusion officer for the United Way of Central Ohio.

"Each building has its own culture, and even the neighborhoods their students come from are different," Downton said. "So it's important that each building embraces that diversity and comes up with its own goal to address the DEI issue.

"I think that action item is really one  of the foundational pieces of this whole effort," he said. 

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Wise provided an update during the Feb. 22 school board meeting regarding the district's ongoing work in DEI.

The initiative arose last June after the board approved a resolution regarding DEI "and making this a more supportive and nurturing place for our students," Wise said.

The process that resulted is building upon the DEI effort that already had been occurring in the district, he said. 

The committees' work "has become focused on the what and how of creating a more accepting culture that nurtures a sense of belonging for our students while demanding high expectations for all," Wise said.

Several core beliefs have emerged from the groups' work, he said.

The first core belief is that "diversity makes us better. It enriches the district," Wise said. 

"Our belief is that there is historical bias and discrimination that we need to work to counteract" and that the discrimination and inequities have been varied and not just been related to race or color, he said.

Other action items include conducting surveys of students and staff to gather their feedback about "where we are at from their perspective" in setting a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, Wise said.

The surveys, which are nearly completed, will "guide our work going forward," he said. 

"They will guide all of our buildings for what we do first and what should be our priorities" in the area of DEI, Wise said.

Another action item will be to implement targeted and consistent support systems beginning at an early age, he said.

South-Western's partnership with Communities in School, a nonprofit organization that works to help reduce nonacademic barriers students face and the work social workers and counselors are doing with students, is an example of support systems that are already in place, Wise said.

"The real question becomes are we doing (this) in a systematic way and can parents understand where the context is at over a long period of time," he said.

"Is there a need to put an advocacy program in place? That's really where this is headed," Wise said. "We don't have (the advocacy program) defined at this point, but we will over the next 14 months."

A fourth action item is to expand staff training to increase their "cultural competency" and ability to recognize and overcome implicit and institutional bias, he said.

The district also will search for job candidates "that will help us better reflect our student population," he said.

"To be candid, this is extremely difficult when the pool is so limited," Wise said. "So for next school year, we will be recruiting from six additional historic Black colleges we have not recruited from in the past."

The action items are all recommendations forwarded by the four groups, Downton said.

His committee recommended directing each school building to come up with its own DEI goal, he said.

The districtwide work group will be charged with monitoring the progress that's made on the action items that have been set, Downton said.

"We may recommend changes or enhancements in areas where we are not seeing progress," he said.

The overall DEI process will be ongoing, Wise said.

"We want to make our goals aspirational and bold," he said. "We are holding all of our staff accountable to build a culture (of diversity, equity and inclusion) and make this happen on behalf of our students and the community we serve."

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