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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Evergreen equity staff question cuts to department, district’s commitment to efforts

“That’s a choice that Evergreen is making. And it’s morally not OK.”

By , Columbian staff writer

In July 2020, the Evergreen Public Schools board of directors unanimously passed a resolution committing itself as a district that prioritizes equity and inclusion.

Following last week’s announcement of surprising cuts to Evergreen Public Schools’ newly formed department of diversity, equity and inclusion, however, teachers and specialists in the department have grown seriously concerned with the legitimacy of that promise.

“We’re trying to transform our school system for the betterment of our community and keep students in the center,” said Charlotte Lartey, one of three equity advancement specialists who are being cut after less than a year on the job. “What we’ve been doing this year is identifying all of those kids on the margins. Now, (Evergreen) is keeping them on the margins because of that.

“That’s a choice that Evergreen is making,” she said. “And it’s morally not OK.”

The district said it was necessary to cut provisional staffers amid an anticipated enrollment decline of as many as 2,500 students.

“We are continuing the planning process on how to best carry our DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work forward in light of the staffing changes we made in response to the expected funding decline,” the district said in a statement Friday. “We remain committed to incorporating DEI work into everything we do in Evergreen Public Schools and to making sure every employee has a role in it.”

Specialists in the department argue that if the work could be done by others without the diversity, equity and inclusion qualifications that they each hold, it would have been done already.

“If people knew what to do, I think they’d be doing it,” said Jamila Singleton, the director of the department. “The work of capacity building has to be done. Who is going to take responsibility to ensure that we continue to build the skill? My team has been defunded. The equity work has been defunded, but that question still remains.”

Inside the mission

An equity audit conducted in 2020 found that while Evergreen’s proportion of white teachers to teachers of color wasn’t far off from the state average, it still did not reflect the student body. In response, Evergreen created four new positions in July 2021 — equity advancement specialists who would study and provide feedback for instructional coaches throughout the district on how to better provide inclusive, supportive environments that would help students, particularly those of color, build positive identities.

This school year, Adam Aguilera, a language arts teacher at Shahala Middle School, has worked directly with Lartey in identifying ways he and his fellow instructors can better support their students.

“The department’s focus on hiring diverse individuals shows representation where it really matters in the classroom,” Aguilera said. “When my students got to see Charlotte and meet Charlotte, they got to see someone who cares about their experience. As an educator of color, representation matters.”

Lartey also worked with Aguilera and another instructor, Kyle Helm, to start an affinity group for LGBTQ staff and students at Shahala — a place where students can discuss race and identity outside of the classroom to voice their experiences with their peers.

Lartey also provided information on a newly created information line, where students and staff can direct concerns of safety and shed light on incidents of hate or discrimination based on race or identity.

“That was really helpful for me to know we have a resource like that,” Aguilera said. “And it’s just important to me that my students know they have access to something like that.”

A hard future to consider

Klarissa Hightower, the district’s executive director of equity and inclusion, while still pushing Evergreen leaders to reconsider the cuts, is now tasked with figuring out how her team’s work will be done without three critical specialists next year.

“We planned out for the next three years,” she said. “We’re trying to take that plan to see if and how we can make those goals work with the given reality.”

In the initial steps of moving forward, Hightower said, a huge task has been earning the trust of communities of color that had been ignored for so long.

“I spent the whole first year trying to build back that community,” she said. “It takes a big level of work to level the playing field. … We just got ourselves to a place where we’re digging ourselves out of that hole. (The staff cuts) are like digging yourself out and then being pushed back into it.”

In the coming weeks, department leaders and specialists will meet with leaders in the Evergreen Education Association — the union that supports a majority of teachers in the school district — to ensure that the next collective bargaining agreement explicitly aims to retain employees of color, similar to a move made by the teachers’ union in Portland Public Schools.

Teachers are planning to speak again during this week’s board meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“I hope that this is just a misunderstanding of what we do,” Lartey said. “I’m hopeful that there will be an acknowledgement that all this was not right. And the stress is not good for our hearts, our blood pressure and our sleep.”