This is not an act of tolerance- valuing diversity is so much more different than tolerating diversity.
At ICS, diversity is not simply a matter of expediency. Because the majority of our students are black and brown, we do need more black and brown people to teach and lead in our schools. That in itself will enhance student performance. 1
We value diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity increases the richness of a learning environment for students. For all of us. Without it, we would live in a monoculture with no learning or growth. There is only, in Piaget’s words, assimilation of new data to existing schemas.
Only when we confront something new and different and accommodate, adapt and adjust our worldview, does learning really occur. Only through accommodation do we grow.
In some ways, diversity is relatively uncomplicated. We embrace the “differently-abled”; our mission is to fully integrate students living with emotional and other challenges with their more typically abled peers. That is the most simple embracement of diversity but even that is not as easy as it may appear. We undertook the challenge to fix a system in which students who were generally excluded from pathways to college could now gain access, where they would otherwise be denied.
Our schools have achieved this through a commitment to our college readiness program, Universal Design. It has been our only option offered because we believed that, if given the choice to opt-out, many students who have felt discouraged by their life experiences (“disabilities,” poverty, racism, gender discrimination, etc.) would jump to the vocational track without waiting to discover their true potential.
Throughout the years, we have been successful in preparing many of our students for college. We pride ourselves in impressive high school graduation rates as well as our number of students applying and being accepted into college. For instance, Lavelle Prep has a 98% high school graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate. However, some of these students might not want to attend college, at least not right away. If so, maybe we should focus on preparing our students for an alternative path.
Can we really achieve both college and career readiness?
There is another story.
Although we aim to integrate every student, some present challenges that we are not able to best serve. As a charter school, we provide a safety net to catch students who fall through the cracks of the public school system. But not all students.
As much as we would love to do so, we do not have the knowledge, skills, and perhaps the resources to integrate every child into our classrooms. At least not at this point in time.
The claim that New York City standard public schools succeed with 80% of their students is likely an overestimate. Our mission is to serve 20% of children who would be lost in the district schools. If we fail with a single student, it is a disappointment to us. But if we do well with 80% of our students, we are raising the overall success rate to 96% and that is much more tolerable for us as a community.
Yes, we value diversity.
Yes, we want to integrate all students
Yet we need to recognize our limitations.
Another complication arises.
To value diversity is to actively seek to increase diversity. In both our staff and faculty as well as in our student body. But “affirmative action” has a negative connotation in some circles.
We live with competing values. Life is not simple.
Along with diversity, we also believe in another core value: merit.
In many school districts and organizations, both
public and private, promotions are based on seniority, whether or not formally acknowledged. At ICS, we have always been committed to fast-tracking the best and brightest. Ours is not a culture of “Be patient. Your time will come.” It’s about recognizing potential, dedication and hard work.
What happens? In considering someone for a promotion, we reflect on the individual’s merits. We ask what other values are relevant to this decision.
Value is contextual. The individual’s skills and capacities in the abstract are not the ultimate standards.
At the end of the day, the clear choice is the candidate who most strengthens our team and enhances our ability to succeed. Sometimes, the opportunity to add an important dimension to our team outweighs other factors. Embracing diversity may conflict with “playing well in the sandbox” or “opening doors for the leaders of tomorrow.” At least it feels that way to members of our team who are not chosen for a desired opportunity.
Living a life rooted in values can be complicated.
On paper, values are beautiful but life is complex. In reality, values conflict. They conflict in the situations we face in our personal lives and, of course, in our schools.
In Zen practice, we study the Buddhist precepts, which seem to look a lot like the Ten Commandments. In regards to murder, the Commandments are written simply as “Thou Shall Not Kill.” The Zen precept covers all the bases: people, animals, even cancer cells. When we breathe, we kill microorganisms in the air. When we drink a glass of water, we kill microorganisms in the water. There is no living without killing. The role of the precepts in our Zen practice is to enhance our mindfulness and to help us avoid acting mindlessly.
In the complexity of our schools, our values, like precepts, do not dictate action.
“Play Nice in the Sandbox.”
“Open Doorways for the Leaders of Tomorrow.”
They are tools to help us awaken to the values at stake in the decisions we make and the actions we take.
Life is complicated.
1. “If a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they’re 13% more likely to go to college. If that child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, they’re 32% more likely to go to college. So, when we talk about investing in our public education system, it is at the source of so much. When we fix it, it will fix so many other things.”- Senator Kamala Harris, September 2019