The protests over racial equity and social justice that erupted in the spring of 2020 have reverberated in school systems across the country. San Marino Unified School District is no exception.
Impelled in part by pleas from students and alumni, SMUSD has stepped up its efforts to foster safe, inclusive and equitable learning environments.
District leaders have placed special emphasis on professional development to advance understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion. It has offered training in partnership with the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) and other organizations to spark dialogue among teachers, administrators and top decision-makers on topics including how to identify implicit bias and microaggressions, foster culturally responsive teaching and understand gender diversity.
“We are committed to ensuring that our students, staff and community feel safe, and that our school campuses are inclusive, accepting of diversity and tolerant,” says Superintendent Dr. Linda de la Torre. “The work we are doing is vitally important to our students and our community.”
Driving for educational equity took on greater urgency during the protests that followed the death in 2020 of George Floyd, an African American man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. San Marino High School students and graduates called on district leaders to raise awareness of historic inequities and provide students and staff with the tools to recognize and counteract biases.
“The students and alumni had a tremendous effect on us,” says San Marino Board of Education member and past president Shelley Ryan. “We want to ensure that we are culturally intelligent in the ways we approach these issues and address gaps in intervention, support and services.”
The district collaborated with LACOE last summer in a program to help teachers, administrators and other employees become advocates for equity and social justice. Led by LACOE consultant Dr. Kathryn Edwards, it had six key components, beginning with a definition of key terms such as equality, equity, diversity and inclusion. Edwards asked the participants to reflect on their own assumptions and behaviors and consider the actions they could take to help them change from being a “bystander” to an “upstander” for equity.
She also discussed the key elements of cultural proficiency for schools and districts, which include assessing cultural knowledge, valuing and adapting to diversity and taking steps to institutionalize culturally proficient policies and practices.
“Our work in partnering with LACOE is to make sure we understand what diversity, equity and inclusion mean and home in on the assumptions and beliefs we have that impact teaching and learning,” says Dr. Lena Richter, the district’s executive director of education services.
Last December the district held a separate training for a small group of top district leaders, including the school board. The three-hour session offered participants a safe space for difficult conversations about such topics as systemic racism, uncovering unconscious biases and combatting micro-aggressive behaviors, according to consultant Dr. Karla Rhay, who led the program.
Rhay, who heads her own consulting group specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion awareness, said that in her experience it is unusual for a district to include its top leaders in this kind of training. “They’re not looking the other way. They are in tune, aware and want to stay current,” she said.
This year the district also held a two-part program on gender equity for district leaders. It was presented by Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit based in San Leandro that has partnered with schools across the country and abroad to establish basic understanding of gender diversity and share strategies for creating gender inclusive environments.
Richter said the training was well-received by the leadership team. “Gender literacy is so important,” she said. “The participants felt the training was very relevant to us as school leaders so that we can make sure our students feel safe and a sense of belonging when they are at school.”
The district hopes to offer the Gender Spectrum training to teachers later this year.
The focus on professional development follows the adoption of recent board resolutions to address racism and inequity.
In September 2020 the board passed a resolution that reaffirmed its commitment to “eliminating and prohibiting racism in all of its forms.” Last October it adopted a resolution supporting people of Asian ancestry and condemning anti-Asian violence and hatred.
Students of Asian ancestry make up more than 60% of San Marino’s enrollment, while whites comprise about 30%, Latinos 6% and Blacks 2%.
The district also participates in the San Marino’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, which was convened in January to advise the City Council on how to make San Marino a more welcoming and inclusive community.
De la Torre, who became SMUSD’s first female superintendent last July noted that the district is also working on an ethnic studies course to fulfill a new California high school graduation requirement. She expects the curriculum to be ready for adoption by the end of the 2023-24 school year.
For more information on the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, contact Dr. Lena Richter at 626-299-7000 at 1320.