Youth and Adults Work Together to Create Milton Town School District Equity Policy
Milton High School, Milton, VT
By: Christie Howell (UP Program Associate)
“Short, shy, and shallow.” These are the words Wilmer Chavarria, Director of Equity and Education Support Systems, uses to describe the school equity policies he researched when he was tasked with creating one for the Milton Town School District. Chavarria collected a number of policies, and “looked to find major themes and unique aspects, but saw quickly that they were useless.” What was missing, he says, were the voices of multiple stakeholders, which made the policies seem shallow and inauthentic. Over the past few months, Chavarria has been meeting with Milton students, parents, teachers, and staff to ensure that their policy is more than just words, that it instills a sense of belonging that is integral to the fabric of the school district.
Chavarria’s previous work as an English teacher and administrator in both New Mexico and southern Vermont led him to seek a second master’s degree in educational policy and management. While in this program, he learned more about systems, and began to see that school policy work could be both exciting and incredibly impactful, particularly within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning. He decided that he wanted to do district-level work in education, and when he was offered the Milton equity director position, he knew that it was the perfect role for him, in that he could “focus on both equity and systems.”
Before he began working on the equity policy, Milton Town School District did not have one, and Chavarria saw the absence as a benefit, in that he could start from the ground up. As he began drafting the policy, he reached out to many community members, including students, for their input. In November, he met with the team of youth who are working with UP for Learning on increasing equity at the school, and asked them to read and review the draft. He broke the policy up into sections, and then gave the sections to small groups, asking students to consider what aspects they would keep, what they would take out, and what they would change. He has also recruited youth from the equity team to present the final draft of the policy with him to the school board, which will happen after the board has completed their budget meetings for the year. Chavarria says that he will give the students choices as to which parts of the policy they wish to present, as it will help him see what issues they care most about, and help him refine the policy further.
Erin Lemieux, an 11th grader who has volunteered to present alongside Chavarria at the board meeting, says that she would like to foster “inclusion of everyone, [and] respect towards everyone” as well as ensure that “we can have different opinions, but can agree to disagree.” She notes that in some settings, “adults oppress youth’s ability to speak [their] minds,” and that is why it is important for her and other students to be a part of the drafting process. Perrin Dulmer, a 10th grader, agreed with Erin, stating that “youth are the ones experiencing school first-hand,” and that they bring a different perspective than teachers. She is most interested in improving the school’s rules around hazing, harassment, and bullying, stating that she would like to see a discipline process that is less biased.
Chavarria also says that a great deal of valuable information can come from administrators, who “have a unique privilege and power in the fact that they get to be there in moments of extremes,” particularly when a student pushes back against the system. “If a student is angry, there is truth there,” he says, “and it’s important for administrators to listen.” In addition to working with the students on the equity team, Chavarria has also visited classrooms and club meetings to sit in on conversations and ask questions as, he says, “the ultimate recipient is the student. It makes no sense to just have adults [create the policy], telling ourselves what we want to hear.” He says that the most powerful part of his process has been hearing what students say to each other in informal environments, ones that aren't specifically designed to gather information for the policy. When he asks students questions about their experiences at school, they are happy to share, and Chavarria commends Milton for creating a culture where youth feel like adults will do something about the issues that they bring up. “There is a generalized culture of listening and action when students speak,” he notes.
Chavarria is excited to partner with other districts in Vermont to share ideas and create solidarity. He would love to see schools working together as an educational collective, rather than as a single school or district. Chavarria also encourages schools to throw out the models of other equity policies, and to create their own, saying that doing so will “make it happen, and not in a way that imitates, but is yours. If you look at a model and just use that, it won’t be authentic and there won’t be commitment.” Ultimately, he says, he would love to embed equity into every aspect of school, so much so that a policy becomes unnecessary. “If we do not understand that everything that we do–food, recreation, environment, budget– is equity,” he says, “then we are missing the point. We need to foment a culture of equity without even saying it. Providing a student with quality education is the ultimate fulfillment of justice.”