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OpEd by Dr. Patricia Virella: Paterson is the future of equity in education | Opinion

Posted in: College News and Events

Dr. Patricia Virella

According to the non-profit organization, Parents Defending Education, schools across the U.S. have spent approximately $22 million on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives since the George Floyd and Black Lives Matters protests.

Statewide, several districts examined their practices and building policies to be more inclusive, seek out diverse candidates and provide an equitable work and learning space. Yet, despite the efforts of many people, very few school districts engaged in anything other than one-off and relatively superficial equity-centered transformations. Paterson Public Schools did not.

The sustained equity and anti-racist agenda of New Jersey’s Paterson Public Schools District (PPSD) have proved that through an actionable approach, the journey toward an equity-oriented district is attainable. Moreover, their comprehensive and strategic approach aligns with the commitments the organization Sustainable New Jersey schools lay out regarding advancing equity and anti-racism.

In January 2022, Paterson public schools and Montclair State University Network for Educational Renewal (MSUNER) partnered to deliver an equity-oriented leadership professional learning series. This program met with all district and school leaders to discuss issues of implicit bias, anti-racist leadership, inclusivity and academic achievement throughout the school year.

Spurred by the George Floyd protests, Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen F. Schafer, Assistant Superintendent Cicely Warren and Assistant Superintendent Joanne Tsimpedes, spearheaded a social justice committee that set out to do more than have monthly meetings about diversity, equity and inclusion. Instead, they crafted a bold vision to transform their district into an equitable learning space where students, faculty and staff were included.

Designed with MSUNER, the three-year partnership began with workshops and learning sessions but quickly moved into action — developing a district-wide equity statement, providing office hours and setting equity goals. Through these learning sessions and additional measures, it is evident that Paterson is on an exciting and necessary journey to transformation.

Here are some of the steps the district has taken on this path.

Time Commitment and Digging Deep

The first part of transforming a district toward an equity orientation is to acknowledge the system everyone is in and know that it will take digging deep to upend systemic oppression. A recent report in the New Jersey Policy Perspective found that Black, Hispanic and LatinX children, living in communities with lower property values and taxes, lack the local capacity to raise funds for their schools.

Schools like Paterson then have to dig deep and choose carefully which initiatives and consultants they hire but also be reflective about the goals they want to achieve. Every month, Paterson school leaders met for five hours across three sessions.

During our sessions, school leaders shared their implicit biases on how they could advance their understanding of racial equity. They were reflective and continue to be, so they ensure that they are not leading with blind spots with the embedded implicit biases we all have. You cannot transform a district toward an equity orientation without the acknowledgment that the work is hard and uncomfortable.

Like every school district in the country, Paterson has its successes and failures. It is important to acknowledge both and to craft a new path forward. There is no one solution for an entire school district and no silver bullet to eliminate equity issues – so equity work must be nuanced and reflect the needs of each school within a given district.

Equity transformations don’t happen in a year or even three, and they don’t transform everything all at once. They are long journeys that require a multi-pronged approach. So, what makes Paterson the future of equity?

The work of equity for Paterson is not an add-on. It is a necessary stance. There is no conclusion date set for their work until their students reach new heights of academic achievement and they have established an inclusive environment for all.

More districts could learn from Paterson’s bold equity vision to improve the educational outlook for all students.

Dr. Patricia M. Virella is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University. She teaches graduate courses on research methods and educational leadership.