Members of Shawnee Mission diversity and inclusion parent group see small signs of progress — but say much work remains

Last week, Bernie Winston watched Lauren, her only daughter, receive her SM East diploma.

Bernie and Lauren Winston at SM East’s graduation last week. Photo courtesy Winston family.

In many ways, the school provided a good environment for Lauren. She excelled academically, earning admission to Vanderbilt University, where she plans to study pre-med starting this fall. But the school also posed challenges for both Lauren and her family, who moved to the area from the east coast prior to her freshman year. As one of a small minority of black families at the school, it became apparent to the Winstons that the district could stand to improve its diversity and inclusion practices.

Bernie connected with other parents of minority students, and formed a group focused on urging the district, which has seen racial diversity in its school increase substantially over the past 20 years, to create a real equity and inclusion plan.

Five years later, Bernie and members of the group say they’re pleased to see the district having taken some small first steps toward addressing the issues. But, they say, there’s still much left to do.

“Our demographics are changing and to ensure long-term sustainability it is important to create and incorporate a district diversity plan into the strategic planning process,” Bernie said. “Whether we want to admit it or not, lack of diversity initiatives impacts every functional area in the school system. The majority of current research has shown that more diverse organizations make better decisions with better results. We want the best for all of our students and to succeed in every way possible. That’s why the district should have an obligation to make this a priority.”

Some positive steps — but many issues that still need addressing

Among the positives is the announcement that the district will hire a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator who will work under Director of Family Services John McKinney. Hiring staff to focus exclusively on such issues was among the recommendations that the parents made in a report to the administration last year. But the group is taking a “wait-and-see” approach to determine whether a single new staff member can make an impact. For a district the size of Shawnee Mission, they say, best practices call for the creation of a full diversity office that would have multiple staff members.

Additionally, the group was pleased to see the district move to provide training on diversity and equity issues to every staff member starting next year. In April, the board of education approved a contract with Corwin Equity Professional Development to begin the trainings this fall. One of the company’s lead trainers on the subject matter, Gary Howard, was referred to the district by the parent group.

But many issues remain unaddressed, they say. Minority teachers are sharply underrepresented among Shawnee Mission School District staff. David Muhammad, one of a small number of teachers of color at SM East and an ally of the parent group, will leave after this year wraps up to take a job at an education non-profit. At SM West, which has minority enrollment of around 40 percent, there is only one teacher of color on staff. Several elementary buildings have no minority teachers.

Anisha Jackson, a SM West parent, is among the members of the group hoping to spur additional action from the district on diversity and inclusion issues.

Anisha Jackson, one of the parents who has been an active participant in the group, says she has heard from a number of minority teachers who said they hope to see the district improve its efforts to retain teachers of color, and to see more opportunities for promotion from within.

What’s more, the district should be developing a robust system for tracking the academic performance of various racial and socioeconomic subgroups to ensure students are making academic progress regardless of background, they say. Winston and Jackson point out that it was only at the request of the parent group that the administration began actively tracking sub-group data at SM East. Recently, there’s been a push to make that data available for all school buildings in the district.

“In the last month other equity advocates started requesting the same data,” Winston noted. “Our committee believes this initiative should not have been pushed by parent volunteers. This should have been a part of the district’s strategic plan from years ago.”

Still, the parents say they’ve seen reasons for optimism — especially when looking at how proactive some students have been in addressing the diversity and inclusion issues they see at their schools. In each of the past three years, Shawnee Mission students have been among the honorees in the Princeton Prize in Race Relations for the Kansas City region — twice as regional winners.

Debbie Williams, a member of the group whose sons graduated from SM East several years ago, said real progress on these issues would help better prepare students for the world they’ll enter when they graduate.

“I remain adamant that SMSD students, who receive an excellent education, would be even better served by a school board, an administration, and mainly a trained and experienced teaching force of excellent advocates and teachers from varied backgrounds and experiences,” Williams said. “That would help students go into the larger world ready to encounter people with experiences different than theirs, but no less valuable.”