As hundreds of Falmouth High School students looked on, Sassamon Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, gracefully stepped throughout the school football field's turf, while simultaneously and skillfully winding a blanket around her body.
From the feathers in her hair to her deerskin dress, leggings and moccasins, Weeden vibrated with energy as she demonstrated the Eastern Blanket Dance — movements that are balanced with the beat and song of a nearby tribal drum.
Nearly 800 students at Falmouth High School attended "Indigenous People Dance" on Wednesday, said Henry St. Julien, Falmouth Public Schools' new diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging director.
St. Julien, who is the first to hold a full-time DEIB position in the Falmouth school system, said the event is one of many that will work its way through every single Falmouth school, as school administration, staff and teachers make a bigger commitment to equity throughout the region.
"If you are only learning about one culture and one history, how can everyone at these schools have a sense of belonging?" St. Julien said. "We have a rich, multicultural community that needs to be explored so that we are all respected, heard, and given a place."
Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, American society was sent into a tailspin of racial turmoil, with protests surging throughout city and town streets around the globe. In schools across the nation, students, parents and teachers have also demanded racial equity.
One response to the George Floyd murder in 2020 is at schools
A response to many of these protests has been the creation of DEIB initiatives associated with school committees throughout Massachusetts. But for both Falmouth Public Schools, and Sturgis Charter Public School, in Hyannis, efforts have gone a step further with the hiring of full-time DEIB directors and coordinators.
The idea, said Paul Marble, executive director of Sturgis, is to intensely focus on the development of racial equity measures, which he hopes, can inspire, and transform school culture, and area communities.
"The last three to five years in America focused societal attention on racial issues, in particular," said Marble. "That has really galvanized a desire to create diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging positions within schools."
For St. Julien, his new position can help Falmouth families walk through the tough issues that continue to divide the nation.
"We need dialog, we need to hold difficult conversations," he said. "I also hope for action. I don’t want to just talk. We need to communicate in a variety of ways to bring one another together — for the sake of our kids."
Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging visions and process
Since he was hired in the summer, St. Julien, who had been the assistant principal at Falmouth High School starting in 2016, began cultivating a vision called "Falmouth is my Beloved Community."
The platform, he said, makes way for workshops, forums and cultural celebrations that highlight a feeling of belonging for students, and the overall school community.
Through a series of forums, St. Julien began introducing his vision to students, school administration, staff and teachers at the beginning of the school year.
On Sept. 29, he gathered parents and guardians at the Falmouth Public Library to talk about his role, as well as what his vision stands for.
During that forum, St. Julien said family perceptions of DEIB concepts were at odds. Some guardians were happy with the way things were, and others were looking for significant, equitable change.
"People are in different places. Some were like yes, let’s do it, and others were like, wait a minute," he said. "We can’t expect everyone to be in the same spot along an equity walk.
"We all live in our own cultural bubble and there are people who are not thriving," he said. "And that's where the work comes in. What resources, what action, do we need to do to get out of our own cultural bubbles to see others, and come along side them."
At the same forum, St. Julien arranged the roughly 50 attendees in a circle and shared three stories about real Falmouth students, from a variety of racial backgrounds. The group then analyzed the stories, and discussed how the school, families, and community could support the students, and help them grow.
"There’s a lot of ways to break out of a bubble. Stories are one of them if you really listen," St. Julien said.
Another workshop "#IamaClipper, a Day of Belonging," was held Oct. 7 at Falmouth High School and was planned by Sonia Tellier, assistant superintendent for Falmouth Public Schools.
The event was the school's first district conference of the year and included students, teachers, staff, administration and community stakeholders, Tellier said.
Throughout the day, St. Julien moderated student-led panel discussions, held community-focused circles and hosted an expo with community partners.
"This was an attempt at understanding who all of our students are and their experiences," said Tellier. "It was about professional learning, but it was also about how we approach teaching and learning for our students and providing opportunities."
The forum also focused on who makes up the overall Falmouth community, and attendees discussed the possibilities of building a school culture based on belonging and inclusion.
"Understanding who we all are, and how we interact with each other, only provides more successful outcomes for our kids," Tellier said.
A slow, yet deliberate process at Sturgis
After hiring Jessica Lynch as a full-time DEIB coordinator and Melissa Rais as a part-time assistant DEIB coordinator, Marble said the duo began to work as a team to address DEIB efforts at Sturgis East and Sturgis West.
Lynch began her full position during the summer, and Rais began in September. Rais also works as a part-time teacher at Sturgis.
Marble said the pair will focus on concepts surrounding belonging.
"Our relationships with kids, adults, and community organizations is the priority," Marble said. "Over time, we will slowly work towards some of the other areas of equity."
Because Lynch and Rais already worked at Sturgis, they were able to hit the ground running at the beginning of the school year. But the plan for their hire, said Marble, took almost two years and was, in part, motivated by Floyd's murder.
Just after Floyd's death, Marble remembers about 600 community members taking to Main Street in Hyannis to protest. The action, which was led by Sturgis students, also included Sturgis teachers and staff members.
"We recognized that there was a learning area for this and it contributed to the acceleration of the DEIB position," he said. "I’m not sure the position would have come independently. It's really hard to know."
Because Sturgis already had equity-based professional learning communities at the school, including a human rights advisory group, the administration took time to plot a course, said Marble.
"Realistically speaking, 2 1/2 years ago, we began figuring out what route we wanted to go," said Marble. "We didn't want to just be reactive and respond to societal trends. We wanted to make an intentional impact."
Through workshops, Amante-Jackson counseled Sturgis representatives on equity issues. The more the group learned from Amante-Jackson, the more they learned about Sturgis' values, sensibilities and culture, he said.
"With humility, we recognized that there was a lot we didn’t know," Marble said.
Amante-Jackson also helped Sturgis assemble a 10-person working group of teachers, administrators and board members. The group then developed DEIB coordinator job descriptions, which Marble felt, were well suited for the Sturgis community.
The DEIB coordinator position from the beginning, said Marble, was designed for someone who could listen, but could bring in new information and help build relationships within the school community and with community leaders.
When the interview committee recommended that the school hire both Lynch and Rais to double DEIB efforts, Marble saw the move as a win-win, he said.
"I felt like there was a lot of power in that," he said.
As the DEIB department moves forward, Marble said he understands that changing a school culture takes time. Amante-Jackson, he said, reminded the working group that dismantling system oppression, and changing school culture can take up to 10 years or longer.
"The DEIB position really builds upon some long held values, but also some recognition that we still have a lot to learn," he said. "We are going to grow in a lot of ways."
Race may still play a factor in discipline disparities in Falmouth
Falmouth schools faced backlash surrounding disciplinary actions during the 2019-20 school year, where students of color made up 20.8% of the student body in Falmouth Public Schools, but represented 46.6% of school suspensions, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In October 2021, said St. Julien, the town of Falmouth hired Jackie Hartman as a DEIB officer to tackle equity issues within the school, although her position also covered town-wide efforts.
Hartman resigned from that position after five months. St. Julien could not provide a reason for her resignation, and Hartman could not be reached for comment.
Lori Duerr, superintendent of Falmouth Public Schools, did not answer a question about why Hartman resigned, but she did say that teachers will reflect on their practices through ongoing professional learning.
"Such as gaining awareness through cultural proficiency training, improving inclusivity through restorative practices development, and removing barriers through our equity work," Duerr said in an email.
For the town of Falmouth, according to 2021-22 state school and district profiles, the data reflects a downturn in school suspensions — for all students. But St. Julien said the COVID-19 pandemic severely skews what's reported, as students were learning from home for most of that time.
"Yes, the numbers have improved but it's a false improvement," he said. "We were all at home at that time and people were divided."
Instead, St. Julien said disparities around race and discipline continues to be a problem.
St. Julien said every assistant principal in every Falmouth school is undergoing restorative justice practices, where professional development is ongoing.
"This will be just one of my concentrations in the coming months," he said. "It's not a small, easy, fix. It's a problem. We need to deal with it, with a change of culture from the very top."
He is also creating equity teams at every Falmouth school. The groups will work towards dismantling policies and practices that cause harm to students. It's a multi-year endeavor, he said.
"None of this work is going to be quick," he said. "But it's all going to be things that are needed."
Are equity audits just a checklist for the majority of Cape schools?
Since St. Julien's hire, he has also been a part of planning an equity audit, which will give Falmouth Public Schools more direction as DEIB efforts continue.
"There are a number of schools doing audits. The only problem is that they treat it like a check list and then they move on," he said.
Other school administrations, he said, didn't like what they heard during audits, and couldn't take the criticism.
"I know a consultation group that was so disappointed with one school that they dissolved the audit," he said. "It's hard to look at the problems your school may have. No one likes that."
What St. Julien loves about Falmouth, he said, is the systematic approach to equity, and he anticipates ongoing audits throughout the year, and welcomes constructive criticism.
"Equity work hits every component of education. We're going to make mistakes but that's okay — it's part of the process," he said. "You have to find out what the problems are, and solve them. That's the work."
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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging take root at two Cape schools