EAST LYME — Superintendent of East Lyme Public Schools Jeffrey Newton praised the results of a district-wide audit by the not-for-profit Equity Institute that solicited feedback from students, parents and staff. The Rhode-Island-based group was hired by the district in April 2021 to perform an “equity analysis” on the district, and presented its results to the town’s Board of Education on Monday.
Newton said the district chose the group, which asked $15,000 for their work, based on positive experiences with two other districts in the neighboring state.
“We liked what they had to offer and what they were sharing for information, and the cost,” said Newton.
The audit quoted a number of students, parents and teachers who voiced concerns about an atmosphere of pressure, a climate of entitlement and a lack of diversity in educational opportunities.
The report quoted a member of the community who compared East Lyme to a “good ole boys network.” Staff respondents, according to the report, complained about a sense of entitlement among some students. And while respondents praised the district for its strong focus on academics, the report also quoted students who complained of excessive pressure placed on academic achievement.
“I wish mental health was more important than getting A’s. I wish that we were actually in a comfortable environment,” one middle schooler responded in the survey.
Equity Institute reported that they collected 2,300 surveys from students, faculty, staff, alumni, administrators and family members. The surveys included questions about the school environment, desires around curriculum, communication with the district, and perceptions about how well school staff understand and implement equity.
The nonprofit also held focus groups composed of 11 students, 10 family members, 9 staff members and three alumni, and they interviewed five principals and three members of the Board of Education.
The analysis is part of a larger Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative in the district, which includes a public declaration of the district’s commitment to diversity, an audit of the district’s curriculum, hiring faculty and administrators committed to promoting equity and forming “action teams” that would continually look for ways to improve diversity in the district.
Newton said he thought the report was “very thorough.” Tim Hagen, chair of the Board of Education, also praised the report.
“I think it was very useful, in terms of the input and the comments, particularly all the comments that they lifted from the folks that participated in the survey,” he said. “It’s … a piece to this equation of how best to proceed.”
Findings of the equity analysis
Among the major findings, documented with numerous quotes from staff, parents and students, were feelings that certain parents and students were privileged over others, that there was a lack of diversity in the curriculum and among the district staff, experiences of sexism and racism within the schools and a desire for more hands-on learning.
Other findings included a need for greater guidance toward non-college options, such as vocational school and career-certification programs.
Newton told CT Examiner that this was part of the district’s goals and something they were already working on in the high school.
The report also found that there was a perception among members of the community that students of color were overrepresented in special education when compared to the demographics of the district as a whole.
The report did not include quantitative data or analysis with the survey results.
Kaitlin Moran, a partner at the Equity Institute, explained that the non-profit retained the quantitative data in order to emphasize community responses.
“We made a … decision to focus more on qualitative data and qualitative analysis, knowing that the quantitative metrics backed it up, but feeling that the story was best told through the voices of the people,” she said.
Moran said that the quantitative data would not be shared with the district as part of their data privacy commitment to the individuals who participated.
The group explained that the quotes they chose to highlight were “representative of sentiment found from statements by multiple sources.”
Hagen said he would be interested to see more data, but added that the board knew that this would be the report’s format. Newton said that the qualitative data wasn’t necessarily something he felt the district needed to obtain.
“I’m more interested in the recommendations and the feedback that we had received from participants,” he said. Newton said the board would review the report and decide which of their recommendations they wanted to implement.
At the Monday meeting, board member Catherine Steel expressed concern that the report did not include feedback from members of the town outside of the school community, such as firefighters, police, the Board of Selectmen and the Parks and Recreation Department.
“I really feel like it just cannot be the Board of Ed, it has to be our community, everybody needs to be a stakeholder in this process,” said Steel.
The survey also reported and quoted a number of members of the community who voiced concerns about bullying and intolerance in East Lyme schools.
“This town is full of kids who pick on one another on how they dress, how much money their parents make and whether or not you can afford a nice car,” said one high schooler.
“The word ‘racist’ is thrown out constantly and has little meaning to them,” one staff member said of the students.
“From elementary to high school students, East Lyme students discussed incidents of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and gender-based safety violations,” according to the survey.
According to the report, East Lyme high school students and alumni expressed a wish for more multicultural education and a feeling that the curriculum was “whitewashed,” or centered around European history and perspectives.
Based on focus groups and interviews, Equity Institute also included concerns that when incidents of racism did take place, authority figures did not speak up to address it.
“A trend emerged that stakeholders felt those in power were silent when injustices happened and there was a lack of addressing current events,” the report read, adding that “people in all stakeholder groups agreed staff members and school leaders avoided conversations related to race, equity, and social justice.”
Equity Institute recommended that the district make an effort to recruit staff from outside eastern Connecticut, as well as modifying the school calendar to reflect holidays from a greater diversity of faith traditions. Other recommendations include updating policies on bullying prevention, investing in mental health and in professional development, and establishing “school and community norms on respect and inclusion.”
“We do believe that your district is ready for change,” Karla Vigil, the chief executive officer of the Equity Initiative, told board members at the Monday night meeting. “At least 25 percent of your community members have shown that they are ready to move in that direction. They might not completely understand what equity is or looks like or feels like, but their perceptions are that they’d like to move forward with this work.”