Dr. Rydell Harrison, Guilford’s new Family Equity Liaison, has an eclectic taste in music. He’s a pianist and a classically trained singer. He says he likes every musical genre except country.
Harrison, who started his new job with Guilford last Tuesday, began his 22-year education career as a music teacher. He said he found his true passion not only in music itself, but in sharing it with students.
“I’m one of these people who believes that teachers have such an incredible impact on students,” said Harrison.
After receiving a degree in music education at Rutgers University, he went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity at Duke, where he became involved in youth ministry and as a church musician. After landing a fellowship with a program in North Carolina, Harrison started transitioning into a career in school administration. He said he felt it allowed him to reach even more students.
“As a teacher, I can recreate these wonderful learning moments in my classroom with the students who are assigned to me,” he said. “As an administrator … particularly as a principal, I had more of an impact on setting a standard for what teaching and learning look like in my building and the ways that we were engaging with students and supporting their needs.”
In North Carolina, Harrison said he was encouraged to become a superintendent, but hesitated given the size of the school districts in the state. Thomas Forcella, the superintendent of the district where he was working, suggested he look for opportunities in Connecticut. Forcella was familiar with the state after nearly six years as superintendent of Guilford Schools.
Harrison took Forcella’s advice and moved north, where he worked first as superintendent of schools in Watertown and then in Redding-Easton-Region 9.
In June, Harrison left the Redding-Easton-Region 9 District after serving as the superintendent for 10 months. During tenure, he garnered significant opposition in the community for a proposed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion survey and comments he made on Facebook regarding the events on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol.
Harrison said the decision to leave, which he called “really, really tough,” partly came from the difficulty of balancing instructional work with teachers and students, with managing three different districts. But Harrison also acknowledged that the response to the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative played a role.
“While I experienced a great deal of support from so many people across the community, over time it just did not feel like the right fit for me and the kind of work that I wanted to do,” he said.
After leaving Region 9, Harrison took a position with the Connecticut Center for School Change, where he works with districts on achieving equity as part of their strategic plans. He started the Family Equity Liaison position in Guilford on Sept. 14.
Making perspectives “a little bit more clear”
The Family Equity Liaison position was created as part of a larger plan around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Guilford Schools. In June 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the district decided to retire the Guilford “Indians” mascot. Superintendent Paul Freeman said he heard from over 200 current and former community members regarding that decision. Some of these emails were from recent alumni who asked that the district include more culturally diverse texts in its curriculum and train teachers in a “culturally responsive” method of teaching.
Freeman told CT Examiner in an interview in June that the graduates who reached out to him expressed a feeling of being left unprepared to engage in critical conversations around history that were taking place at their universities.
“They felt at a loss,” said Freeman. “They felt unprepared to be able to enter those conversations, and wanted to have more of that opportunity when they had been students here in Guilford.”
In response, the district decided to participate in a teacher residency program that will bring a teacher of color into the district, conduct an audit of the kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum, and to hire a family equity liaison.
In a public statement released in April, the Board of Education voiced full support for the new position.
“The Equity Liaison will provide a resource to students and parents for addressing issues of equity and discrimination for any student feeling marginalized for any reason, allowing our district to appropriately track for patterns requiring a broader system-wide response,” the statement reads.
Board Chair Kathleen Balestracci told CT Examiner that the board was excited about the position, and excited to have Harrison in the role. She said she believed that having a family equity liaison would help the district recognize patterns — for instance, if there were multiple issues around students of a particular gender or race that the district might need to address.
“I am excited that [Harrison] is joining the district,” said Balestracci. “I think he offers a specific set of expertise that will be particularly helpful in this position.”
Harrison described his work as taking place on three levels: working with students, with parents, and with teachers and administrators.
If a student comes to him with a problem, he said, his first job is to listen. After that, Harrison said, he provides students with tools to handle difficult situations when they arise.
“I think that that’s a big piece of developing students, young people, into who we want them to be — is to empower them with the skills to make connections and to advocate for themselves,” he said.
With parents, he said, he acts more as a translator, trying to gather an understanding of what may have made a parent or student uncomfortable, and explaining the reason the school may have communicated in the way it did.
“Our students’ success is partially hinged on our ability to create really strong partnerships with families,” he said.
Harrison then works with administrators to improve their methods of communication.
“While we are always working hard in school to do the right thing, sometimes we don’t really understand the perspective of every person in our community,” said Harrison. “That is what I really see my work as — helping to make those perspectives a little bit more clear.”
Beyond his professional experience, Harrison said, he has an even more important qualification for the new role: he’s a father of five sons, ages 23 to eight.
“I think like a parent first. I try to think like a dad. What would I want for my children? How would I want someone to support me as a parent and my family as we’re trying to do the best that we can for our children?” Harrison said at the Board of Education meeting.
Harrison told CT Examiner that as the demographics of a district change, it is important for administrators to become familiar with the cultures and communities in their districts. In districts with fewer students of color, he said, school officials aren’t always aware of the cultures and family dynamics that play out in minority communities.
According to Harrison, there are some unique challenges that come with addressing race in a predominantly white district like Guilford.
“I’ve seen in my experience in schools, in my research as a professional … that it is tough being a student of color in a predominantly white class,” he said. “There are some topics … topics around race, or even sometimes topics around class — when they come up in those environments, it’s challenging for our students.”
Harrison said this gives teachers the opportunity to think about creating a welcoming environment in the classroom. He said he firmly believes that all educators are doing the best they possibly can for the students.
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our teachers want every one of those students to feel comfortable, to completely engage and recognize the importance of that engagement in their own learning,” he said.
Not “a political task”
In response to the idea that promoting equity in schools could create division, or that politics don’t belong in the school system, Harrison said he views equity as a focus on giving students what they need.
“Full support of students, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or, or any of the other identifying qualities that might make them not feel completely included — that is not political. So supporting students for us as educators has never been a political task. It’s been much more of a moral task in wanting to meet their needs,” he said.
He said that teaching about race and discussing race does not itself cause division — that stems from racism that already exists. Talking about it, he said, was a way of removing existing limitations for students and imagining a better society overall.
“We want to engage students and support them in ways that don’t cause the division, but rather we want to address the divides that are already in place, that already exist, that limit access for some students,” he said.
According to Harrison, a district with a strong foundation in equity has two major characteristics: a student-centered philosophy and constant dedication to self-improvement. Since these are already components of nearly every school district, he said, the basic building blocks are already in place.
Through his own experience as an African American man and a professional, he said, he’s recognized the challenges and the need for understanding about the different ways that people think, learn and interact with the world. He said he has spoken to students who felt their identities were not represented in their schools, and that he understands as a parent the importance of having relationships with their child’s teachers and school officials.
“I have recognized the importance of building those relationships and feeling connected to the educators that have worked with my children over the years, so that when issues come up … that there’s a real openness … and feeling like a valued partner in their education,” he said.
He said that, in his experience, the majority of teachers and educators are committed to connecting with the parents “in a meaningful way.”
“But sometimes, things get lost in translation,” he added. “And that’s really sort of the space that I felt like I could be in in this Family Equity Liaison position — To be able to help our families and our educators make connections and partner to create partnerships across that chasm.”