The Pulaski County School Board on Tuesday voted 4-1 to adopt a Comprehensive Plan for Equity that drew comments for and against from several speakers.
The plan is in response to state guidelines for school systems to eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in Virginia’s public education system.
During the public comment period of the meeting, the proposed plan came under fire immediately from two citizens – Gina Paine and Billy Williams.
Paine said the “racial and social equity plan scraps the concept of equality of opportunity and replaces it with equity and equality of outcome.”
She said her opposition centers around three areas, including school faculties undergoing mandatory equity training, establishment of “equity teams” in each school and the creation and funding of a black history club in the school system which she said seems “biased.”
Williams said his concerns center around rules regarding transgender students and the sharing of bathrooms and locker rooms.
Several speakers expressed support for the plan.
Ashley Bowman said people have always opposed change, but the “data is clear, black and brown children are disciplined more and their test scores are lower.” She added, “things have not been equitable in the past.”
Pulaski County Education Association President Candace Castelluccio said the PCEA is fully supportive of the plan as are the state and national education associations.
The plan as presented by School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers and a multi-member equity advisory team lists as its goal to “eliminate the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, elementary school attendance zone, ability, socio-economic status, and/or languages spoken at home.”
Siers noted during the meeting the goal could also include “sexual orientation” in that list as well.
The plan is divided into six parts – or “strategies:”
1-PCPS will conduct an equity audit at each school.
2-PCPS will launch an equity awareness campaign for its faculty and staff members.
3-PCPS will develop a professional development plan and calendar that includes a variety of equity-based opportunities for faculty and staff.
4-PCPS will increase the diversity of its teaching faculty.
5-PCPS will build an inventory of instructional resources and materials that reflects the diversity of the Pulaski County community.
6-PCPS will develop programs, support systems, and school cultures that are steeped in equity practices and value the diversity of our community.
(Details on each strategy can be found on the school system’s website at pcva.us under the “Board” tab in “Board Docs).
Siers said the plan basically “looks at what we’re doing now and incorporates diversity,” noting the effort would have an effect on 20 to 25 percent of the system’s student body and up to 50 percent when students in poverty are included.
One strategy of the plan – number six involving “developing programs, support systems and school cultures that are steeped in equity practices and value the diversity of our community” – drew the most discussion.
Vice Chairman Dr. Paige Cash asked Siers that if a faculty member at the high school requested to start an LGBTQ club would it be allowed.
Siers responded that it would, adding that the high school and middle school have processes in place for clubs to be brought into the school. They are just required to have a faculty sponsor.
“Overall, what we’re trying to do is make sure that everyone feels a part of Pulaski County Schools. It’s just a simple concept. “We don’t want anybody to feel they are un-welcome in our schools. And we know from the conversations that we have had that we don’t currently meet that goal,” Siers explained.
“We have students who feel un-welcome, unappreciated and who feel they’re different and can’t fit in and can’t be successful. And we just want to remove whatever is causing those types of feelings and try to give everyone a successful educational experience,” he continued.
Cash noted she believes there is a misperception that the plan is only for a particular race of students.
“I want to correct that misperception,” she said.
Ingles District representative Penny Golden, however, noted that wording in the plan supports that misperception and clearly mentions “African Americans.”
Siers interjected that the wording in the plan could be changed to not single out one group and be more inclusive as was the intent.
Massie District representative Becki Cox asked Siers if there is any group that would not be able to request a club at the high school. Siers said if a “hate group” were to be requested “we’d have to use discretion and say no.”
“We want groups that are there to help and uplift students,” he continued.
Cox also noted she did not believe the plan would lower standards for grading.
Siers agreed, noting he didn’t know where that opinion came from. He said information from the state said just the opposite – that such plans actually result in increasing standards and raising expectations and opportunities for all students.
Board Chairman Tim Hurst spoke last, noting he had read material over the past month in an effort to understand equity vs. equality.
“It’s really how we look at things,” he said.
“Whether it be race, gender or socio-economic status, we’re talking about making sure everybody starts on a level playing field and providing the same actual chance from the very beginning.
“Not every child is starting on a level playing field. We can’t truly control all outcomes, but we can do all we can to make sure a child has a better opportunity for a better outcome. That’s our responsibility as a board,” Hurst said.
In the end, Siers recommended the board vote on approving the first five strategies of the plan, then next month consider the sixth strategy after it is reworded to be more inclusive.
Cash made the motion to approve the first five strategies, with Cloyd District representative Bill Benson offering a second.
It passed on a 4-1 vote with Golden voting no.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot