In 2020–2021, as our country renews its commitment to equity and justice, how is Renbrook applying our mission and values to this call to action?
Decades of faculty, parent, and student work (see sidebars) have laid the groundwork for this time. But the work is a long journey, and the national movement of the past year has offered new perspectives for deeper exploration. Facing the past, opening up dialogue in the present, and looking toward a future of healing and growth, Renbrook’s community is dedicated to the work.
Head of School Matt Sigrist addressed Renbrook’s response to the aftermath of this year’s wrenching events in a letter to Renbrook parents, faculty and staff, and trustees on December 15, 2020. His letter outlined the rationale for the school’s intensified efforts to address racial injustice.
Mr. Sigrist began, “A strong and vibrant community has long been a hallmark of Renbrook, acknowledging that our shared values and common purpose are essential to delivering our mission. We have re-doubled our commitment to these bonds this year, as the pandemic and our national awakening to racial inequity call us to act.”
Mr. Sigrist noted that as a founding member of SPHERE (see sidebar), Renbrook “is committed to sustaining diverse, inclusive, and culturally responsible environments for teaching and learning.” He also emphasized that “this work is supported at all levels; Renbrook’s Board of Trustees, Leadership Team, and faculty and staff acknowledge the vital importance of diversity – of thought, racial, ethnic, and religious background, sexual identity and orientation, and a number of other important identity markers.”
Citing the long history of diversity education at Renbrook, Mr. Sigrist said, “This work is not new at Renbrook, but we acknowledge that it is never done, and we must constantly examine systems and biases in order to meet each new child and moment in history, committed to justice and inclusion. The Board of Trustees believes this profoundly and, though we have a strong history of inclusion through our dedication to children and productive partnerships with families, the challenges of 2020 require intentional efforts to address more directly the national discourse around racism and inclusion, to assert our values and prepare our children to solve the problems that persist today. We are proud to re-dedicate the school to this work proactively, with a positive and inclusive mindset.”
Mr. Sigrist wrote, “We have already determined three important WHY statements that direct our work –beginning with the personal, moving outward to our community, projecting our purpose to the future: • Our commitment ensures that every Renbrook student feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. • Our commitment deepens the academic experience and creates a more dynamic learning environment. • Our commitment helps to prepare our students for the world that they will inherit, ready to solve the problems that we have yet to address.”
Mr. Sigrist also explained the work of several committees made up of faculty, staff, and parents which worked through the summer on the areas of curriculum, hiring, professional development, parent engagement, and affinity groups. As intentions are defined and plans put into action, Mr. Sigrist is optimistic about the future. “Renbrook has always prioritized community. It is our mission to keep the focus on the child and the family,” he says.
A valuable contribution to Renbrook’s DEI efforts over the past couple of years has been that of Elisa Del Valle. Ms. Del Valle is the Director of Social Justice and Inclusion and a history teacher at Ethel Walker School and has provided faculty training and workshops for students, faculty, and parents at Renbrook. In 2018, Ms. Del Valle worked with Upper School students on the concept of affinity. Faculty/staff in-service days in 2019 included all-school training in the principles of DEI work and gave Upper and Lower School faculty opportunities to address topics specific to their respective age groups.
August preparation for the 2020-2021 school year began with a faculty/staff session with Ms. Del Valle called “Building and Sustaining Communities of Belonging.” The fall’s Upper School faculty workshop on creating and conducting student affinity groups was followed in February with a student workshop.
Ms. Del Valle proceeds from the conviction that social justice work should be “hard on systems, soft on people.” She warns that “our divisive culture encourages disrespect and berating; therefore, we need to model for our kids respectful dialogue, how to listen to be understood.” Her affirmation of the importance of community and her mantra, “Get curious and stay curious!” are in tune with Renbrook’s mission.
How does curiosity figure into it? Ms. Del Valle explains, “We are all growing. In difficult discussions, instead of avoiding or becoming defensive, ask questions like: Can you tell me more about that? What does __________ mean to you? Why is that important to you? When we don’t ask and really listen, we cut each other off at the knees." Her work at Renbrook is teaching adults and children alike to have open discussions in which curiosity creates bridges between different points of view. “Curiosity creates a vehicle for young people to explore: Why do I think that? We teach kids not to confuse opinion with facts, to learn and check the facts to see if they support opinions. With accurate facts, we can approach differences of opinion without blame, shame, or guilt.”
Ms. Del Valle quotes Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” She envisions partnerships among faculty, students, and parents pursuing change through love, not fear. “We need to show up for each other in community, to be in solidarity with each other.” The school has already taken many important steps this year. For example, in the Upper School, the history curriculum has been re-examined from top to bottom, incorporating more case studies, rather than using chronologically ordered textbooks. The sixth-grade team has designed a new humanities course, Human Geography, integrating literature and culture. The seventh-grade studies World Religions and explores the ways religious faiths spread through migration and conquest and the conflicts that persist. The eighth-grade US Government and Civics course examines American ideals and principles, using both primary and secondary source documents. Case studies of social movements of the 20th Century provide a basis for discussing current events.
The Lower School faculty is “teaching history so that everyone belongs and hears their story in positive ways,” according to Lower School Head Julie Schlossinger. Some long-standing units are being redesigned or replaced, keeping the experiential element that makes them memorable, while placing more emphasis on critical thinking and divergent points of view. Examples are the immigration unit in Grade 3, the United Nations unit in Grade 4, and the colonial history unit in Grade 5.
In the Early Learning Center the theme “Who Am I?” develops from year to year. Preschoolers explore how we are both unique and similar. Junior Kindergartners consider various ways of adapting as they study animals’ different winters—hibernation, migration, staying active. Kindergartners focus on families, reading books with protagonists of different skin colors, and families of many configurations, to gain a broader notion of what family means. Classroom libraries have been enriched with books that provide windows into diverse cultures and experiences and also serve as mirrors so that each child can see themselves in the literature around them.
Professional development for teachers and staff is an important element of Renbrook’s growth. Over the summer, Renbrook employees read On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay Mckesson, which formed the basis for discussions about equity and inclusion during the back-to-school staff meeting. In addition, Upper School teachers read Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman and have incorporated many of its principles into their courses this year. Renbrook faculty members also participate in SPHERE events, and professional development workshops will continue as the process unfolds.
Hiring and retaining a diverse faculty is key to the health of our school community. Since we know that all students benefit from a faculty with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, our faculty should reflect the diverse makeup of our students. The goal of aligning staffing with our diversity goals is crucial, and this year the school was fortunate to add three faculty of color. Energetic efforts to expand our hiring resources and practices continue to be a high priority.
Parents’ voices and active participation have been vital in strengthening our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. At Renbrook, parents and faculty work together to build the future that we want for our children. Two existing vehicles for these conversations—the Connections Committee and the Community Discovery Series—are well established. This year, they have offered book talks, including Small Great Things by Jodie Picoult and Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. U.S. teacher Amy Ma and parent Nichelle Woodson led parents and students in a discussion of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
The role of affinity groups in supporting adolescents as they build positive identity is vital in helping under-represented groups thrive at Renbrook. With careful preparation done over two years with Elisa Del Valle’s guidance and funding from the Board of Trustees, the Upper School will now provide opportunities for students who want to be part of an affinity group that is meaningful to them. Each affinity group formed will have a trained faculty facilitator and will serve our mission of guiding our oldest students as they grow in self-confidence and build community.