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How La Cañada High School is Addressing Diversity, Race, and Inclusivity

How La Cañada High School in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is taking meaningful steps towards diversity, equity and inclusivity in their school

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A high school junior from La Canada, California. An avid reader and writer for most of her life, she's always found both solace and empowerment in the act of creating and sharing her work. Growing up in a small, mostly privileged town and observing the disparities between different racial and socioeconomic groups, she seeks to remedy those consequential gaps in the educational system, as well as uplift the overlooked voices of minority groups within her community through her storytelling. When she’s not absorbed in literature or furiously typing away on her computer, she can be found drawing, trying to teach herself a new language, taking strolls around her neighborhood, or just chatting away with friends and family.

In February of 2019, La Cañada’s local newspaper, The Outlook, issued a shocking report attesting to the behavior of La Cañada High School students during a basketball game with another high school. According to the article, La Cañada students yelled racist and homophobic slurs at the opposing team. While several students present at the game testified to hearing such profanities, the staff and coaches, who had been situated nearby, did not take any immediate action to address the comments, and instead seemed to ignore them.

This was not an isolated event. A similar incident took place in 2017 when LCHS students had also been directing slurs at the opposing team during a basketball game, making remarks about their race and socioeconomic status.

For La Cañada High School, the incident did not come as a surprise. Many LCHS students acknowledged that such slurs were commonly heard in the hallways and among groups of friends regularly — for them, this uncovering did not reveal anything new.

The event placed the staff that had been present at the game, as well as the school and district under fire, as students and parents called for more action.

In direct response to the incident, as well as to promote higher values in light of the community, the La Canada district board announced a new initiative to start the 2019–2020 academic year, with plans to continue for an undetermined amount of time.

The Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity (DEI) initiative focuses on addressing key areas such as discipline, policies, curriculum, and school activities and involvements. The district hired Christina Hale-Elliot, the founder and principal consultant of Elliott Educational Services, to help develop the initiative. Its goals were emphasized to be “strategic, intentional, and sustainable” and not “performative, surface, or unexacting work.” These goals guide the current DEI initiative.

The team first created a commitment statement:

“It is inherent in our district’s mission and vision to create welcoming, safe and supportive environments for all students, staff and families. Therefore, LCUSD commits to actively cultivating and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion by embedding these key tenets as part of our organizational values and decision-making principles. We will provide a robust and rigorous educational program that engages, challenges and supports every learner, honors students’ varied lived experiences and fosters feelings of empathy and belonging.”

In alignment with the commitment statement, the team developed a family learning series and teachers’ professional development sessions to further educate the community about the values of DEI. The school held several staff trainings, categorized by grades and departments, about topics such as responding to hate in online school and speaking up about race. In 2019–2020, Mrs. Hale-Elliot also facilitated parent workshops on “Cultivating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (November 2019), “Talking with Young Children About Race” (January 2020), and “Creating Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Learning Spaces” (February and March 2020).

I attended the “Bringing Race, Diversity and Inclusivity Home” workshop in January 2020, which was intended for parents and staff. During the workshop, Mrs. Hale-Elliott presented the social construct of race and important terms to be aware of like “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “internalized racism,” “microaggressions” and the “model minority myth.” She also discussed with the audience their first memories of race, emphasized the importance of not treating children as if they were color-blind and recommended extra tests, videos and resources for the parents to explore.

Furthermore, the team conducted a school-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion strengths and needs assessment report, which was completed by the end of the 2019–2020 school year. Mrs. Hale-Elliot interviewed several students, conducted surveys and spoke to classes and administration about their experiences within the school, including suggestions for improvement, critiques, and observations.

The school reviewed all of the recommendations given by Mrs. Hale-Elliot, which were presented in August 2020 before the 2020–21 school year began. The school reports and meeting minutes are available on the school website.

The school report emphasizes the noticeable demographic differences of La Cañada compared to Los Angeles County, with much larger numbers of White and Asian members, nearly 50% and 30% of the population, respectively, and significantly lower numbers of Hispanic/Latino or Black members, who make up less than 9% and 1% of the community, respectively. It analyzed teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards certain groups and identities, which were derived from the results of the school-wide survey. The report provided insight into how certain needs should be tailored to match LCHS’s student demographics.

The recommendations, based on the report, included implementing formalized sessions and workshops for the community, encouraging more awareness and discussion of topics through school leadership, parent-community ties, student learning climates and instructional guidance.

The DEI group additionally began to implement workshops, training and discussion forums for students, working in conjunction with the Educational Services Department to create a goal for 2020–2021 to address this work. An LCUSD Special Committee on DEI was formed, but more updates regarding these two goals are anticipated in the current school year.

As part of the initiative, the team also curated a list of resources on the LCHS website that includes resources for staff development and curriculum, parents, books for adults, books for children, articles and PDFs. The extensive list combines sources that address race, stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and more, and is available for anyone to access.

As well as these goals, the school administration has changed its handling of DEI.

“I have noticed that there have been a lot more pronouns in Zoom names, which helps people to feel more comfortable and validated in the way they choose to identify themselves. I have also heard of a larger outreach of DEI on social media, sharing important holidays or dates which have been neglected in the past,” recalls Inesa Wenn (10).

Alongside such improvements, DEI is also emphasized in nearly every email sent out, including any reports, news, newsletters and updates. A mission statement to address DEI was also included in every syllabus in the 2020–21 school year, and before quarantine, every teacher had a sign that promoted acceptance of any group or identity within the classroom.

Zain Bangash (11) states, “Because we are online, it’s hard to tell if there has been a real effect, but I have definitely seen a greater emphasis on inclusion through the school.”

Finally, the administration has organized a Principal’s Steering Committee for the 2020–21 school year, which involves students in the DEI initiative. The areas of focus are listed below:

  1. To work within the LCUSD framework for the advancement of initiatives associated with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  2. To discuss, determine, create, and implement a DEI Action Plan for LCHS for 2020–21 and beyond.
  3. To work in partnership to implement a plan which focuses on areas students can act, faculty and staff can act, and areas where students and staff can act together

During the meetings, a group of students ranging from all grade levels meets once a month with staff members and administration to discuss plans of action, goals, areas of improvement, and thoughts regarding certain events or events.

Miye Sugino (11), a member of the committee, states, “The dynamic between students, teachers, and admin is different from what I usually experience in the classroom. We’re in a set-up where we’re all listening and learning from each other so that we can create a more empathetic environment — that’s rare.”

Not only does the format allow for greater interactions between different students, teachers, and administration, it encourages self-reflection.

Bangash, also a member, agrees, “The most rewarding part has been to hear other people’s beliefs on how to make our school more inclusive and on which prejudices or exclusionary acts they want to tackle first. It allows for me to intake their ideas and educate myself to a further extent.”

As a member of the committee myself, I’ve found the meetings to be insightful, educational, and inspiring. One recent discussion we had was the necessity to use appropriate, politically correct language when addressing others and expressing ourselves in order to create an environment of respect, and empathy.

“A major issue we are addressing is creating a more inclusive and socially aware ‘climate of care.’ We’re working on ensuring other parts of our school — like clubs and instructional text — reflect that,” Sugino adds.

In tandem with such efforts, an ongoing initiative the committee has undertaken is identifying areas in our school traditions and culture that need more guidance to encompass the DEI values, such as announcements, events, social media management, or curriculum. As of now, committee members are discussing ideas and propositions to address these areas.

Wenn states, “All of the members of the group are committed to making changes in the way that our community views Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the environment is one of safety. Everyone considers each others’ experiences and uses them to create ideas on what we can do to better implement DEI values at school.”

The DEI initiative is a notable step towards a more inclusive community within La Cañada High School. The district and administration will continue to implement policies and changes to further the values in the remainder of the school year, as well as the years following.