Two Years After Pledging to Increase DEI Efforts, Here’s Where ELPS Stands

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Photo of the "We Are the Trojans" sign at the East Lansing High School Stadium, taken in April 2021 by Gary Caldwell for ELi. In the foreground are spring blossoms.

Just one week before administrators at East Lansing Public Schools announced a series of changes to improve its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, East Lansing Info reported on the lack of diversity among teachers and administrators in the district.

So where does ELPS stand in terms of reaching those goals, including building a more diverse faculty? What is happening with the middle school social studies curriculum after last year when eighth-grade students at MacDonald Middle School were asked to answer questions like whether they would ever fight back and how they might respond to seeing a beating from the perspective of an enslaved person?

ELi spoke to Klaudia Burton, the District’s Director of Equity and Social Justice, about the progress that has been made in the last two years and what remains to be done. Burton, who had been a science teacher at East Lansing High School, was hired in Aug. 2021, to fill the new position that was created to better help the district meet its equity and social justice goals.

The district faculty has become slightly more diverse, but not nearly as diverse as the student body.

Burton told ELi in an interview that the district is making strides that hiring more Black teachers and staff, saying its, “always an intentional component of the district’s hiring practices.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

Klaudia Burton, ELPS Director of Equity and Social Justice

The district is aiming to see the race and ethnic composition of its faculty and staff one day mirror that of the students’. And while the data shows that the district has made progress, it still has a long way to go to meet its goal.

In 2020, ELi reported the race and ethnicity data of 246 ELPS teachers and administrators. A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by ELi to the district provided data on 253 ELPS teachers and administrators, of whom:

  • 0.40% are Asian (0.41% in 2020).
  • 5.53% are Black (4.07% in 2020).
  • 0.40% are Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (no data from 2020).
  • 93.68% are White (95.53% in 2020).
  • 1.98% identify as Hispanic or Latino and another race (no data from 2020).
Source: Freedom of Information Act request response provided by East Lansing Public Schools to East Lansing Info.

Data received from the same FOIA request also provided a closer look into the overall racial and ethnic makeup of the district for all 435 employees. The overall staff is more racially diverse than the faculty and administration alone. Of the overall staff:

  • 1.38% are Asian. 
  • 9.20% are Black.
  • 0.23% are Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
  • 89.20% are White. 
  • 2.07% identify as Hispanic or Latino and another race. 
Source: Freedom of Information Act request response provided by East Lansing Public Schools to East Lansing Info.

According to the information ELi received, ELPS has approximately the same number of students as in 2020. This year, the district has 3,694 students, of whom:

  • 6.04% are Asian (6.84% in 2020).
  • 16.08% are Black (16.57% in 2020).
  • 0.19% are Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (no data from 2020).
  • 10.61% are Hispanic (10.08% in 2020).
  • 9.88% identify as two or more races (9.46% in 2020).
  • 0.54% are Native American (0.51% in 2020).
  • 56.66% are White (56.37% in 2020).
Source: Freedom of Information Act request response provided by East Lansing Public Schools to East Lansing Info.

Burton said that she has been auditing the district’s hiring process and speaking with outside resources for assistance in increasing diversity among the application pool. She also mentioned the current difficulties surrounding hiring in education, an industry that has suffered since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’re not where we want to be at all, but we are going to continue making strides…It’s not about the quotas. It’s because they deserve to be here and we want our staff to reflect our student body,” said Burton.

When speaking to ELi recently about his upcoming retirement, ELHS Principal Andrew Wells said that he “know[s] how important it is to have staff or members of staff reflect the student demographic. It’s important and powerful.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

A few newer hires added to the ranks of ELPS staff are student support monitors and student advocates. The district’s first student advocate began his position at East Lansing High School at the beginning of 2020, before the removal of police presence in school buildings

Burton said that students have responded positively to having dependable figures in the building whom they know through other facets of school life, such as clubs or sports. This familiarity allows for situations to be handled with a little more ease when conflicts arise. 

Burton has worked with her colleagues, the community, students and families to make ELPS more inclusive. Introducing change can be a delicate endeavor, she said.

Burton said that the biggest initiative she has undertaken in her new role is the creation of Social Justice Teams in each building throughout the district.

While the formation of these teams was set in motion prior to Burton’s hire, she said that the establishment of her role “catapulted” the teams forward since she has trained with Justice Leaders Collaborative and maintained regular check-ins with each team leader throughout the school year.

Each team is composed of a mix of staff members from each building, who are dedicated to recognizing, assessing, and making changes to processes and policies that may disproportionately affect subgroups of students. 

Also, Burton has partnered with Resolution Services of Central Michigan to put a Restorative Justice Specialist (RJS) at MacDonald Middle School. If the district determines that the presence of this trained professional was beneficial, then it will consider hiring an RJS for the high school beginning this fall. 

The district has focused particularly on social emotional learning and overall wellness of students and staff this year by continuing its partnership with the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), a coalition of school districts from around the nation whose mission is, “to understand and eliminate racial opportunity gaps that persist in schools.”

Burton said that the staff has enjoyed the new level of professional learning and has expressed its desire to have more of it. Burton is now trying to balance creating more occasions for learning with less disruption to work time.

Burton has also focused much of her time and energy auditing curriculum and hearing feedback. 

Burton has been vetting and piloting new programs and working with teachers to implement curriculums that are more inclusive of Black and brown voices.

Following last year’s controversy over the existing social studies curriculum, which included a problematic assignment about slavery, Burton is now overseeing three pilot programs for new curriculums in English Language Arts and middle school Social Studies and Science. 

Gary Caldwell for ELi

East Lansing’s MacDonald Middle School.

Each pilot takes place during actual classes and lasts a certain number of weeks before the program is evaluated.

Burton noted that the district isn’t in the business of simply adding or removing curriculum. Instead, Burton explained, ELPS teachers are professionals, pivoting to ensure equality in current curriculums.

Burton praised administration and staff for all the work they have put into this initiative, including the recently Board-approved Black American History course that will now be offered at ELHS starting this fall. Burton is also working to further integrate the Intercultural Dialogue (ICD) unit – presentations that are part of ninth-grade English lessons – as many perceive ICD as a separate entity from the freshman English curriculum.

Burton has also concentrated on assessing policies, images, celebrations, and books in the classroom. 

“As we move forward, I not only want to work with our staff and students, I want to hear more from the rest of our clientele, which is our families,” said Burton regarding the process of evaluating policies. 

Burton said she is active in finding out where the district can improve their current policies, and one avenue she will be using in the near future is culture and climate surveys. 

At the beginning of the year, Burton began examining practices and making changes to images surrounding the district, including in classrooms, books, lessons, videos, and even posters in the hallways. 

She also spends time figuring out how all students can feel celebrated and what kind of celebrations are too exclusive. In fall 2021, the district decided to suspend certain holiday celebrations within elementary-school buildings. 

Burton is also working on an initiative to fill up elementary classrooms with more diverse books, something she plans to have completed by the end of the school year.

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