ELHS Students Urge Town Hall Over Issues of Equity and Social Justice, While Trustee Fink Questions “Silence”

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ELPS School Board Trustee Monica Fink read a letter at Monday's meeting about "21 Days of Silence."

The editorial board of Portrait, East Lansing High School’s student newspaper, is calling on the leadership of East Lansing Public Schools to attend to concerns they have identified in the areas of racial justice, equity, LGBTQIA+ health, staff support, environmentalism, and more.

The group has created an online open letter that calls on the district administration to join a town hall to be held the week of May 30, a meeting “where students can speak directly and frankly to our decision makers in an effort to increase transparency between students and administrators.”

Last night at the regularly-scheduled meeting of the ELPS School Board, Portrait’s Editor-in-Chief Ixchel Ceballos spoke during the public comment period to draw attention to the letter and the town hall. Board members did not respond except insofar as Board President Terah Chambers asked Ceballos to send the open letter specifically to the Board.

East Lansing High School student Ixchel Ceballos, Editor-in-Chief of Portrait (the ELHS student newspaper), at the virtual meeting of the ELPS School Board on May 10, 2021.

But during the period of the agenda immediately following – the period set aside for “Board Discussion” – Board Trustee Monica Fink read a statement in which she also questioned how the district leadership is managing issues of racism and equity. Fink specifically spoke to the matter of a series of assignments about slavery given to students at MacDonald Middle School, which recently led to a teacher being put on non-disciplinary administrative leave and an administrative investigation.

ELi’s Emily Joan Elliott has been covering this story and reported yesterday that the teacher has now been allowed to return to the classroom, that he will participate in professional development focused on social justice being offered to teachers, and that the district is planning review and revision of the curriculum.

But Fink expressed being disturbed and unsatisfied by what has transpired so far.

She said she spoke specifically as an “accountable” member of the Board and as a Black mother of two Black children, calling the slavery assignment “atrocious.” She said that what she had learned about this curriculum – and how long it had been going on – has “disturbed my soul” and left her sleepless, with a crisis of conscience. She said she felt strongly that it was important for her to speak up and advocate for those who have been harmed by these assignments.

Indicating that the assignment has led to questioning of the district leadership, Fink told her colleagues that she is unhappy with what seemed to be “21 days of silence” on the matter by the Board. She asked what the role ought to be of the Board, including in terms of holding the central administration of the district accountable. It is not enough, Fink said, to hold one teacher accountable when the problematic teaching and assessment has been going on for so long.

Having the district administration investigate the problem, Fink said, “is like the police policing the police.” She called for the board to move beyond “lip service” and to take action to dismantle systemic racism. She noted that Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail had declared racism a public health crisis in November of 2020, but suggested the district has taken inadequate action since that time. She called specifically for consideration of equity and justice in contract negotiations, policies and procedures, and complaints processes.

With “no deadlines in place” for dealing with the curriculum problems, Fink said, the situation feels to her “like gaslighting.” She told the Board, “One family discomforted is too many,” and “when one hurts, we all hurt.” She asked that the Board be proactive, not merely reactive.

After Fink finished reading her statement (reproduced here), Board President Chambers asked if anyone had a response. A long silence followed, and no one responded.

Later, near the end of the meeting, Board Secretary Chris Martin said that the Academic and Technology Committee of the Board would meet next Monday, May 17, at 2 p.m., and that that committee would be talking about the problematic slavery assignment, curriculum review, timelines, and racial equity. Chambers then said that the Policy Committee of the Board would be taking up issues of equity at its next meeting, which she said would be on Wednesday, May 12 at 4 p.m.

The ELPS site does not appear to have these committee meetings on the calendar, so ELi is unable to provide access information at this time.

Chambers spoke with ELi on the East Lansing Insider podcast earlier this year about development of a racial equity policy. Last June, 17 administrators in the district made a commitment to pursuing creation of more equity teams, cutting police presence in district schools, and other actions aimed at being responsive to the national dialogue on racism that has occurred since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

But Fink, the Portrait editorial board, and others have expressed frustration at the pace of careful examination of the problems and what they see as the lack of meaningful changes.

This week’s meeting marks only the second time the Board has met in person in about a year. (The first time was its previous meeting on April 26.) At this Monday’s meeting, Trustee Kath Edsall was absent (Chambers indicated this was due to illness), and Trustee Elizabeth Lyons joined via Zoom, while all of the other members – Chambers, Fink, Martin, Kate Powers, and Debbie Walton met in the Board room of the high school.

Screenshot from Zoom.

East Lansing Public Schools’ Board of Education met mostly in person on May 10, 2021. From left: Monica Fink, Kate Powers, Terah Chambers, Dori Leyko, Chris Martin, and Debbie Walton. (Kath Edsall was absent and Elizabeth Lyons joined by Zoom.)

In other business, the meeting included recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week and the success of the Science Olympiad team, which ranked 11th in the statewide competition, the highest the team has ever ranked.

ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko informed the Board that there would be a special vaccine clinic on Thursday, May 13, from 2-5 p.m. provided by the school district and that it is possible, now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children age 12 and up, that Thursday’s clinic will be open to those as young as 12. She is planning to check with Ingham County Health and notify families in the district soon.

Lekyo and her staff also spoke about the extremely high level of interest families have expressed in summer instructional opportunities. The district is pushing out information about that to families while trying to recognize the importance of giving staff time to rest and recharge over the summer. Last night, the Board approved the purchase of about $46,000 in books from Scholastic to support elementary students’ summer reading.

Leyko also provided an update on construction at Marble Elementary School. (The Bond Updates page provides information on construction progress.) The Board also unanimously approved all action items, which you can find via the agenda.

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