Superintendent addresses discussion on diversity and inclusion in district schools

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POINT PLEASANT BEACH — Schools Superintendent William Smith gave a lengthy presentation at Tuesday’s school board meeting in response to the ongoing community discussion about a racially driven incident at Point Pleasant Beach High School in April.

“I come to you with total humility, just trying to be … a messenger of how we philosophically approach these very, very heavy, serious and significant issues for our students, for our families and for our community,” Mr. Smith said.

The presentation followed a call by alumni and current students for actions to address race and promote inclusivity after the April 13 incident, which officials have said involved the appearance of a “white power” message at Point Pleasant Beach High School.

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Members of Point Pleasant Beach for Black Lives Matter reported that a project submitted to the school’s online portal by two students bore a title that reads backwards as “Whitepower.”

While explaining that student confidentiality thus far prevents him from discussing specific details of the incident, Superintendent Smith told those attending the board of education meeting that the district is obligated under law to do a complete investigation into the matter.

“I don’t want to hear from the community that ‘you sweep it under the rug, you don’t pay attention to it,’” he said.

“Absolutely not, nothing can be further from the truth.”

The number one takeaway from the incident, Mr. Smith said, is that “whatever was the cause of our most recent situation, it cannot, will not and is not tolerated.”

However, the school district is bound by state and federal policies as well as legal guidelines when dealing with such incidents, he said.

“Make no bones about it, when its an issue of bias, hatred, racism, discrimination, on down that list, the police are involved, which typically leads right to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, because that’s the rule and because we follow the rules.”

Disciplinary steps involving students would not be taken in public, Mr. Smith said.

“We’re not allowed to share, it’s not appropriate for us to share student discipline matters or what our consequences are,” said Mr. Smith.

“And it’s nights like this where it is incumbent upon me to earn your trust that we do the right thing and we take it seriously.”

Mr. Smith said the schools must also use restorative discipline, using education and intervention to change the actions of students.

“Ultimately as a public school, we have to have every student feel comfortable in our building,” he said.

“Our job is to educate and I will never apologize for calling out the impropriety of adults.”

District inclusivity aims

Mr. Smith said the district has been pushing for systemic change since his return in 2016, removing systematic barriers for student involvement and culture.

“This is an ongoing journey, not a final point, not a finish point,” he said.

“It’s not something that we rest our laurels or say is perfectly done or complete by any stretch.”

Mr. Smith said the district has revisited its demographics and found that student population demographics were similar to the staff population.

“The aspiration is to have your teaching population mirror your student population right. I think that overlooks a lot of diversity that’s in our staff already, LGBTQ staff members, first-generation Americans, first-generation college-goers, native speakers,” said Mr. Smith.

He said over the past four years, the district has seen a roughly 30 percent turnover on retirements.

“We’ve made a point of hiring faculty who have had previous work experience in diverse schools because it brings a teaching philosophy and a technique that is very helpful to our circumstances in Point Pleasant Beach and to our approach to develop community.”

He said he used his experience in Red Bank Regional High School and Raritan High School to bring inclusive policies to the district.

“I needed as a teaching professional and later as an administrator to have those experiences working in high schools that have tension, that have students with varying different needs and it sharpened my ability to understand how different students need different things.

“But when it’s all said and done, everyone is a student who needs the same thing, which is love, care, support, motivation and a curriculum that gives them enough rigor that they can walk out the door at the end of twelfth grade and knock the world dead.”

According to the superintendent, in 2016 the district began offering varied pathways to allow more students to take AP level courses in the district.

That year the district also partnered with Kean University to bring a Holocaust survivor in to speak to students, and started a conference with Spanish-speaking families to give more access to school information.

Mr. Smith said the district expanded pathways to math and algebra courses, updated summer reading programs to be more inclusive and started the “Gull Flight School,” giving students a pathway to an associate’s degree while students are still in high school.

The district has expanded its reading program to include varied experiences from “outside the bubble,” Mr. Smith said.

The district brought the PSAT to eighth and ninth graders giving the district more information on students who may have untapped potential.

“They might be AP targets, they might be kids who are capable whose parents never got in their ear and said you can do it kid,” said Mr. Smith.

The district also adopted social-emotional learning initiatives encouraging a positive culture in the district, and made pre-K free for residents, giving more access to education, he said.

To bring equity and inclusity training to the district, last year schools partnered with Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education [Chhange] at Brookdale Community College.

The partnership hopes to educate students and staff about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights; promote the elimination of racism, antisemitism and all forms of prejudice; and develop creative programs regarding these crucial human issues, the group says.

The district also recently partnered with The Central Jersey Consortium for Excellence and Equity [CJCEE].

“We joined this year because the admin team, before any of this year’s events took place, said, ‘If we’re going to lead equitable and responsive education, it starts with us,’” said Mr. Smith.

The CJCEE is a collaboration of administrators, staff, families and students who are collectively committed to learning and working together to enhance the achievement and well-being of all students. CJCEE focuses on inter-district collaboration and shared learning for continuous improvement in eliminating the disparities in achievement and school engagement among students, according to their website.

Next year, Mr. Smith says, teachers and students will receive guidance and teachings from the CJCEE. This training also coincided with diversity, inclusivity and equity training for staff over the past years.

“Everything is integrated, these are all pieces of a puzzle that can’t be separated and looked at in isolation, or faulted in isolation,” said Mr. Smith.

“We have such a strong foundation,” he said. “We have an incredible group of students. We have a supportive and involved community.

“We are going to screw up, our kids are going to screw up, our families are going to screw up, but… are we lucky we’re here.”

Mr. Smith said the entire school community is “lucky we’re all committed to the same mission, no matter how you decide to come at it.

“The mission is love, support, motivation and readiness for that next level.”

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