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MANCHESTER — Last year, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union collected data not only on academic performance, but on whether students felt welcome and safe at school, and whether the school environment is equitable for all students, regardless of race or economic background.

What it found was that there’s work to do on both accounts.

According to the data, presented at the BRSU Board of Directors’ meeting on Monday night, Black students were 4.8 times more likely to be referred for discipline than all other students in the six schools operated by the supervisory union’s three districts.

Students on individual education plans were 2.9 percent more likely to be referred for discipline, according to the data.

Data collected by the supervisory union also showed that 8 percent of its students missed 30 or more days of school last year, up from 4.8 percent in 2020-21. That figure stood at 0.9 percent in 2018-19, the last full school year before the pandemic.

Of the 8 percent of students who missed 30 or more days of school last year, two-thirds were from economically disadvantaged households, the report said.

Another study showed that while many students in the Taconic & Green and Mettawee districts feel seen and trust adults they learn from, a significant number feel like outsiders, or that their views and opinions aren’t seen as important.

The BRSU is working to understand and address those findings, Superintendent Randi Lowe said Tuesday.

“We’ve got a number of populations where we see some disproportionality. We don’t have a good understanding of that right now,” Lowe said of the discipline findings. “We want to spend time looking at our practices, better understanding and starting to attend to that. We’re going to continue to learn so that we can better understand on every level.”

“There’s no clear, single answer. We all carry implicit bias,” Lowe said.

The supervisory union’s school boards have made equity a high priority.

The presentation committed to a number of goals to address the findings:

• “We acknowledge that adults can perpetuate educational inequities if steps are not taken to understand and remediate their own bias and seek to understand and redress systemic inequities that exist from historical practice.”

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• “It is our responsibility to ensure that every student has the ability, right, or permission to access all resources, activities, services, and programs.”

• “We are obligated to create an environment and culture that enables all students, families/caregivers, and staff to participate, thrive, and belong.”

The audit was conducted at the district’s own choosing and was not ordered by the state. But the BRSU was not the only district seeking a better understanding of equity issues. Earlier this week, the Champlain Valley School District, based in Shelburne, reported students from historically marginalized backgrounds had lower graduation rates and were more likely to experience or witness bullying and racism.

“What is the reality of our situation here? We wanted an objective view,” Lowe said of the audit. “Is it mirroring patterns and trends we see elsewhere or not? Having that information is important to help guide our work. Our data reflects what is seen in other places.”

“As we start to talk about achievement gaps or opportunity gaps, everybody looks at it from where they are. As I said last night — there is no blame. We have great people who are working incredibly hard, who want to educate our students well,” Lowe said. “Nobody approaches this as if they’re doing anything incorrectly.”

The district already is taking part in “Leading Equitable Schools,” a program of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership, and has provided training for administrators and building leaders on understanding. Training offered to building leaders in August focused on implicit bias.

It just so happened that Tuesday — the day after Lowe presented the data — the first in-person training was being held at Manchester Elementary-Middle School.

Another survey taken in fall and spring of last school year, the Psychological Sense of School Membership survey, was intended to determine if students feel like they are a valued part of their school and its community.

The results showed that, although students felt they had at least one adult they could talk to with a problem, a significant number of students felt their opinions weren’t valued, or that they felt very different from other students.

Tuesday’s training was designed to show school leaders how to approach and listen to students about such concerns.

“The best source of that information is our students,” Lowe said. “Let’s talk to our kids. Let’s understand what’s going really well and what are some of the challenges.”

The hope is that by building relationships over time, “as we build into the culture the fact that we’re talking to students, it all becomes much more a part of how we do business.”

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-447-7567, ext. 119.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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