Forsyth County Schools leaders confirmed community members will have a chance to give feedback on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program starting this month after announcing the long-awaited 2022-27 strategic plan timeline during the Board of Education’s regular meeting Tuesday.
The district also released the timeline for its upcoming accreditation process through Cognia, formerly AdvancED, as it will coincide with the strategic plan schedule.
Deputy Superintendent Mitch Young, in a presentation to the board, said FCS will release an online survey next week after the fall break as part of the beginning stages of the process to allow the community to give feedback on the strategic plan and accreditation.
Normally, the district gives individuals around two to three weeks to fill out surveys, but through this process, Young said they have decided to extend the survey window. The survey will be open beginning the week of Sept. 27 and end before the Thanksgiving break at the end of November, giving community members around two months to give feedback.
“The strategic plan is really the 30,000-foot view of where we want to go as a school system, and we think it’s vital that we get as much input into that as we can,” Young said.
Young and his team plans to also gather feedback from local school councils and leaders, and they will hold in-person focus groups with community members. They have planned for three focus group sessions in the coming months:
● On Oct. 26, for the Academies for Creative Education, Alliance Academy, Lambert and North Forsyth high schools’ vertical teams;
● On Nov. 1, for the Forsyth Central, East Forsyth and Denmark high schools’ vertical teams;
● On Nov. 8, for the West Forsyth and South Forsyth high schools’ vertical teams.
Being centrally located in the county, Alliance Academy for Innovation will host each of the sessions from 6:30-8 p.m. on the respective date. Young said that while the vertical teams are named after the county’s high schools, they also include community elementary and middle schools.
“We look forward to having some roundtable discussions and some real, civil discourse and putting together the direction for the next five years,” Young said.
After collecting community and school feedback, the district will wait until after the accreditation process ends in January to begin the first phase of its strategic planning.
During the first phase, which will last from February to March, a planning committee will review the feedback received before also reviewing the district’s mission statements and values to see if they reflect district goals going into the next five years.
“Those will be refined, rewritten, reworked or whatever is needed at that point, and from those big-picture items, we’ll have basically our high-level performance objectives,” Young said.
The planning committee will be made up of community members, district leaders and other stakeholders in the county.
After reviewing the district’s overarching objectives, an action and accountability committee will then determine measurable targets and action steps that will help the school district reach those objectives.
Those action steps will go back to the planning committee to review alongside any potential alterations to the district’s written beliefs, vision, mission statements, strategic goal areas and performance objectives.
This review will take place between March and April before leaders present it to the board for final approval in May.
The board members explained during the meeting that while it is a long process, it is worth taking the time to make sure all stakeholders have a hand in establishing FCS’ strategic plan. Wes McCall, the board’s vice chair and District 1 representative, expressed appreciation for the planned timeline.
“I think over the last couple of months, it’s become very important to the five board members that we involve the community in this process,” McCall said. “And I think that you just pointed out three different phases to this whole project, and it’s going to take some time …. But all three of those phases included the community.”
‘Fair and balanced’
Young said the online survey and focus groups will be open to the public, and district leaders will reach out to community members to ask for their involvement in the planning committee.
He said they already plan to reach out to individuals who have attended board meetings in recent months to show either support or opposition to the district’s DEI plan. Those who oppose the plan have compared it to Critical Race Theory, a topic of national debate sparked earlier this year.
When selecting members for the committee, Young said he and his team will ensure “we have a fair and balanced cross-section of everyone from our county so that all viewpoints and all voices are heard.”
Students, parents and other community members spoke on DEI again during Tuesday’s meeting, giving some insight into feedback district leaders may receive through the upcoming surveys and focus groups.
What students had to say
James Liming, a high school student, was one of the first to speak at the meeting, telling board members about his experience coming out as transgender in eighth grade at DeSana Middle School.
In his speech, he reflected on how supportive his teachers at the school were. He felt comfortable enough talking to the teachers and counselors before approaching the topic with his parents.
And when he did, his world changed.
His teachers embraced him for who he was. One teacher allowed him to wear the boys’ outfit at chorus concerts, another stuck up for him when other students whispered about him in class and his counselors went out of the way to make sure he felt comfortable and supported.
He also remembered one day when a teacher pulled him aside to make sure it was OK to send a letter to his parents with the name “James” on it.
“It was such a small gesture, but it meant the world to me,” Liming said.
Liming’s hope is that every student in FCS can have that same kind of support from their teachers, which is why he believes the DEI plan and staff diversity training is necessary for FCS.
Suhaas Bonkur, another FCS student, agreed that training and education would provide more comfort for students, specifically advocating for South Asian families in the county.
He and a group of other students from South Forsyth High School run a tutoring service teaching Telugu and Tamil languages, which are south Indian languages. As part of the tutoring service, the students run a podcast where they often ask peers and listeners in Forsyth County about South Asian culture.
Through the podcast episodes, Bonkur said he expected the responses to be about pride and growth, but instead, he saw the opposite. He told the board many responded by saying they don’t feel welcome in the community and they feel the need to hide parts of themselves at school.
“Talking to them more and more, we realized measures need to be taken,” Bonkur said.
‘Rethink and redo’
Other community members told the board, however, that these issues in schools should be handled through existing policies rather than through a separate DEI plan.
Robert McLaughlin, a parent to two FCS students, said he was disturbed in the past few months to hear from students that their peers often use racial slurs and other discriminatory language at schools.
While he said no student should have to face this or be made to feel unsafe at school, he believes schools should discipline students through the current code of conduct and anti-bullying policy.
McLaughlin said the addition of the DEI plan to schools would simply create more division among students and community members.
“It’s time to rethink and redo DEI in a way that fulfills [the FCS motto], ‘Quality learning and superior performance for all,’” Mc Laughlin said.
Emily Mariano, a Forsyth resident, also pointed to anti-bullying policies and state funding, telling the board that kids in need should already be provided for.
After hearing Liming’s story of the support his teachers at DeSana Middle School showed for him, she agreed that the behavior should be applauded and the district should “bolster those things.”
She said the DEI plan, however, is mostly reflective of far-right ideology, comparing the plan and staff training to CRT and Marxism.
“DEI is indoctrination, not education,” Mariano said.
Alongside the strategic planning process, the district will continue with its accreditation and external review by Cognia, a nonprofit organization that accredits primary and secondary schools across the U.S.
“Accreditation is the launchpad for school improvement,” according to Cognia’s website. “Based on rigorous research-based standards and evidence-based criteria, the process probes the whole institution — from policies to learning conditions and cultural context — to determine how well the parts work together to meet the needs of every learner.”
According to the district, the process is important in ensuring a quality education for all Forsyth County students. FCS renews the accreditation every five years, and it was last completed by the same organization in 2017.
District leaders have put together an accreditation team to help make sure Forsyth County Schools meets performance standards. After reviewing online feedback, the team will have its kickoff meeting the week of Oct. 4, and they will meet and connect with school leaders through the end of December.
The external review will be held from Jan. 23-26. During that time, Cognia accreditors will virtually visit selected schools in the county to review them based on performance standards.
During that review, they will also speak with students, staff, community members and other stakeholders.
The virtual visits are scheduled at:
● 10 elementary schools — Brandywine, Brookwood, Chestatee, Coal Mountain, Daves Creek, Poole’s Mill, Sawnee, Sharon and Vickery Creek;
● 3 middle schools — Lakeside, Otwell and Piney Grove;
● 3 high schools — Alliance, Lambert and North Forsyth.For more information about the process, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.