Forsyth County Schools leaders discussed during the Board of Education’s recent annual retreat the changes the school district has seen this year as they have started to implement work they have done with its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.
The board originally approved the DEI plan in 2017 as part of the district’s overarching five-year strategic plan, and in the past year, FCS Director of Communications Jennifer Caracciolo said the district has been able to form action steps and form community partnerships which will allow them to meet their goals.
Caracciolo said that not only have they created and implemented action steps through the past years, but they have also created and shared DEI resources for school staff, focused more attention within the school system on racial and ethnic heritage and history months, conducted research on how to enhance the curriculum, developed and implemented new professional development training for staff members and more.
Overall, she said these actions and partnerships are all to build awareness, grow knowledge, develop skills and eventually put those skills into action to help better the district in three main areas: student engagement and learning, staff capacity and culture and climate.
“We want to get to that point where we are inclusive in our actions and our words and our thoughts,” Caracciolo said.
During the retreat, she also introduced Dania Peguero, the district’s newly-hired DEI Specialist, to the board members to discuss how she and district leaders want to continue with the plan in the new year.
Peguero began her new position at the start of the new year, transitioning over from Hall County Schools where she worked for 15 years as a school social worker and coordinator. She said her family is from the Dominican Republic, but she grew up in the U.S. in Rhode Island. She moved to Gainesville in 2005 where she has lived since.
In just the past couple of weeks, Peguero has been working to meet others in the community, visit schools in the district and speak with school leaders about their visions for DEI on the campuses. Already, she said she is excited by the enthusiasm school leaders and staff have for the plan.
“I always tell Jennifer that I’m really impressed with the work she’s been doing so far because it really has been good,” Peguero said.
She said staff members have been especially appreciative of the professional development training course, Diversity 101, that they started during the fall.
During this training, created in partnership with the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, helped staff members to learn more about Forsyth County’s history, identify their own personal identity and biases and recognize the dimensions of diversity among staff members. The training also helped to connect staff members within the school and help them take action to build inclusiveness within the school.
Caracciolo said they collected data from the first training sent to GLISI, which they plan to use to develop the next training course, Diversity 201. They plan to launch the 201 course later this year.
The district has also made strides in adding to the students’ curriculum this past year, starting by looking at the eighth grade Georgia Studies course and finding places where they connect the state’s history with Forsyth County’s local history.
“It’s just taking historical things that have occurred in the state of Georgia and taking it down a step further into the local history, but it’s all age appropriate,” Caracciolo said.
This past year, the district conducted research and created this curriculum, and moving forward, they plan to review what they have gathered with the social studies content specialist and teacher leads and start developing lesson plans that they can possibly use in August when the new school year starts.
Caracciolo said the new curriculum will address concerns in the community that kids are not taught about Forsyth County’s past, especially regarding race, during their time in school. These concerns were amplified in the community this past summer when protests against police brutality broke out across the U.S. after George Floyd’s death in May.
“It does discuss things such as the lynchings, when the Black and African-Americans were driven out of Forsyth County, the marches in the 1980s,” Caracciolo said. “It does address those, but it’s very age appropriate.”
In order to build upon lessons, the district partnered with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County to film videos of different areas of the community that are significant to its history.
While the district is currently only looking at the eighth grade Georgia Studies course to add this local history to, Caracciolo said they plan to build upon it and bring the lessons to other courses in the future.
They received permission from the state to also create five introductory courses, and as part of the DEI plans in the coming year, the district is planning to create two courses to begin in August: Introduction to African American/Black Studies and Introduction to U.S. Women’s Studies. The courses will be offered at Denmark and South Forsyth high schools and as courses in Forsyth Virtual Academy so they will be available to all interested students.
Caracciolo said they have not made plans to create the other three introductory courses, but are hoping to offer the two courses this year to adults in the community along with students.
In the meantime, Peguero plans to continue with many more initiatives under the DEI plan, including working on recruitment to diversify their staff, review and change English Language Arts book lists and work with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to discuss guidelines for reports of racism or harassment off campus or on social media. Most importantly, she said she wants to work to connect their work with the larger community.
“The DEI effort has to be a community effort as well,” Peguero said. “It just can’t be us.”
For more information on the DEI plan and the district’s continued work, visit www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.
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