In September 2017, the Diversity Structures Task Force (a sub-committee of Grace’s long-standing Diversity Council), having looked at all programming related to diversity, sustainability, service learning and social and emotional learning, determined that these areas would be best served under one umbrella . Thus, the Office of Community Engagement was created. Housed just off the library at the high school, the office is staffed by the Dean of Community Life, Kim Chaloner, Dean of Student Life, Ilana Laurence, and a newly created position, Dean of Equity and Inclusion, Jean-Robert Andre.
The Office of Community Engagement (OCE) exists to provide mission-focused resources for students, faculty, and families that further the values of the school. It also helps to create professional development opportunities and parent education as well as extra-curricular student programming. “It’s our hope that now that we have this office, it will provide a greater capacity to facilitate meaningful conversation about how we make our mission real in the community,” Ms. Chaloner said. “Whether it’s about inclusivity, sustainability or a call to service, we want to bring what students have been exploring to the rest of our community.”
While this programming had been happening at Grace for quite some time, the coalescing of this office adds strength to the programming. The deans are now able to leverage shared resources, deepen the connections overlapping curriculum and provide a physical space for faculty who are interested in working together. “Because we have this space and new position we can go forward with more confidence,” Ms. Chaloner remarked. “It allows us to be invested in the community and ourselves and to keep our school as inclusive as possible.”
The OCE has begun to implement a number of different events and programs. This year new courses have been added at the middle school and high school level that crossover service learning and sustainability. For example, in the 7th grade, as a part of the new life skills course, students studying climate change create global marketing campaigns as a call to action. In the high school, a new class has been added to Lab Studies, Age of Plastics, that incorporates the study plastic pollution on our environment with students spending an afternoon cleaning the shoreline.
As a part of the social and emotional learning curriculum, students in 4th grade are taught to think about how to identify and form healthy friendships as well as how to communicate effectively with friends, teachers, and parents.By middle school the programming delves deeper into issues like anxiety and coping mechanisms and in the high school, students are learning the importance of different decision-making frameworks. “What motivates me is when my students pop in to talk about something that’s bothering them.” Ms. Laurence explains. “I want them to be aware of the resources we have for them here and how they can make a difference.”
The diversity and inclusion programming at Grace continues to grow. The OCE, now responsible for the annual MLK, Jr. Day topics and schedule, strives to address diversity in a way that resonates with the students. Three years ago, Grace celebrated the first installment of the Visibility Project. This year, Mr. Andre and the OCE helped to plan an event that focused on changemakers. The entire community was encouraged to submit photos of their changemakers and a panel of high school students from around the city, including Grace senior Lauren H., led a discussion about their experiences, moderated by Dr. Eli Green, founder of the Transgender Training Institute. In December, seven students attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, a 3-day course where students deep dive into aspects of anti-racism, identity development and social justice work. “We want each student to feel actively included in the school community,” Mr. Andre explains. “We understand that bringing those issues into the classroom and professional development lead to better, more effective teaching and learning.”
The office hosted a professional development day in October, where faculty members led workshops demonstrating how diversity and inclusion were approached in curriculum and programming. Ms. Chaloner and Mr. Andre worked together to create a day that leveraged the experience and knowledge of the faculty for teacher-to-teacher training. A new requirement is for all faculty members to attend an anti-gender bias training hosted by Hallways, an organization that addresses specific challenges independent schools face and offers a comprehensive approach to social emotional learning.
Each facet of the OCE -- Diversity & Inclusion, Service & Sustainability and Social & Emotional Learning -- holds equal importance. It is the goal of the OCE to go beyond the buzz words surrounding these topics and put those words into practice. “Historically, schools have made academics the only priority, but educating the whole child has become aspirational,” Ms. Laurence observes. “We need to spend more than a week on gender education, or more than a month to focus on black history. This learning needs to be woven into the curriculum and the values of the school. And that’s what our office aims to do.”