Midland Public Schools leads the charge on diversity, equity and inclusion in the region

“Lead with respect, trust and courage. Ensure an equitable, collaborative and inclusive culture. Enable all to achieve success.”

That’s the Midland Public Schools’ (MPS) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vision Statement. It’s been over one year since George Floyd’s murder and Midland’s Rally for Racial Justice. Not long after the rally, Anti-Racist Midland (ARM) formed. Seven graduates of MPS formed the group to educate the public about race issues and stamp out racism in Midland. 

It's been one year after the Rally for Racial Justice and Anti-Racist Midland's formation.ARM wrote up ten demands of the school system to create structural change. Now, we’re checking in with MPS to see their progress on those demands.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the work MPS was doing well before Floyd’s murder.

Early DEI work

After a few public racial incidents happened in the schools, MPS realized there were many day-to-day moments happening they weren’t in touch with. That’s when Amy Beasley, Ph.D., came in on loan from Dow. Early 2020,  Beasley assumed a role as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant for MPS. 

Beasley started projects like training the Board of Education, holding workshops, and forums for teachers and administrators to express experiences and share solutions twice a month. She also developed a DEI advisory team with stakeholders in the community and pushed district leadership to buy in and engage with this work.

Amy Beasley, Ph.D. (not pictured), worked with the Board of Education to put together five pillars of DEI for MPS to follow: Governance, Leadership, Customer, Reputation, and Community.Along with the Board of Education, Beasley put together five pillars of DEI for MPS to follow: 1) Governance; incorporating equity into the fabric of their work, 2) Leadership; developing leadership at the building level to engage in dialogue and bring solutions, 3) Customer; ensuring students and families have positive experiences and their needs are met, 4) Reputation; MPS strives to be a leader in this work, bringing along surrounding districts, setting the standard, 5) Community; collaborating with like-minded organizations to enhance each other’s work.

De'Ondre "DJ" Hogan is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Midland Public Schools.“Amy’s role was really building up capacity for leadership on down to our teachers — building up capacity to engage in this dialogue and have courageous conversations around the topic of race, diversity, equity and inclusion,” says De’Ondre “DJ” Hogan, director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for MPS. 

Hogan joined MPS just as Beasley was wrapping up her work in early 2021. MPS recognized the need for focused leadership in this arena, leading to Hogan’s hire.

Now, MPS is ramping up for an equity audit, conducted by a third party with vast K-12 experience, Insight Education Group. The audit will look at curriculum, policies and practices, financial allocation, recruitment and retention, perception data from stakeholders like students and families, and what their community engagement looks like. Insight will provide tailored recommendations to the district.

“It will be up to us and the leadership team to implement and prioritize the recommendations and align some stuff that we may already be doing,” says Hogan. “We’re really looking forward to engaging with this team.”

The audit is in the development phase currently, looking at timing and scheduling.

“Once we get closer to the fall, when students and faculty are acclimated, a lot of those focus groups and surveys and individual interviews will be conducted,” says Hogan.

One-year progress report on ARM’s demands

“These things don’t happen overnight,” says Afua Ofori-Darko of Anti-Racist Midland. “It’s easy for people to move on and take the time to say things they’re going to do and not do them, so we’re happy that there’s actions going on and they’re still committed to the cause.”

Afua Ofori-Darko and her brother Kofi Ofori-Darko spoke at the Rally for Racial Justice in Midland.“We definitely see ARM as a partner to the district,” says Hogan. “... We also see ARM as kind of a touchpoint for the community.” Hogan has a regular cadence with ARM, checking in at least monthly.

“They are our former students,” says Penny Miller-Nelson, associate superintendent for MPS. “They have lived through the Midland Public Schools experience and you just can’t deny the experience they had.”

Afua Ofori-Darko is a founding member of Anti-Racist Midland.Many of ARM’s objectives were already recognized and were beginning to be implemented into the strategy, says Miller-Nelson. “I feel like there is this common connection,” she says.

“Overall, we’ve come a long way from even where we started just a year ago, so we’re really happy with that,” says Ofori-Darko. “Obviously having De’Ondre joining was a huge step in the right direction for MPS, but of course, there’s always still work to be done. … It’s always the middle-ground — happy with the progress that’s happened but not being complacent with where you are. Still always looking to improve.”

One year after the demands were made by ARM, this is MPS’s progress.

1. Implement curricula focusing on Black History, racism, and white privilege

The curriculum will be reviewed in the equity audit.

“In the meantime, myself and the curriculum team have been having conversations, also with social studies and language arts instructors, about resources and content they use,” says Hogan. Hogan encourages teachers to look at who the author is, if perspectives are being represented accurately and if there’s any harm being done by their course materials.

2. Carry out mandatory diversity training for staff from an independent organization

“So far, we have been in our district with professional development,” says Hogan. “… That training is mandatory for the entire staff population to sit through and work on.”

Midland Public Schools’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vision Statement is as follows: “Lead with respect, trust and courage. Ensure an equitable, collaborative and inclusive culture. Enable all to achieve success.” (Photo courtesy of Pexels.com) Additionally, Hogan shared a 10-week racial equity challenge for staff to learn and talk about topics surrounding identity, privilege, bias, and segregation in Michigan, to name a few.

“I think we’re being very intentional and we’re moving forward and it’s consistent, which I think is important,” says Miller-Nelson. “We know that at some point, we’ll have to have this next layer (an independent organization), but I’m actually pretty proud of the work that we’ve done so far in bringing people along.”

3. Encourage its [district] peers in the area to do the same
“It was already part of our strategy,” says Miller-Nelson, referencing the reputation pillar. “... Reputation isn’t so much about us being able to brag about how awesome we are when we get there, but it’s more about bringing others along and sharing our learning.”

Within Midland, MPS is working with the Cultural Awareness Coalition and the Midland County Inclusion Alliance (MCIA) — becoming the fourth pillar in MCIA. A group of parents with students in MPS have been involved with this group, coming up with various ideas and encouraging proposals to be written up and shared.

MPS is also in conversation with Alfredo Hernandez, a racial equity officer with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. In this workgroup with various district leadership, MPS is helping to develop a template for equity audits that districts across the state can conduct themselves.

4. Distribute a district-wide statement declaring race as an issue within Midland Public Schools

MPS acknowledged this issue and the need for work to be done in two communique, issued June 9 and July 15, 2020, and in the Board of Education Proclamation resolved Aug. 3, 2020.

5. Ban the Confederate flag on district property

Last summer, the Confederate flag was banned. It’s now in the student handbooks.

One of the deliverables from the equity audit is to learn more about recruiting and retention of teachers and administrators of color. (Photo courtesy of Pexels.com)

6. Make a public commitment to hiring more teachers and administrators of color and supporting current faculty members of color
“One of our deliverables for the equity audit is taking a look at our recruiting and retention efforts — where are we developing this talent pool from; where are we looking,” says Hogan. “The other half is retention; what are we doing to keep them here?”

Hogan looks forward to receiving best practices and recommendations from the equity audit team.

“Ideally, when we think of representation, it requires our student body seeing themselves reflected in our professional staff, which is the point we’d like to get to,” says Hogan. “But even more diverse staff is positively impactful for white students as well.”

7. Create a centralized, public, local reporting system to track racial or otherwise prejudicial incidents of discrimination or harassment
“We have been experimenting with a data system, Illuminate, that we can indicate these types of incidents on,” says Hogan. “There’s also work with our student handbook that’s in revisions on how to report different incidents.”

A barrier to creating this system is matching up with the state. Reporting codes have to match what the state has, and the state doesn’t yet have a specific racial harassment code.

An active ally program was introduced with a select group of teachers from each school serving as a go-to for students to report experiences they may feel uncomfortable reporting to counselors or administrators.

“I don’t think active ally has quite become what we envisioned it to be for several reasons,” says Miller-Nelson. “... We have teachers who are really committed to it, so it’s not a teacher issue. I think it’s a system issue.”

MPS acknowledged that race was an issue within their schools in two communique, issued June 9 and July 15, 2020, and in the Board of Education Proclamation resolved Aug. 3, 2020.Hogan and Miller-Nelson look forward to the equity audit’s help in understanding what data is important to collect to tell the accurate story of what’s happening in the schools, and how best to create a dashboard that’s open to the public.

8. Develop workshops and provide resources for at-home education of both students and parents
“Our approach has been really trying to work through our teachers and the resources and content they have to provide,” says Hogan, on embedding it in day-to-day teaching and learning.

Hogan is working on offering a 10-week racial equity challenge, similar to what staff were offered. There has been work done in regards to student resource groups, but they’re still under development. MPS includes students in their DEI advisory team, and there are students engaged in the equity audit. 

Hogan and Miller-Nelson both emphasize the importance of student voices.

“We as adults in the system think we know what kids need, … but that needs to be met halfway with what students say they need and want to be supported and feel supported,” says Miller-Nelson. “We’re committed to making sure that student voice is really elevated in all this work, and that we’re checking in with them regularly and co-creating opportunities, rather than doing things to them.”

9. Allocate funds for mental health counselors across all schools in the district
“We have certainly increased our services and support in that area,” says Miller-Nelson. 

MPS has streamlined processes so that students can be referred out to mental health providers in the community more readily. They have also received new grant funds to hire student support specialists who are available to provide services and support.

Miller-Nelson adds that while mental health is important and it’s connected to racial issues, it’s bundled in their social-emotional-learning and wellbeing work rather than in their DEI strategy.

Hogan speaks about the equity audit in the May 2021 Parent Information Committee meeting.
10. Provide periodic public updates regarding progress towards outlined goals
“That takes shape in our subcommittees, CIA (Curriculum Instruction and Assessment) and the Parent Information Committee,” says Hogan.

In addition to the subcommittees, updates are also communicated through communique and board meetings.

“I think we’re doing a good job of keeping folks informed as we go along,” says Miller-Nelson. “The commitment we’ve made to the equity audit is for it to be very transparent and public, so I anticipate De’Ondre will be providing updates on that pretty regularly.”

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.