Year in Review: Midland Public Schools DEI with Dr. Yang Jiao

Intro by Ron Beacom: 

A school system is the heart of a community. A lot of time, energy, and money is invested in it to help our young people thrive. It's a big task. 7,425 students attend the Midland Public Schools (MPS), pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Students at the Juvenile Justice Center and the special education post secondary program are also served. MPS employs 845 staff members. The district covers approximately 140 square miles. 

A recent focus for the district is on DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Yang Jiao is now the director of DEI for MPS. Prior to joining the district, she taught at Northwood University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a PhD in Communication and Media Studies. She's active in the community serving on the board of directors for the Center for the Arts and is a committee member for the Midland Cultural Awareness Coalition, Midland County Inclusion Alliance, and the Midland Area Wellbeing Coalition. 

Article by Dr. Yang Jiao:

Lead with respect, trust, and courage. Ensure an equitable, collaborative, and inclusive culture. Enable all to achieve success. This vision statement remains a central focus for Midland Public Schools, guiding daily actions and decisions at the classroom, school, and district levels. The vision has also served as a connecting force during key leadership changes in 2023. Michael Sharrow retired as superintendent after serving the school community for ten years. Penny Miller-Nelson assumed the role of interim superintendent and has continued serving and leading the district in ways closely aligned with the vision, which was established under Michael Sharrow's leadership. In August, the district experienced another leadership change as I was privileged to join the MPS team as the new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I'm working in getting to know the school community and in understanding how the vision has been operationalized. Penny and I are both aligned in moving the district forward and keeping students and staff centered in the work.  

Ensuring that each student feels safe and that they belong at MPS is critical so they can be fully open to the opportunities to grow, learn, and flourish. This is one way we remain an exceptional school system and continue to raise the bar for all. We expand the realm of DEI to be beyond race and gender, to socio economic, ability/disability, cultural heritage, mental health, media representation, popular culture, and more. 

Throughout the year, MPS has taken a collaborative, practical, and student-centered approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, with increased DEI collaborations at different levels of MPS. On the external level, MPS joins our various community partners, such as Midland Center for the Arts, Midland Cultural Awareness Coalition, Midland Inclusion Alliance, Disability Network of MidMichigan, Public Arts Midland, local universities and many more, in our joint mission of serving our community. As an inherent and essential part of our city, MPS will have more visibility, planning and participation in many city-wide community-building events and initiatives, such as Neighboring Week, Cultural Awareness Month, Community Conversations, Martin Luther King Day volunteerism, etc. The Human Library event at our high schools, for example, invited “live books” with all backgrounds from many external organizations, such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, MyMichigan Health, SVSU, Great Lakes Bay Pride, and so on. 

Images reflecting DEI at the Midland Public Schools
Internally, we encourage more cross-building and cross-grade communication and collaboration on a variety of inclusion endeavors. The most recent example is expanding the multicultural Winter Holidays from individual classrooms and hallways to the whole district, celebrating Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, Lunar New Year and more, along with our traditional Christmas. Some teachers and students noticed that lights, in their various forms, could be an essential component of diverse winter holidays, so “a celebration of lights'' was incorporated in many classrooms. With this symbolism, our inquisitive students were able to learn that among various winter holidays, most cultures share gratitude for last year’s bounty, while wishing a good fortune for the next, with great food, good health, family and loved ones. It is immensely rewarding to see that when exposing ourselves to cultural diversity, we tend to notice the eye-catching “differences'' at first, then as time goes by and our scope of knowledge gradually widens, we will be able to boil down the surface differences to an ordinary commonality we call humanity. As most biases are rooted in lack of knowledge, by consciously spreading knowledge in seemingly trivial ways, we could eliminate bias before they root and grow. 

Creating a more inclusive and equitable culture for learning can be a difficult task. We believe in our positive and productive approach to even the most difficult conversations and remain committed to involving students, parents, families, and the community. This approach in our school-based initiatives makes them easier to be student-led, which is motivational and empowering. Amplifying student voice and action is critical to enhancing the student experience at MPS.

We also remain committed to amplifying teacher voice and action through the Culture & Climate Leaders, a group that engaged in professional learning throughout the year. This group, along with district leaders, are identifying changes necessary throughout the system in alignment with the DEI plan. We will continue to shift our perspective to recognize DEI not as another task, but rather as an inquisitive lens to interpret everyday life, the broader definition of “culture”, in a naturally productive way. The accomplishments of 2023 give us momentum into 2024 where we will continue to work intentionally and systematically to create a collaborative, equitable, and inclusive culture where all students and staff can inquire, grow, and thrive.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.