2020 DE&I Executive Summit: Lorna Lewis

Lorna Lewis, Superintendent at Malverne Union Free School District

When was the first time that you were educated by somebody of color? Just think back to the first time you looked up and saw a teacher of color in front of you. And I know that many of you are probably going to say I never had one because that’s the statistic in New York, and I know that it’s the statistic all over the United States. Yet in 2014, our public schools became majority “minority” as they say.

So we have more children of color in our public schools than we’ve ever had and will continue to have even more students of color. And yet, if we look at our staff, our staff has remained pretty much the same. In fact, when you look in New York, and most of my statistics will come from New York but I would encourage you to look all over the country, you’ll see the same thing. Many children go through the K through 12 system, and I would imagine also in the college world, never having been exposed to a teacher of their race or ethnicity. And you may say, “Well, why is that important?”. Because research shows that a Black boy in grade three, having had a teacher of color changes his trajectory throughout his entire life.

So we have to realize that having teachers of color makes a difference for all children, not just children of color, but for all children of color. And when you look at the statistics all over, New York State has 732 districts. There are 39, three nine, superintendents of color and we are losing them as we speak because these districts tend to recruit saying that they want diverse candidates, and they don’t hold on to them. But think about that. What our children of color see are cooks and custodians. I’m not putting that down at all, but I’m just saying that they need to see role models that are superintendents, that are teachers, that are doctors and lawyers, and that’s really very important.

The thing is that we have to be serious about our recruiting strategies. And I love what Mr. Bouyer said, is that you can’t be looking in the same places. So we have to change how we recruit, and not only change how we recruit, but have policies within our school systems that will support those candidates that we bring in. So for example, COVID has provided us with some opportunities because now you can’t just screen out the paper resumes. Now we have to move towards having videos so people can see. If they say they’re really serious about having somebody of color, then the videos will show that they have people of color. We have to look at our HBCUs. We have to look at our sororities and our fraternities and use those connections to increase our diversity pool. If they’re not in the pool in the very beginning, they’re not going to be there in the end.

The other thing that we’ve actually addressed is we can’t just bring people in. For example, you go out and you recruit a Latino teacher, and then when a parent comes into our schools, you pull them out of the class to help translate. Those children are losing that teacher for that time, so we have to be sure that we don’t have these microaggressions where we say to a Black teacher, a Black male teacher, when we are having a child with disciplinary issues, “Would you handle that child for us?” We have to be serious about recruiting and making sure that our teachers who are diverse are qualified candidates, and in fact have some ways that we can move them towards qualification.

The other thing that distresses me in terms of diversity is that we’re in a COVID-19 environment, and I find that rich districts have devices, have broadband access. And we need to move as a nation, and I work with the NAACP on this. We need to call on our leaders to make sure that broadband access and access to devices and access to quality instruction is equitable across our nation. Because this year, as of March, we were shut down and our children will probably not get instruction until March of next year. What are we going to do about the whole year of instruction that is lost? If we are not paying attention to those issues, if we’re not training our teachers how to work in an online environment. For families that are poor, the social distances mean going to eat in a corner of one room. And how do we deal with children who are in the homelessness environment?

And third, the last thing, is earlier this year, my children saw for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a Black man dying with a knee on the neck, and their question is, does my life matter? And how do we change our environment in our schools so that our children know that their lives matter. So for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and we just found out yesterday that Breonna Taylor’s life did not matter. How are we changing instruction? How are we changing the world so that our children, and my children who are growing up in my schools, get a different message that their lives matter? Until we do that, all of this talk about diversity means nothing, absolutely nothing until we address that. Thank you.

View all videos from the 2020 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Executive Summit here.

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