It's a cloudy Monday morning in October as the teachers find their way to a conference room in Elkridge. They check email on their phones and sip coffee, some asking others in the group if they've ever taken a workshop like this.
The day that lies ahead is more than a professional development day or teacher training. It's the first step in a three-year process these Howard County Public Schools educators are embarking on to become a new kind of leader in their buildings: an expert in equity. For the first time this year, every Howard County school has named a cultural proficiency liaison to serve as a diversity and inclusion "specialist," as program coordinator John Krownapple calls them. Their mission is to lead equity work in schools and guide staff in how to create inclusive environments.
The educators, who span across age, race and gender, have come to the workshop through different paths. Some say they jumped at the chance to further engage in work surrounding student equity they've been passionate about for years, while others are in the earlier stages of learning about the issues.
Quiet in anticipation, the teachers are asked to line up A to Z by their favorite beverage and then to introduce themselves to the group. As the teachers, ranging from kindergarten to orchestra to special education, begin introducing themselves and their love for coffee, bourbon and wine, they talk about what drew them to equity work. One teacher says she's driven by a desire to lead more educators in conversations about equity, and to tackle these problems head on rather than turning "a blind eye."
It's when another teacher says that "it's about time" for the school system to shift its lens to one focused on equity that the group audibly agrees.
As the coordinator in the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Krownapple's daily job is to raise the social consciousness of staff so they have a greater ability to create communities where everyone feels a sense of togetherness and belonging. Krownapple said the multi-step approach to creating inclusive and equitable communities, called cultural proficiency, is centered on enlightening educators to be aware of their own, often-subconscious biases, and then how those biases could be negatively impacting their interactions with others.
Krownapple, alongside colleagues and fellow facilitators Shannon Keeny and Razia Kosi, lead the workshops. Kosi said the seminars are an "invitation" for people to look inward at how they can grow as individuals to better engage with others. They also help to build the equity-leadership capacity of each school by continuously increasing the number of people who have completed the cultural proficiency program, Krownapple said.
Seminars like this one are emotionally intense, encouraging teachers to be vulnerable with one another and share difficult experiences with racism and bias. Kosi said the workshops create a safe and brave space for educators to open up to one another and help each other grow.
"You can't change people's thought processes until you know yourself," one teacher told the group. "So I want to know myself better."
A ‘robust agenda’
While Krownapple and Kosi have been in their roles leading others in cultural proficiency for 10 years, Krownapple said that this year he's seen the significance of his role expand under the new leadership of Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano.
Martirano has formulated what he calls a "robust agenda" for the school system, with student equity at its core. The decision is a shift in the school system from one that undertakes diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as individual initiatives, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kevin Gilbert said, to one that uses those ideals as the foundation of all its work, based on Martirano's own passion.
"As a human being I'm driven by the fact of doing no harm to others, by taking care of individuals who are lost and left over and forgotten," Martirano said. "My philosophy is predicated on the fact that all children can and will learn. It's my passion, it's who I am."
He's titled his call to action, "Learning and Leading with Equity: The Fierce Urgency of Now," inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.
The emphasis, Martirano said, is on equity because "every student requires different kinds of support and instruction to best meet their needs."
Martirano's "leading and learning with equity" plan includes four overarching commitments: to value every stakeholder in the school system; achieve an individualized focus; connect students and staff in an inclusive environment; and empower schools and families.
To show his dedication to this focus and ensure that actions accompanied his words, Martirano said he created Gilbert's position as director of diversity, equity and inclusion and as one that reports directly to the superintendent.
Gilbert's new department now houses divisions such as Krownapple's cultural proficiency work, which was previously housed under the Office of Leadership Development. Gilbert, Krownapple, Kosi and others are helping to carry out Martirano's commitment to equity through a number of efforts, touching on everything from discipline practices to staff trainings and curriculum revisions.
"It's a climate shift to be an expectation — not an opt-in," Gilbert said. "How do we become more intentional to make this everybody's business?"
Gilbert said the goal is to show "that everyone matters, that we know what equity looks like, that we believe in inclusivity and that this district is going to do everything in its power to make all students feel loved and cared for."
Part of the strident emphasis on equity and inclusiveness comes after incidents of racism in the school system in 2016, including racist social media posts by students that led to student walkouts and demonstrations. The instances sparked strong public reaction from parents and students, with some saying the incidents highlighted a long-standing problem of bias in schools.
In reaction, former Superintendent Renee Foose created a Committee for Diversity and Inclusion. The committee met before the Howard County Board of Education to present four categories of recommendations for ways to heighten inclusivity in Howard schools: student voice, curriculum, workplace diversity and professional learning.
Many of these recommendations are being carried out as part of Martirano's new strategy. Martirano said that the "Urgency of Now" plan is based on his passion for equity, and on the need to address issues the school system has faced in recent years.
"I wanted to acknowledge [and] heal from these issues," Martirano said.
When he first learned of these incidents, Martirano said as an individual, he reacted "adversely" to them. As superintendent, he wanted to get to the root of how these problems are created and to understand the broader context behind them, rather than treating them as isolated incidents. He said he wanted to do so through "intentional, serious action" done in a "progressive, accelerated manner."
A network of ‘sardines’
One way Gilbert and his staff are working to carry out Martirano's strategy is through staff development and training, following the approach of cultural proficiency.
The concept was developed in large part by Randall Lindsey, Kikanza Nuri-Robins and Raymond Terrell in their 1999 book, "Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders," and includes three main phases: awareness, commitment and action.
"It involves learning how to develop empathy, and having a more acute sense of the inequities that are around us that really go undetected on a day-to-day basis because they're just part of the 'normal' way we do things," Krownapple said. "It's all focused around elevating our consciousness and awareness of how we might unintentionally create unfair types of situations."
Krownapple said cultural proficiency is more than a strategy or approach, it's a change in an individual's mindset. He said the action of shifting an entire county's mindset, however, is like trying to get a two-ton whale to turn — it's slow-going.
"We need to be sardines, not the whale," Krownapple said. "The liaisons are the sardines, influencing those around them to influence change and turn the tide."
That turn of the tide has taken a great leap forward this year, Krownapple said, calling it a "new day" for diversity and inclusion in the school system under Martirano. Krownapple said that in the past several months under Martirano's leadership, his role in the county has grown, with new requests for staff seminars nearly every day.
Since the cultural proficiency seminars include five full days of workshops, Krownapple said it's not realistic to train every county staff member in the coming months. But the tenets of cultural proficiency are having greater reach this year with the creation of a liaison "network" throughout the county. Krownapple said it's expected that the liaisons are "going to collaborate with school administration, actively work on addressing equity issues [and] actively work on professional development for staff."
One of these liaisons is Talbott Springs Elementary School second-grade teacher Haroldine Simpkins, who is in her second year in the role.
Simpkins said her work this year is in the "action" phase of cultural proficiency. She aims to improve practices with the knowledge she gained in the "awareness" phase.
Her focus is on helping teachers engage in "high-expectations" teaching: educators keep high standards for students, no matter their background, to drive them to achieve more.
"Students rise to the expectations of the teacher," she said.
Simpkins said the idea is based on "knowing your learner deeply beyond the labels. Knowing yourself and your personal biases in order to fully address whatever a child brings with them to school."
She has split teachers up into "high-expectation learning circles," which meet on a monthly basis to discuss different critical aspects of high-expectation teaching and learning.
Simpkins' projects at Talbott Springs differ from the work other liaisons are doing, as each liaison has the freedom to create his or her own projects and programs in their schools. Krownapple said the liaisons support one another across schools and offer advice, perspectives and resources when needed. With at least one liaison in every school now, that network has grown to over 75 people.
This network as a whole helps spread the ideals behind cultural proficiency, to piece-by- piece raise the consciousness of the school system, according to Krownapple.
Simpkins' work is an example of another goal Martirano said he wants to see accomplished in the school system, to eliminate implicit bias among both teachers and students.
"In my presentations [to teachers] at the beginning of the year I talked about, 'Do you truly believe all children can and will learn? Do you truly believe all children of color can and will learn?' " Martirano said. "And then I put up on the screen 'bias.' Let's confront our bias, to see how it interferes with the learning process. To understand implicitly, what bias do we carry as human beings?"
Jen Mansir, a social worker and mental health therapist at the Homewood Center, who is her school's cultural proficiency liaison, said that for some, realizing their own biases and their place in the larger context of systemic racism and oppression can be overwhelming. And while she said it can be enough to cause some educators to "freeze," efforts such as the cultural liaison network help to bring more people into the fold of this work in a positive way.
"It can feel huge and wrong. And it is, but anybody can stop and look at their biases and the history of oppression," Mansir said. "We can do this — it rests within all of us. We have the ability to change."
At the end of the October two-day seminar, Krownapple prepares teachers to return to their schools armed with new tools for raising the consciousness of their staffs and tackling equity issues. The days have left a significant impact on many teachers, including Northfield Elementary School first-grade teacher Torene Howard-Brown.
"The last two days, I'll never forget," Howard-Brown said. "It will always be a part of me; the realization that we're more alike than we are different. And the differences are what we need to celebrate."