Progress on equality in the Princeton Public Schools begins with transparency

Dear Editor:

Tonight during a public meeting, the school board for the Princeton Public Schools will reveal the specific findings of the equity audit it commissioned in response to concerns about the impact of racism and bias through-out the district. The outcomes will not be a surprise.  According to the executive summary, handed out by the district superintendent at a recent Civil Rights Commission meeting, the report quantifies and restates the obvious — racial disparities in the treatment of students of color are horrifically significant.

What remains less certain is whether the district will attempt to de-emphasize the magnitude of the findings or will it prioritize systemic equality as integral to educational excellence. To date, the school board’s roll out indicates its focus is on controlling the narrative, minimizing the severity of the findings and overselling partial solutions.

The board betrays itself with a lack of transparency. The school administration e-mailed notice, of less than two-business days,to the public about the topic of this important meeting does not encourage maximum community attention and participation. The board’s decision to withhold the full report, with its damning statistics, until the consultant’s presentation during the middle of the summer, also makes it more difficult for an engaged public to raise informed concerns about the findings. The general statements of the executive summary raise, and leave unanswered, serious concerns about the extent of the racism in the district. The summary states that PPS continues to see racially-predictable disparities in achievement data, a perception of disparities in discipline and academic expectations, a difference between various identities’ sense of welcoming and belonging and challenges in addressing incidents of oppression.

While the report provides evidence of persistent disparities in discipline, the summary narrative de-emphasizes the actual bias by focusing on the “perception of disparities.” This emphasis on “perception” shifts the onus of the problem onto the victimized communities and away from the perpetrators of unjust discipline. To further minimize the problem of discipline disparities, the issue is not treated separately but lumped with the issue of academic expectations.  At the CRC meeting, the superintendent implied the raw numbers are small and PPS racism is more or less statistically at the national norm. This narrative makes it difficult to believe that the district actually understands, or cares about, the broad impact of systemic inequality to communities of color. Or perhaps the board does not want to confess to its role in perpetuating the same racial environment that existed prior to the 1960s.

For those who are not forced to deal with racism on a daily basis, each new report done by an institution seems like progress because for them it sparks conversation and study anew.  For communities of color and their allies who deal with racism daily, a report is not progress nor is attempts to shape a narrative which minimizes systemic bias. Progress begins with transparency — facing the problem honestly without trying to finesse the results, fashioning permanent system-wide solutions and treating communities (and individuals) of color with dignity and respect. Can this school board provide at least that?

Rhinold Lamar Ponder

Mr. Ponder is a lawyer and Princeton resident. His wife serves on the school board. Following is the letter that was sent to parents by the superintendent of schools on Friday afternoon, July 13.

Dear students, staff, parents, and community members,

I am proud to announce that at our board meeting next Tuesday, July 17th at 7:30 p.m. here at 25 Valley Road, we will be sharing the results of the equity audit we undertook this past school year. Marceline DuBois, our district’s consultant for the equity audit, will present her findings and recommendations based on the information she gathered through an analysis of data as well as through surveys and focus groups involving feedback from more than 2800 parents, students, and staff. Her report is honest and objective noting areas of strength as well as issues and disparities we need to address. I invite you to attend the Board meeting to hear the report, or to watch the meeting’s live stream on our YouTube channel.

The work we are doing to achieve educational equity is essential to our mission as a school district. It is work focused on ensuring that all students – regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual identification, country of origin, cultural affiliation, language spoken, learning difference, or economic background – are celebrated in our schools and achieve their highest potential.

Tuesday’s presentation is an important step in an ongoing process to help us achieve our equity goals. It is a step that will inform our continuing efforts to diversify our curriculum, diversify our staff, overcome bias, and foster inclusion.

And those efforts are not ones we are undertaking alone. We are working with Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission to form a “Study Circle” of community leaders, educators, and students who will meet multiple times this summer to review the equity report in depth and begin developing meaningful action steps for us to implement. As this work progresses, we will continue to keep you informed about what we are learning and the resulting changes we will be making.

Thank you for your continued interest and support. I hope you will attend or tune in for the presentation on the equity audit next Tuesday, July 17th at 7:30 p.m.


Steve Cochrane