Discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in schools — and everywhere else — in the U.S. were headline news two years ago, and they are still going strong, while in many cases taking a different shape today than they were then. There are still enormous opportunities for schools to grow, and specifically for the business office to lead impactful efforts in this arena. That’s why, in support of NBOA’s commitment to DE&I, Net Assets is making a sustained commitment to exploring the business case for DE&I to advance business excellence in independent schools.
—Cecily Garber, Editor, Net Assets
First, there’s data. Research from McKinsey shows that companies with a racially diverse workforce are 35% more likely to experience greater financial returns than their respective non-diverse counterparts. Teams that are more diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation are better at making decisions 87% of the time over less diverse teams, according to a report from Washington State University. And diversity on campus in this broader sense can also improve students’ cultural awareness and critical thinking, according to the American Council on Education.
The demand for DEI initiatives in independent schools has expanded significantly since national and international protests in response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and heightened discourse around racism, gender inequality and accessibility over the past two years. This work exists on a continuum of depth and impact, from shorter-term trainings and retreats to longer-term engagements that attempt to transform the way that faculty and staff interact with each other and make decisions for the school. So how are independent schools faring when it comes to moving the needle on equity and increasing the sense of belonging among students, faculty, and staff?
“For the most part, independent schools are doing a good job of recognizing that they need to do more, beyond just the visual representation of BIPOC students in schools,” which is likewise important, said Najah Lowe, former chief financial officer at Vistamar School in Southern California.
Ryan Glover Harrison, director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice at Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFriends), would agree. She notes the work in some cases has been going on for more than 20 years. “More recently, we’ve seen a shift to move DEIJ work in education beyond the theoretical to the actionable, to actively and intentionally create inclusive spaces,” she explained. “Conversations in the past may have been about what books to read. We still need to read these texts, but now we know we need to do some specific work and start to craft institutional decisions around that.’”
Today when school leaders talk about “increasing diversity,” it’s often a proxy for increasing “people of color.” Diversity means more than that, and the goal is not simply to meet a metric but rather to create communities that are enriched, enlivened and inclusive. Each term in the DEI and J acronym has distinct meaning.
“The biggest challenge of this work is that when people talk about DEIJ issues, they assume that everyone is on the same page,” said Lowe. “They’re not: Some people in independent schools do not fully comprehend the 'how' and the true impact of systemic racism. We make a huge mistake when we assume that they do instead of staying curious.”
“People will talk about ‘diverse students’ and ‘diverse hires,’ when actually the term diversity refers to groups, not individuals,” said Alison Park, founder of DEI-focused Blink Consulting LLC. “When people think diversity is just about individuals, those from dominant groups think it’s not about them,” said Park. “And if I’m a parent who thinks it’s not benefitting my kid, then why is it costing me?”
When diversity is presented simply as a matter of numbers and percentage points, it’s counterproductive, said DVFriends’ Harris — that is, when it’s whittled down to a figure in corporate communication or a number on the “about” page of a school’s website. “I think that's a place to start, but it is not a sustainable place,” she said. The practice may lead people to think that DEI work “is just for people who hold marginalized identities,” when in fact, DEI is “essential and beneficial to all staff and faculty.
International diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Derrick Gay, Ed.D., refers to this as the “double edged sword of diversity.” When people don’t understand what diversity is, “it creates a space where race becomes the predominant metric [and other] parts of identity that inform how we see ourselves are sometimes ignored or under-appreciated,” he explained. “This in turn creates confusion among groups regarding who’s included, goals and benefactors of diversity initiatives.”
The simplest solution, according to Gay, is to move the definition from “different,” or individuals that represent the other, to “differences,” using collective language that unifies people from all backgrounds in a school community. In this light, everyone can see themselves represented. And everyone can see a reflection of some aspects of themselves in others. At the same time, “It is important that this reframing is not understood as a strategy to avoid race and/or not acknowledge that society has injustices that we need to address,” explained Gay.
Shifting the definition of diversity to “differences” also helps schools bring in non-teaching staff who have felt historically excluded from these trainings and conversations. Gay described a scenario wherein a school that is highly engaged in DEI work at the faculty level might not immediately consider creating trainings that meet not only the schedules but the specific operational considerations of its non-teaching and/or part-time staff. And when these conversations do occur, “sometimes it just doesn’t resonate,” when a presentation geared toward the arts department, for instance, is delivered to the facilities team.
“I have experienced that kind of shut out,” said Lowe. But she has worked to learn more on her own because DEIJ training is vital for the business office, whose work impacts so many essential functions in the school.
Non-teaching staff not only need to be part of this work but start to truly understand how their day-to-day decisions can impact different communities on campus, said Glover Harrison. “When we invite these groups into the conversation, we normalize our stance as an entire institution. Everyone should be able to say, ‘This is our why, this is what we believe in.’ They should have a framework to communicate to others how their work directly impacts students’ sense of [inclusion and belonging].”
To make progress, institutions must also have a clear understanding of what each letter in a school’s chosen acronym means (e.g., DEI, DEIJ, DEIJB). At the same time, “Don’t spend a year defining words,” said Park. In other words, never-ending conversations about what DEI means without ever taking concrete action does no one good. Don’t let the conversation supplant action; keep learning while doing.
“There are plenty of definitions out there. Pilot one for a year and come back to it.” Her working definition for diversity is, “The presence of differences in identities, abilities and statuses in a community that impact access to resources and opportunities and activate systemic challenges, thereby creating disparities at a group level in the ability to thrive.” Diversity therefore describes any group, whether their identities privilege or disadvantage them, she explained. “Whether or not you aspire to equity and inclusion is another question.”
Defining Equity and Inclusion
As commonly understood, diversity is what you see, inclusion is what you do. Diversity means little without inclusion. “You can have a very diverse group of staff, but if they're not being treated [in a way that fosters inclusion], they're not going to stay at the school,” said Ev Smith, assistant director of business operations and diversity and equity specialist at A Step Up Academy. The K-12 school serves students with autism and related learning differences in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Numbers alone won’t help, and a culture without inclusion is harmful to your community, Ev said.
“Diversity is vital because it’s an indicator for equity and inclusion, but it’s not its own goal,” said Park. “As a critical partner in holding accountability for progress, the business office needs to advocate for professional training around equity and inclusion that addresses the core of school operations.”
If inclusion is what schools do, equity is providing each community member with the resources they need to succeed at school. That means continually, “assessing needs, correcting historical inequities, and creating conditions for optimal outcomes by members of all social identity groups,” according to the American Psychological Association. But what does this look like in action?
At DVFriends, Glover Harrison is deeply immersed in a school-wide effort to reassess the total cost of the school experience to ensure equity and inclusion among the student body. “That includes textbooks and field trips and prom. We want to ensure that nothing [that we charge for] on our end makes one student’s experience different from anyone else's. It should never lessen the experience.”
One of the first things they did was restructure the lunch program. “We understand that $5 a day for some may not be a lot, but for others, it may just not be in your budget.” The school looked at the financial information of every family and mapped out how many families would qualify for free or reduced lunch if they were in the public school system. They then implemented discount codes in their computer system that aligned with a student’s personal school ID number. Because the discounts are applied automatically, many of the students don’t know they’re getting free services. It is one change of many that can help students receive “support that allows them to show up in our community.”
On a more personal level, business officers can do a lot to build inclusion. Smith explained how he and Kay Stauffer, director of business operations at A Step Up Academy, practice what they call “micro-accommodations,” or small changes that can help each individual thrive. A few examples of micro-accommodations for neurodiverse employees include:
- Sending PowerPoint slides ahead of a meeting.
- Noticing that someone is struggling to keep up, pausing your speech, asking everyone is ready to resume conversation.
- Writing down a list of actions or an image-based task list that provides examples of work at various stages when a new task is presented.
So how are business officers defining their vision for change? Some schools find that a broad approach to DEI initiatives that begins by developing commonly-held definitions is the most successful to increasing inclusion and belonging. One benefit of starting with a broad entry point is that more individuals in a community may better understand how their own identities impact their lived experiences.
Derrick Gay urges schools to take this approach. “If you're trying to address anti-racism, race is maybe not best place to start, since race is often framed in the U.S. as an identity unique to people of color. You may want to start [with discussions] around socioeconomic status. Or you may want to start using another form of identity that the majority of your particular community understand as being important. Leverage intellectual and emotional understandings toward a deeper understanding in other areas of DEI.”
This approach made a positive impact at A Step Up Academy. “We need to make sure that we are doing the work in a holistic way that intentionally includes LGBTQ+ identities, religion, ability and neurodiversity, to name a few,” said Stauffer.
“It’s sort of like when you’re flying, you’re told to put on your own mask before you can help others. The same goes for DEI work,” she said. Business officers need to consider their own identities and the ways those overlap and interact to be effective changemakers. “It sounds intimidating, but once you lay a broad groundwork, then you have the scaffolding to build something bigger.”
Some schools, by contrast, have found that community members cannot readily agree on why these initiatives are needed or what they should try to accomplish, putting systemic implementation out of reach. Park describes the challenge of trying to just do better with DEI as, “trying to embrace the ocean and move it.”
Park harkened back to June 2020, when many schools put out diversity statements that were broad in nature. Setting a goal that can’t be achieved isn’t helpful, she said. “One of the things that will hold any school’s commitment to DEI or justice back is pretending we can do it all instead of articulating priorities.” Simply striving to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive doesn’t lead to “meaningful impact,” in Park’s words. “Our goals have to matter and they have to be at the heart of people’s experiences. We probably need to up our game with strategic planning, [and set goals that are] ‘achievable, aspirational and impactful,’” said Park, quoting the Thirty Percent Coalition, an international campaign for increasing corporate boardroom diversity.
When defining your goals for DEI, start by asking the questions, said Park: What are your institutional and community priorities within DEI? What diversities do you need identify, in order to gauge these vital indicators of equity and inclusion? How will you assess status and track progress?
To further get at these questions, schools will need to understand not only the demographics of their communities but also the pain points. Good data can help them get there. “You can't just assume that you know what's going on,” explained DEI consultant Valaida L. Wise, Ed.D. In her work with independent schools, Wise recommends collecting both qualitative data and quantitative data to get the full picture. Then, assign a task force to keep the school accountable to maintaining a dashboard and telling the story.
Regardless of what processes a school adopts in the near term, it’s clear that transformational work around DEI will affect organizational strategy. “Schools can learn from what’s worked for them in the past. But real movement will happen when schools recognize that justice requires innovation,” said Park. And innovation requires audacious individual and collective efforts at the individual school level.
Expect the Best, Prepare for Pushback
DVFriends, in Paoli, Pennsylvania, is among those that have made pledges to build and sustain a commitment to DEI. The work isn’t always easy. School leaders have spent the better part of the last school year in conversation with trans students and families. The school had a transgender student policy in place, but “the impact on trans students was not wholly positive,” explained Glover Harrison. “Students came to the school and said, ‘We need more support to be able to show up in school every day in the way that we are most comfortable.’”
As school leaders’ understanding of what it means to support the trans community evolved, they have made shifts in their policies and communication. “The goal is to turn good intentions and collective vision — allowing trans students to show up to school every day as their full selves — into policy so it becomes documented, practiced and part of the way administration does things.”
It’s to be expected that schools will face resistance to DEI work, both internally and externally. “As much as schools are doing great work, there is huge pushback. This will continue test schools’ mettle,” said Wise. “On the spectrum of schools, some are completely infused [with DEI principles], and there are also schools that are still very avoidant. We still have some challenges, resistance and confusion.”
For schools heavily involved in structural DEI efforts, there is also the problem of exhaustion, particularly among BIPOC faculty and staff who have been at the frontlines of implementing DEI strategies for a while. Diversity fatigue describes the feelings of exhaustion, isolation and skepticism associated with a desire to understand and address the complex issues surrounding racial justice. “That’s where having robust DEI goals come into play,” said Wise.
“If you have concrete goals that you are measuring and checking back in on with your board, you can keep the engine running and help ward off fatigue.”
For DEI work to truly impact the life of the school community, it needs to be systemic in schools. And to be systemic in their efforts, schools need to move beyond releasing a statement. Curricular decisions, instructional practices, hiring practices, policy decisions, and fiscal decisions should all be impacted by DEI work. One of the biggest challenges that schools face is getting their entire faculty and staff on board. Non-teaching staff, including the business office, sometimes feel excluded from diversity trainings or have found that the trainings are entirely focused on academic issues.
Given its school-wide impact, the business office is positioned to enable equity across the independent school industry, said Lowe. But to do so, business officers must have just as much of a robust understanding of diversity as they do around any other area of school operations.
To diversify the talent pool, for example, the business office needs to consciously and proactively address potential bias in the school’s hiring processes, database and electronic screenings. “If you’re being intentional about this work, you’re not just hiring your friends when a position opens,” said Lowe. “You’re looking around first. You are posting jobs broadly at HBCUs, in Latinx publications or on sites beyond the usual suspects for us in independent schools. You’re holding yourself and the people on your team accountable. This is just one example of how the business officer can influence DEIJ at your school.”
Aspiring to Justice and the Future of DEI
More recently, schools have been embracing justice as an extension of equity. Achieving justice means directly dismantling barriers to resources and opportunities in society so that all individuals in communities can live a full and dignified life.
Park defines justice as “the aspiration and commitment to mutual thriving in a community,” which requires equity and inclusion by design. She says the J in DEIJ can be a “touchy area” for schools because DEI and social justice have all become partisan through their politicization. By effect, equity, inclusion and justice are big promises that can’t just be added on.
While some schools have been founded on commitment to justice, the vast majority are not, said Park. “The bones of independent school education have been setting ever since then,” she said, with DEI only recently being formally recognized by many schools.
“My hope is that [at some point in the future] we won't need to be talking about this anymore,” said Wise. “If we've been successful, no child will be judged because of their ethnicity, economic status, gender or sexuality. But the reality is that won't happen for a long time,” she acknowledged. “Business officers need to continue to push, even though there are folks who will try to push back. Hold the banner for the work that we committed ourselves to so that schools can push out — not just look inwards — to bring about social change to the communities that interact with them.”