Wilton schools move diversity to front burner

WILTON — Initiatives to foster diversity and equity in and out of the classroom are underway at Wilton Public Schools, spurred on by a recent petition from hundreds of former graduates and current students, as well as current events.

Last month more than 400 current and former Wilton High School students who identified themselves as either minorities or people of color added support to a letter urging the district to “rethink how race is (and is not) discussed in the classroom.”

“The homogeneity of Wilton unintentionally but systematically discourages students from exploring their racial and ethnic identities by depriving them of information and resources,” the letter says.

“The lack of nuanced classroom discussion surrounding race, gender, and sexuality produces well-intentioned ignorance,” it says, “and a dissociation of America’s history with one’s personal identity.

“Actionable steps for educators and administrators include changes in curriculum, hiring excellent diverse educators, and holding students who make publicly racist remarks accountable,” the letter continues.

Yet well before this petition letter was received by school officials, several incidents involving racial remarks and anti-Semitism over the past several years led them to start having conversations aimed at addressing the issues that have been tumultuously brought to the forefront of the public’s attention this past month.

“We kind of began our work around equity and anti-racism more than a year ago,” said Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith.

“In recent years we’ve had some anti-Semitic episodes in our schools … We’ve had students using really racially offensive language,” he said.

“I think we recognize in this community, where it is majority white and majority affluent, we have a need to broaden our perspectives and ensure that our kids have as full a picture as the way the world actually is as possible,” Smith said.

Michael Gordon, music teacher at Middlebrook School, has taken on the role of point person for the racial equity and inclusion team for the district.

“We really have to examine what we’re doing here in Wilton,” Gordon said, explaining that while an incident at a basketball game several years ago had Wilton students saying hurtful things to opposing players, simultaneously they still didn’t completely understand what they were saying or why it was so hurtful, which is part of why education is at the heart of making these changes.

“We’re actually putting together a town-wide book study,” he said. “That way the community can be involved.

“This is not easy,” Gordon said. “This is not a comfortable conversation but realize where you are in this.”

Gordon began his work earlier this school year with teachers, finding a very positive response.

“I’ve found that not only are people open to the conversation, but they’re hungry for it,” Smith said, noting that the murder of George Floyd has presented a chance to have that conversation in finer detail.

“That brought a newness to everything where everyone’s eyes are open and now we really have to examine what we’re doing,” Gordon said.

He said the district has held seminars in diversity training with teachers, but is also organizing broader meetings that include parents and students. He himself is now hosting a monthly online meeting that’s open to the public, while one student at the high school recently started a Racial Equity and Diversity Club.

“Everyone is poised and ready,” he said, with the primary topic not only centering on assuaging racism, but intelligently dismantling the systemic racism underlying it.

“Thankfully the enthusiasm hasn’t waned,” Gordon said. “I think it’s only grown … It’s been phenomenal.”

“Although I am white, I have always been uncomfortable with the race-blind narrative that dominates Wilton and so many other racially privileged homogeneous communities,” wrote Christopher Canary, a 2002 Wilton High School graduate who wrote the Board of Education expressing his support for the petition letter.

“Please do not let this moment slip away as so many opportunities to embrace racial justice have slipped away in the past,” wrote Canary, who now teaches secondary school in Philadelphia.

“We’ve received a couple of additional letters … recounting difficult experiences (and) offering to be part of the change,” Smith said.

Along with the hate-based conduct policy put in place by the Board of Education two years ago, Smith noted at least some new high school courses mindfully geared toward diversity, as well as an increased focus on minority teacher recruitment.

“It’s a commitment we have and I think we’re gaining ground slowly,” he said of new hires.

“Wilton, like everywhere else in the world I think, is undergoing a significant demographic change,” he said, with the population racially and ethnically diversifying.

“As our community continues to diversify it’s important that the work we do on the schools and our curriculum reflect that diversity,” he said.

“Promoting a more informed student body and community through more comprehensive education is a long and continuous process,” said alum Elizabeth Yoon, who co-authored the petition letter, noting that curriculum change “takes time and continued attention.”

“We received a response from Dr. Kevin Smith commending the letter and its signatories … While the initial response is positive, these are very early days,” she said.

“To have this conversation is tough because you have to be open,” Gordon said, “you have to be honest and you have to speak your truth about your perceptions and put yourself out there.”

Those interested in taking part in the next public discussion that Gordon is facilitating on July 23 may contact him at GordonM@WiltonPS.org.