It was six years ago, and I still remember the moment vividly. I was on lunch duty visiting with students when I was invited into a conversation with some students of color. What were they discussing? White privilege.

They asked for my perspective as a white male. I said that I never felt privileged, as my family struggled and I had to work hard to find success. I answered based on my understanding, and I quickly learned I was out of touch. The students taught me what white privilege was and showed me I had it. Then they proceeded to share their experiences as young women of color in Maine. As we talked, I recognized my need to have a deeper understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I wanted these students to feel welcomed, heard, and represented.

Our state is one of the country’s least diverse. My school, Windham High School (WHS), is in a suburb of Portland, our state’s largest city. Our school district’s student population is 90% white. Over the last 10 years, we have seen an increase in the number of diverse students enrolling, as is true for most of the schools in the Portland area.

That conversation in the cafeteria inspired me to seek out opportunities to engage our school community in DEI, but this is not the work of one person. Our school is not perfect. Like many schools, we have our struggles with race, gender identity, and socioeconomic status, and we owe it to our students and community not to hide from tough conversations on these issues.

Getting Started

As a school leader, I’ve always stressed the importance of student voice in our work. That conversation in the cafeteria showed me that, in some ways, we were missing the mark. At the time, our school was going through some major changes as we were seeking new school leadership, and staff were working alongside the administration on a culture and climate survey. The survey pointed to a need for more collaborative leadership and a greater focus on community.

As we considered how to approach DEI, our district began developing its five-year strategic plan with community input. One of our last meetings prior to the pandemic shutting down our school was a community forum that connected all stakeholders under one roof. In that meeting, it was apparent that equity was going to be a major focal point of our plan.

Then, in March 2020, we shifted our focus to managing life in a pandemic. As we returned to school in the fall of 2021, we were faced with different challenges, but opportunities also surfaced.

One opportunity that resulted from the pandemic was the evolution of virtual professional development. Our district had the opportunity to participate in a Cultural Competence Institute (CCI), hosted by Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association and facilitated by Lawrence Alexander II, from Carney Sandoe & Associates. This eight-part series consisted of monthly sessions that covered a variety of topics:

  • Developing a deep understanding of creating a culture of inclusion
  • Developing brave spaces for conversations about race in our schools
  • Creating a cultural connection for students and parents
  • Creating a sustainable practice for diversity, equity, and inclusion in our schools
  • Guiding policy development in school districts
  • Recruiting, hiring, and retaining faculty from diverse backgrounds

Ultimately, what CCI provided was an opportunity for our school and district to engage in some hard conversations, reflect on our practices, and begin to plan for a better future. CCI provided a safe place where leaders from across the state could get together virtually and be vulnerable, share personal experiences, hear about failures and successes, and build a network of support.

Each session allowed participants to connect, and Alexander himself was a tremendous resource. He began to collaborate with our district and with me personally. I sought out his guidance on several issues that surfaced, and consulting with him was inspirational. We assembled a team of diverse educators and leaders from across our district to participate in CCI, with several participants from our high school. What we found, however, was that meeting monthly to participate in this institute was not enough. So, we began to hold semi-monthly meetings that then branched into high school-specific meetings where we would address how we as a school could move forward on specific topics and issues.

The work we started at CCI led to two specific professional development training sessions for all district staff. These trainings were designed to begin conversations and increase understanding on diversity, equity, and inclusion; raise awareness on the social-emotional challenges we were facing; and bring together our school and district to highlight ongoing work in this area.

During this time, we also continued work on our strategic plan, which our community and school board approved in the fall of 2021. At the forefront of this plan were six core beliefs, the first of which centers on equity and inclusion:

We believe we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that every member of our school community feels safe, valued, and achieves in a learning environment that encourages diverse perspectives.

Along with this statement, the plan features two specific goals:

  1. Develop a collective understanding of practices that embody equity and inclusion.
  2. Create teaching and learning conditions that serve to build safe spaces for all.

The plan clearly articulates a vision for DEI in our district and a pathway for how we get there.

Empowering Students

In addition to school staff participating in this work, students wanted an opportunity to be involved. Since our culture and climate survey not only collected data from staff but also from students, it reflected a full picture of where we could improve. This information highlighted our need to revitalize a sense of community within our school. To that end, we needed to empower student voices and ensure students had a seat at the table.

This work began with our student clubs and leadership within those organizations. Our first step was to get students involved with our professional development. As we discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion in our school, it became imperative that staff needed to hear from our students. Working alongside teachers, administration, and with support from Alexander, we organized a student/staff panel that would close out our half-day session. This panel would enable participants to share experiences and thoughts on why DEI work is important and provide a window into their reality. As our panel shared with the entire district’s faculty and staff what their experiences were as a person of color or a struggling learner, people became emotional (some even wept), and many were stunned.

Empowering students was a moving experience, and their feedback was powerful. It had been the first time we’d included students in our professional development, and it was a resounding success. It has led to further incredible professional development on topics such as inclusivity and representation in school and a workshop with all seventh graders on bullying and harassment. Such professional development has been organized and facilitated by our students.

I truly believe that engaging students in this way has encouraged them to be more active in our school and community. Shortly after this panel, our students formed the WHS Social Justice league. With the support of staff advisers, this group celebrates diversity and raises awareness. This momentum around DEI and increasing student voice has only grown with a number of our student organizations, such as the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), the Civil Rights Team Project, and student council all engaging in projects to celebrate diversity.

I’m proud to say that our students continue to teach us, their teachers. Several students have run training sessions for faculty and staff in other schools within our district, and they have even presented at conferences to share their experiences with DEI at our school.

This work recently led us to see the need for a diversity statement—something to solidify where we stand as a district and what we believe in. A group of educators volunteered for the task and reviewed law, school policy, and school data to craft a statement that was also based on student feedback.

Next Steps

This school year we are focusing on sharing our DEI website with staff and unpacking our equity core belief with our students. We will also continue to build upon the great foundation that our students have laid to become more inclusive in our work as a school community.

As educators, we want our students to learn from us, but we ultimately learn from them as well. If I hadn’t forged a relationship with that group of students in the cafeteria, they may have never opened my mind and taught me so much. It’s a moment that I will never forget and one that I recently thanked them for.

Life has changed considerably in the last few years. Surviving a pandemic and living in a society that is so divided has stirred a lot of emotions in everyone. School today is so much more than the courses we teach. It’s a microcosm of society, and as educators, it’s our duty to nurture and support our students and staff to be the best citizens and educators we can be. I’m very fortunate to have students who challenge me to become better—as a person, husband, father, school leader, and citizen.

Philip Rossetti is the assistant principal of Windham High School in Windham, ME, and a finalist for the 2022 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year.