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MRPS Equity Audit: ‘We’re pointed in the right direction, but have a long road ahead of us’

Photo by Carla Occaso.
The Montpelier Roxbury Public School (MRPS) Board received an equity audit presentation at the April 17 board meeting from Karla Manning, Ph.D., founder and CEO of The Equity Leadership Group. Manning said the equity audit is a “leadership tool,” for the district to examine itself.

“My take-home is that we’re pointed in the right direction, but have a long road ahead of us,” said board member Scott Lewins.

A team from the group was commissioned by a board committee to audit the district from June to December 2023. They met with over 200 stakeholders to identify “equity gaps, discriminatory practices, experiences, biases, and systemic inequities,” according to the full audit report.

The audit found that currently, there are no “identifiable accountability measures in place to monitor the effectiveness of the district’s DEI work.” Board Chair Jim Murphy said, “now we have a reference point to kind of go back to this report and ask if progress is being made.”

“We wanted to do this audit because we’ve had so many stops and starts with our work around equity,” said MRPS Superintendent Libby Bonesteel.

In 2018, MRPS was “the first school district in the nation to raise the Black Lives Matter flag on its high school campus,” said Manning. In 2019, MRPS and the Agency of Education expanded policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion. While past work was acknowledged, the audit revealed that the district has room to grow.

Public Communication

The audit found an overall need to develop communication strategies, with specific recommendations for expanding an open dialogue with Roxbury families.

Bonesteel said the current methods are “not cutting it right now,” and “there’s a lot of confusion out there.”

Amanda Garces, former board member, and parent of a 5th grader and a 2nd grader, said during public comment that “as someone deeply engaged in advocating for educational equity statewide, it became apparent to me that both the superintendent and the school board chair lack genuine interest in fostering meaningful processes for caregivers in my community, further evidenced by the recent fallout in the Roxbury process,” describing the district’s effort as “superficial.”

The audit report recommended “creating these authentic spaces for parent and family community engagement,” maybe at an off-campus location. “I need to express my perspectives in a way where I’m not going to receive some sort of punishment or consequence as a result of me being honest,” said Manning.

Socioeconomic Factors

“I’m curious how the socioeconomic piece fits in, because we don’t have a lot of racial diversity, clearly in Vermont, or in our school district,” said Kristen Getler, board member from Roxbury. 

A quote from the audit’s findings was, “there’s an invisibility of class divides in Montpelier … there’s definitely a range and it’s not really acknowledged,” which extends to transportation and extracurriculars.

“There are socioeconomic clashes,” and a sort of “us versus them mindset” between Roxbury and Montpelier, Manning said. “Feeling unheard or feeling ignored is another concern that arose from respondents, specifically related to family and community engagement.”

Retaining Diverse Staff

“Despite hiring qualified and diverse teachers, the district faces challenges in retaining staff and faculty of color, due to prevailing culture and thin equity initiatives,” said Manning.

Only two out of 17 teachers strongly agreed that MRPS had implemented programs to help create a more diverse workforce, with five strongly disagreeing.

“This is a conversation that I’ve had a lot this year, around, how do we retain staff of color,” said Jessica Murray, director of social emotional learning and wellness. “It’s certainly something on our radar.”

While Montpelier is making some “strong and positive movements,” there are realities that “pose a challenge,” said Manning. “Montpelier is not a large urban district,” she added.

To attract and retain a more diverse staff, Manning recommended developing partnerships with historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions with teacher education programs and principal preparation programs. The audit revealed that while the district has some structures in place to promote inclusion, those structures have the opportunity to be more “culturally responsive.”

A Sense of Belonging

Last year, the board established academic indicators of success around math and literacy scores, aiming to “close the gap” between students. Manning said, “while academic achievement should always be the number-one priority,” another factor related to student performance is “student experiences or perceptions of belonging.”

This is the first year the district began surveying students about their sense of belonging with a tool called Panorama, which has demographics tied to the responses. “We’ve been making strides” in this work, said Bonesteel.

Despite large efforts in creating multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), “systemic barriers and biases that negatively impact marginalized groups continue to persist, despite the district’s efforts to eradicate these through MTSS thus far,” said Manning, reporting that the district has “inconsistencies” in creating an inclusive culture.

The audit found that students often have access to diverse material, but only sometimes engage with it. Students did not feel that the curriculum represented their identities, while teachers felt it was diverse.

According to Manning, inclusion efforts have focused on “school spirit” more than creating BIPOC or LGBTQ+ spaces. “Many students and parents express feelings of being ignored, unheard, or invisibilized by the district,” she said.