Equity in Action Team seeks to make an impact on TVUSD schools

A group of women from the grassroots organization Equity in Action Team of Temecula Valley, speaks with Valley News in a conference call regarding the group’s objectives and goal to work with Temecula Valley Unified School District on equality issues with students at schools. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Members of the Equity in Action Team of Temecula Valley, mostly educators with the Temecula Valley Unified School District, joined Valley News for a Zoom conference to talk about their grassroots organization. The group is about more than systematically holding the school district accountable for the education of Black, Indigenous and other minority students. Their aim is to develop and change a school district that all students will feel proud to be a part of.

“I think we’re doing it for them and because of them,” Brandon Archie, a Bella Vista Middle School teacher and Black Student Union adviser, said. “We know what it feels like to experience things, we’ve listened with compassion and heard their perspectives. And we know that there are things that have to change in order for them to get the education and the support they need in order to become productive members of society who want to come back.

“We want it to be where this is their community and they invest in this community and feel like this is home. And not somewhere you want to run from because it was a place of torture, or a place where nobody saw you, or a place where you just felt like you just existed like a zombie for 12 years.

“We want all students, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, language barriers, to feel like they are seen and heard every single day,” Archie said.

EnAct was born out of a need for Black Student Union advisers at various schools throughout the district to meet and help guide each other through the processes of working with their respective student groups.

Lisa Kalldin, a special education teacher at Temecula Valley High School, was one of the first six stakeholders to meet for the purpose of furthering understanding and improving their service of students in their groups.

“We had all these BSU advisers talking and then we started talking about other things going on in the community,” she said. “Diane (Cox, a Chaparral High School parent and BSU adviser) knew many people in the community … so she kind of put us in touch with more people and then it kind of grew from there. What started as this collaborative effort of BSU advisers to come together to do things as a district, instead of just (school) site, then grew into of women, educators, parents who are very passionate of seeing change in our district and addressing some of the racism and some of the other issues that we see.”

Katrina Miles, a Temecula Middle School teacher and BSU adviser, said she was looking for support from high school teachers and advisers to be advocates on the TMS campus.

“As the summer months continued, we did notice that our school district in particular, unlike many of the districts around here, had not issued a statement in response to what was going on with the Black Lives movement across the nation,” she said. “We get that there are other things going on, so, what does that mean? Why are you not addressing it? And we know that there are issues that are going on in our own backyard. It’s a grassroots movement to start having some of these hard conversations … and we’re learning too.

“We want to address some of the issues that have and continue to leave our kids behind. But not just our own, because we understand that as we strengthen our African American students, in particular, that’s going to lead to other communities that are considered marginalized as well-being strengthened under that umbrella,” Miles said.

The stated goal of EnAct, which is continually growing in numbers, is to ensure that TVUSD understands “the needs and challenges of its underserved African American and BIPOC population,” according to a statement sent to Valley News.

The vision of the group is to make a commitment toward advising, providing input and prioritizing districtwide equity efforts within TVUSD “to support learning environments that reflect the diversity of TVUSD.”

Some of the group’s goals include closing the academic opportunity gap, improving the climate on campuses throughout the district, raising cultural awareness in adults and students and deepening meaningful parent involvement.

In late June, the group requested a call to action from the TVUSD Board of Education in response to TVUSD Resolution No. 2019-20/35: TVUSD’s Commitment to Promote Equity, Access and Inclusion.

In it, the group asked a series of questions that included whether procedures and practices were implemented to create a culturally diverse and culturally responsive learning environment, how the district will honor the commitment and how diversity exists among certificated and administrative staff members.

They also asked how TVUSD is fostering empathy and kindness, how it will be measured and who is determining those standards. They asked if there was mandated anti-bias training for teachers, staff and administrators, as well as teacher grading practices ensuring an equitable approach.

The group also asked how the board would remedy the inequities the group said that Black students and the community have experienced “in the context of its history of exclusion, discrimination and segregation.”

According to members of the group, the board has not responded to the letter, but they have had some discussions with Jody McClay, superintendent of TVUSD.

When asked what is currently in place in dealing with equity issues within the district, Jennifer Scharf, a teacher at Great Oak High School and BSU adviser, said the district has an equity team that is made up of mostly White administrators.

“There are no Black people on it, so you have a bunch of people who are planning equity from the Caucasian perspective,” she said. “And that’s a problem. We’ve been asking, since this group formed, to interact with that group and become part of it, and they are still dragging their feet on that. For me, that’s imperative, that we get some people of color in that group.

“We’re not tapping into these amazing resources in this community that are saying, ‘We’re here to help; we’re here with this perspective.’ It’s not being tapped into,” she said.

After months of communication with the district, the group said, EnAct will send four or five members of the group to meet with the district’s equity team.

Members of the group also expressed disappointment with the equity training the district kicked off on the first day of school, the hiring processes by the district as far as educators and stressed the importance of equitable representation in the district’s curriculum.

Tiffany Suetos, a physical education teacher at Temecula elementary schools, said McClay needs to understand that she serves all students.

“She needs to understand that as a leader, she doesn’t only serve White students, Hispanic students; she serves all students,” she said. “For her to recognize that she serves all students, not only their academics, but their social, emotional, their mental health, their families. As a leader, she needs to really take control of all of this.”

Valley News reached out to McClay for comment Friday, Sept. 4.

“TVUSD welcomes all support of this important work in our community,” McClay said. “The district has done a lot to support the work of advancing cultural proficiency, equity, access and inclusion over the past three years, including training teams from each of the 27 school sites last year in a comprehensive manner. This year, all staff is receiving ongoing training which began even before school started. The districts’ EAI (Equity, Access and Inclusion) Leadership Team welcomes the assistance of the EnAct team.”

Hiring practices and a perceived lack of representation of Black teachers and administrators within the district was a major concern for the group.

“A lot of students come to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the first African American teacher I’ve ever had,’ and it’s true,” Archie said. “I’ll probably be the only African American teacher they will have in their career at TVUSD. That shouldn’t be.”

All the members of the group on the call with Valley News were excited for the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves and for the betterment of students in the Temecula school district.

“We want to know that we’re doing something that’s making a difference,” Miles said. “In my drama class, we got to talk a little bit about legacy, and most of my students don’t know what that is. With our BSU kids, we have to be talking about it with them, ‘What’s your vision for your future? And how can we come alongside and equip you to help you get there?’ And to be saying that my choices for today are not just for me and my four walls and where I am in the next 24 hours, but where is this taking me?

“What kind of impact am I making on those around me and coming behind me? I think the EnAct group is an amazing opportunity and the beginning of something that’s the beginning of legacy for our community,” she said.

Community members interested in becoming a part of EnAct can get more information by emailing TVEnAcT@gmail.com.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.