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Tuesday, December 18 News

Warde students, staff share personal stories on diversity, the achievement gap

FAIRFIELD — Fairfield Warde junior Aliyah Augustin was excited this year to enroll in her first Advanced Placement class.

Augustin, 16, is a history buff who aspires one day to become a lawyer, so she leaped at the opportunity to take AP U.S. History. But right away she noticed something about the students sitting in class around her.

“I’m the only black girl in my period class. The other period class only has one black girl, as well. That was kind of eye-opening,” Augustin said.

Augustin is one of roughly 15 students and 10 faculty members that make up Warde’s Achievement Gap Task Force, which seeks to start discussions on the achievement gap for students on free or reduced lunch and students of color at Fairfield Warde High School.

“The reason we got together is because a few years ago I was asked to do a presentation to the staff about some of the doctoral work I had been doing on achievement gaps in this kind of a community — majority white, high-performing, suburban schools. There wasn’t a lot of research on this,” said Deirdra Preis, Pequot House housemaster and founder of the task force.

“We really saw the disparities with our students of color and our students on free and reduced lunch, particularly in their performance on standardized testing and their participation in Advanced Placement classes. They weren’t enrolling in AP classes at a proportionate rate,” Preis said. “We started talking about some of the research and the implicit bias and institutional racism in schools in general.”

Preis began to recruit students who might suffer from the inequity she was researching and asked them, last year, to share their narratives with faculty and staff in professional development meetings.

Augustin was one of the students to participate.

“I was happy to share my experience because I wanted teachers to see that this was happening,” Augustin said. “When teachers talk about something, it’s just facts, but when a student says it, it’s like an actual person. You put a face to the speech.”

The 16-year-old said she shared her experience of going from McKinley Elementary School — by far the most-diverse school in the district — to the whiter Tomlinson Middle School and then Warde High School.

“I’ve been in the Fairfield school system my whole life, and I’m really thankful for it because it’s such a good school system, but I’ve noticed certain things,” Augustin said. “None of the other (elementary) schools have that diversity, so when I went to middle school, McKinley was looked at like the ghetto school.”

Teachers present largely found it helpful to hear stories like Augustin’s and similar professional development meetings have continued. One teacher, Sania Werner, who had done graduate work on institutional racism, found the student testimony reinforced the topics she studied and made her more aware of the disadvantages some students were facing.

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“Although I knew these things, hearing it from students makes me more conscious of everything I’m doing, everything I’m saying, how I plan my lessons,” Werner said. “It’s opened my eyes not just to those kids, but all kids.”

With four other Ludlowe students, faculty and parents, Augustin, Preis and Werner recently traveled to San Diego for a conference, “Redesigning for Student Success,” hosted by the accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The conference allowed Augustin and others to present their experiences with students and educators from around the country, as well as learn about different measures being taken to promote equity in schools nationwide.

In part, the experience served as training for Warde’s upcoming second annual Identity and Education Conference, March 29 at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, at which students from schools throughout the state will share their experiences through panel presentations, group discussions and performances.

“The exciting thing is, we’re bringing kids to college,” Preis said. “We want them to feel like they have a voice; we want them to see themselves as future college students who are capable.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1

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