News Post

DA devotes school year to strategic focus on diversity and inclusion
DA devotes school year to strategic focus on diversity and inclusion

“Durham Academy believes that diversity enlivens, improves and enriches the school – and the daily experience of every learner.”
— 2015 Strategic Plan (Goal 3)

“To do more than just ‘feel good’ about the range of diversity that exists within our schools, leaders need reliable information to plan and create exceptional educational experiences for all students, and workplaces that maximize the talents of all adults.”

— Caroline G. Blackwell
Vice President for Equity & Justice
National Association of Independent Schools

Successful intellectual communities tend to be built with some key characteristics: academic excellence, collaboration and global citizenship. But their true foundation, Durham Academy Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner says, is grounded in diverse voices and a diverse community. Teaching is impossible without dialogue, and dialogue is impossible without different perspectives. A diverse community is a critical part of academic excellence and the educational experience.

“We’re in the business of maximizing human potential in community. We really believe that a community, when it’s framed correctly, can generate human goodness and collaboration — and the more voices at the table, the better the liberal arts education,” Ulku-Steiner said. “Morality, happiness and productivity — each of those is fed by a more inclusive stance toward the world. … Diversity, equity and inclusion feed into each one of those three things.”

DA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion goes back decades. Evidence of that commitment begins in the 1960s — supported by the testimonials of some of DA’s first African-American students. DA emphasizes “respect for individual differences and appreciation for the racial, cultural and religious diversity in our society” in the school’s statement of purpose (1970); created a Diversity Mission Statement in 2004; and elevated the position of director of diversity and multicultural affairs to the administrative team level in 2013. In that role, Kemi Nonez — who was appointed to the position in 2010 — directs and coordinates diversity programming, partnerships and resources supported by a board committee and faculty diversity coordinators in each school division. She also serves as DA’s assistant director of admissions.

“DA has done a lot of work in terms of starting these conversations,” Nonez explained. “Our faculty and our students are more culturally sensitive and competent, but there’s still more work to be done. The energy around equity and inclusion work removes it from being a taboo subject.”

As the umbrella of diversity expands to include more and more individuals, that work that becomes more and more important. The 2015 Strategic Plan prioritized DA’s focus on inclusion for the future. Goal 3 calls for a “broader experience of diversity and a renewed commitment to accessibility,” with action steps including the following:

  • Evaluation of current diversity initiatives and measurement of progress toward clearly defined objectives.
  • Development of an integrated experiential and curricular program that reinforces an inclusive and supportive environment.
  • Recruitment, retention and support of students who add diversity in all divisions, paying particular attention to underrepresented populations.
  • Recruitment and support of diverse faculty and staff.
  • Rigorous training of faculty and staff to empower them to relate to and support all students, families and colleagues.

The Strategic Plan directs DA to look at diversity as more than just numbers — to determine who we are and who we want to be through the lens of the school’s diversity work. To that end, DA is partnering with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) to conduct an Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM). AIM is conducted in two parts — a self-assessment and an online community-wide survey.

“AIM is going to hold a mirror up to how the individual views themselves within the DA community, how DA views itself in the larger community and what needs to be done,” Nonez said. “It’s going to give us some very critical action steps on a microscopic level and a community-wide level — what DA will look like or feel like in one year, five years, 10 years, 20 years.” 

This fall, Nonez organized an AIM steering committee comprising faculty and staff, trustees and parents to help guide the year-long process. Throughout October, 10 focus groups including faculty and staff, students, parents, alumni and parents of alumni participated in guided conversations and gave detailed feedback about school governance and leadership, policy and administration, admissions and financial aid, faculty, teaching and learning, student life, school marketing and communications, staff involvement, parent/guardian involvement and alumni involvement and investment. The steering committee looked for patterns and common threads among all of the focus groups' feedback.

The larger DA community (current families, students in grades 5 to 12, alumni and parents of alumni) will be sent the online survey on Tuesday, Feb. 7. DA faculty and staff will complete the survey during their Professional Development Day on Monday, Feb. 6. It’s a crowdsourced way for participants to be candid about the climate of inclusion at DA. The survey — a combination of short answer and narrative answer — will help DA identify ways to build on success and prioritize diversity initiatives. The online survey is hosted by NAIS, so the results are completely anonymous, and no raw survey data is provided to DA. An estimated 7,000 people will receive the link to the survey, so broad participation is vital.

“We know we want to get better at inclusion and equity work, and we have a million things we could try to do that,” Ulku-Steiner explained. “What we really want in the spirit of inclusion and equity is to give everybody a chance to say who we are — a really deep demographic dive, more than we’ve ever done — then what we care about and how we think we’re doing so far in terms of our diversity work. That’s going to be revealing. … I’m sure we’re going to be surprised by thinking we’ve got something under control when in fact we realize we need to do more work in certain areas. So rather than guessing, we want to give everybody a voice.” 

“We are trying to increase our understanding of what it means to be global citizens, and that starts here in the classroom,” Nonez said. “When you strive to understand the world, you don’t just stop with American history. When you think of it on a larger scale — conversations about diversity, equity and justice help every student, every faculty member to be empathetic citizens. We are all diverse and we want to ensure that our diversity work goes beyond race and ethnicity.”

NAIS will help the AIM steering committee interpret the data collected from both the focus groups and the online survey this spring, identifying major areas of strength and priority concerns for action. DA’s results will also be benchmarked against national norms and other independent schools (NAIS has collected data from 66 schools over the last 10 years) to provide some perspective about how DA is performing in comparison to its peers. The steering committee will produce a strategic plan for diversity at DA with action steps that will be shared with the DA community in the spring. Those action steps will allow DA to hit the ground running during the 2017-2018 school year — to create leadership structures to support the plan, as well as budgets, metrics and timelines for the future. 

“The thrust of the Strategic Plan is getting into the daily lived experience of every child, not just numbers and statistics and not just race and religion — looking at a lot of other dimensions,” Ulku-Steiner said.

“Overall, I hope we will see we’re a community that says diversity and equity and inclusion work is important,” Nonez said. “That we’re going to put the effort into having these conversations at every level of the school. And that ultimately people stand up and speak out about issues that they care about.”