Letter to Our Community

Our DEI Commitments for 2020-21 and Beyond

August 14, 2020

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Dear Uncommon Schools Community,

This year has been a time of great reflection. As we continue to prepare for a safe and strong launch to the new school year, we remain steadfast in living up to our commitment to becoming an increasingly anti-racist organization that continues to advance social justice. Six weeks ago, we informed you of our plans to review our policies and practices that impact the daily experiences of our students, our families, and our staff. Today, we would like to share what we have learned and detail our collective path forward.

WE’VE BEEN LISTENING

Over the past several weeks, we have listened intently to our community about what they value at Uncommon and where we can improve — with a focus on the systems, policies, practices, and training that affect our school cultures. We have spoken to hundreds of current students, families, and staff individually and in small group settings, and surveyed thousands of students, parents, and alumni. We are incredibly grateful for the generous amounts of time people have taken to share their insights and thank every person who provided us with their valuable feedback.

Since Uncommon’s founding, we have worked to continually improve in pursuit of our mission and on behalf of our students and families. We are extremely proud of all that this community has accomplished over the past 20 years, especially our work preparing and supporting students on their path to and through college. In our listening this summer, we heard from students, families, and alumni how much they value our strong academic program and our focus on college access and success. We also heard how much our alumni and students value their relationships with leaders, staff, and teachers, and how greatly our staff care about the well-being of our students.

Members of our community have also shared feedback around school culture and discipline policies to change. We have heard the negative experiences that some current and former students and staff shared on social media, which is far from what we stand for or what we expect. We are deeply sorry to those for whom Uncommon did not live up to your expectations or the high standards we set for ourselves. We thank those with concerns for expressing themselves because we take their feedback seriously and are making changes to practices and policies to ensure our schools are places where all students and staff are safe and can thrive. It is imperative that our students feel seen, heard, valued, and loved.

This process of listening has been valuable and instructive. We are committed to building on what has been working and addressing areas where we must improve – today and ongoing. With that in mind, we would like to share details on some of the changes we are making for the 2020-21 school year and beyond.

SCHOOL CULTURE

We have always believed that one key to a strong school culture is the combination of authentic relationships between teachers and students and the academic and cultural systems that support this. Student-teacher relationships create the caring and nurturing environment in which our scholars can thrive. However, as we have reflected, we want to acknowledge that we did not always invest enough time and build strong enough systems to ensure that this belief was prioritized, trained, and valued.

To become an increasingly anti-racist organization, we must consider how our disciplinary processes, student culture, and academic approach can lead to stronger student-teacher relationships and more equitable outcomes, particularly for Black and Latinx students. Our systems and policies must support our students’ growth and development on their journey to and through college – and we should decide what to keep, revise, or let go of with that firmly in mind.

In response to feedback from our alumni, students, and leaders, we are going to provide students with more flexibility in how they engage in learning in the classroom and how they interact with each other outside the classroom. We are ensuring our training and systems maximize student engagement toward the ultimate objective of learning, including removing undue focus on things like eye contact and seat posture, and putting greater focus on increasing intellectual student engagement to build confidence within our students. While many Uncommon schools have already moved away from some of the practices we are changing, we want to ensure these shifts are network-wide. Once we can safely return to in-class learning, you will see the following changes:

  • Students will not be asked to fold hands on the desk, and we will eliminate use of the student protocols for listening in class known as STAR and SLANT.
  • During hallway transitions, elementary schools will eliminate use of the student hallway passage protocol known as HALLS, and middle school students will be able to talk and move more freely.
  • Students will have more social time during lunch and we will ensure all elementary school students have daily recess.

School uniforms have been an important part of our school culture since our founding, as they are a visible signal of our school learning community and a way to support equity for students and families in their dress. But we have heard from students and families that some uniform requirements should be modified to allow for increased ease and choice. Beginning this school year, the following changes to our school uniform policy will be implemented:

  • Ties will no longer be required at any grade level.
  • Students will be able to wear black sneakers, not just dress shoes.
  • Students will be able to wear belts and socks of any color.
  • Uniform pants can be purchased from any vendor.

Four years ago, Uncommon made an organizational commitment to reduce suspensions in order to maximize student learning time and we’ve done just that. Over the last four years, the number of suspensions across all Uncommon schools has been cut in half–from 16% to 8%. We will continue this progress by keeping this as an organizational commitment and by:

  • Eliminating detention for minor infractions.
  • Improving collaboration between Social Workers and Deans of Students to better meet the needs of the whole child.
  • Further systematizing the use of alternative steps before suspension.

Finally, we heard from our students, families, staff, and alumni that we need a greater focus on socioemotional well-being, always and especially during this time. To accomplish this, we are continuing regular student wellness checks and ensuring community moments for students, whether school is remote or in-person. We will also be rolling out a series of wellness initiatives this year, led by a new Uncommon Wellness Working Group. Over the course of this year, this group will develop:

  • Weekly resources shared with every school campus for students and teachers.
  • A formal student wellness referral system.
  • K-12 wellness curriculum to be piloted this year and rolled out network-wide in 2021-22.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TRAININGS

Since 1997, professional development has been a foundational component in our commitment to continuous improvement and growth. Our teacher training has long emphasized curriculum, instruction, content knowledge, and classroom management techniques. As we continue to provide our teachers with training on these vital topics, this summer we have also added critical new sessions on relationship-building, culturally responsive teaching, and emotional resilience. This year’s summer training includes:

  • Training teachers and leaders in Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, which focuses on creating learning partnerships and establishing trust, understanding students’ cultural contexts, and developing students as learners.
  • Training all staff on the actions we must take as an organization to be anti-racist, including understanding individual cultural frames of reference and any unconscious/unmitigated bias.
  • Training all school leaders in emotional resilience, so they have the strategic skill set to be more effective in resolving challenges.
  • Training teachers and leaders in conflict de-escalation skills and in ways to identify and manage their own emotions in conflict situations.

These and all other critical staff trainings will be ongoing and embedded in the fabric of our school culture.

CURRICULUM

We continue to remain committed to ensuring our curriculum reflects the diversity, culture, and identities of our students. We reviewed our K-12 curriculum this summer to determine how it can be more culturally responsive and prepare our students to be future changemakers. During the 2019-20 school year, at least half of our K-12 English Language Arts and History curriculum focused on stories of people of color. We will work to institute the following additional curriculum and academic schedule changes during the coming school year:

  • Prioritizing texts with authors and characters of color that address issues relevant to and impacting communities of color, including indigenous voices, or that focus on historical events from diverse cultures and perspectives, especially those of historically marginalized people.
  • Providing our lead lesson planners with additional training and tools to provide a more culturally responsive perspective in creating and developing lessons, as well as creating a stronger feedback mechanism for teachers and students on curriculum.
  • Developing aligned high school history curricula on Latin American Studies, U.S. Post-Reconstruction African-American history, and the African Diaspora.
  • Building a new, weekly “agency” block into middle school academic schedules in grades 6-8 to emphasize discourse and project-based learning.
  • Creating space for high school students in their weekly schedules for whole school or grade community meetings that focus on identity and empowerment.

STRONGER PROCESSES FOR FEEDBACK AND CONCERNS

Hearing from our community in the way we have this summer has been incredibly valuable and we are committed to continuing this moving forward. To ensure everyone feels comfortable sharing feedback and concerns, we will continue twice-yearly staff surveys and we have also created new mechanisms for gathering feedback and advice, including:

  • Conducting surveys of all Uncommon parents and guardians twice annually.
  • Conducting surveys of all high school students twice annually.
  • Forming Student Councils at every middle and high school.
  • Forming Family Councils at all 55 schools by the 2021-22 school year.
  • Increasing alumni engagement through holding small group sessions and by building out our alumni network vision and strategy.

Our commitment to student and staff safety remains our highest priority. We are taking the accounts staff and alumni have shared about negative experiences at Uncommon very seriously. We have undertaken a comprehensive, in-depth review of the accounts and we are actively conducting investigations to follow up on allegations. We are also taking the following steps when we return to school:

  • Ensuring our reporting systems are clear, effective, and comprehensive.
  • Proactively reminding all staff about our reporting procedures and policies at least twice per year.
  • Expanding our anti-harassment training to encompass all staff and continuing to provide managers with specialized trainings.
  • Utilizing regular Uncommon-wide staff surveys to provide additional safe spaces for feedback.

We encourage all members of our Uncommon community to share their concerns via the systems and procedures detailed in our staff and student handbooks or via contact@uncommonschools.org.

OUR ONGOING WORK

Listening and reflecting has strengthened our systems and practices, as well as our resolve to ensure we are always providing students and teachers with a school environment rooted in care, respect, safety, equity, and learning. We know change takes time to fully put into practice and that this is a process which will require our full attention and commitment every day.

To help us further advance our commitment to becoming an increasingly anti-racist organization, we’ve hired a leading organization in DEI and talent work – Promise54 – to engage in a six-month engagement to help us advance our progress on organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion, with a particular focus on our staff. In addition, we are forming school-level DEI teams of staff and students, and a cross-regional DEI advisory group that will work ongoing as part of this initiative. Every Uncommon staff member will receive DEI PD and our schools will hold staff sessions and at least three student-facing sessions.

We are Uncommon because of our community: our phenomenal students who are our reason for being, our amazing staff teachers and leaders who show up every day to love and support our students, our families who entrust us with their children and partner with us every step of the way, and our alumni who are changing the world. We are grateful for you, we appreciate the additional time you have spent with us in the last few weeks to help strengthen our work, and we continue to value your voices.

Continuous improvement is and has always been part of our Uncommon DNA. We are proud of all we have accomplished together since 1997 as well as the many wonderful things that happen between students and teachers in our classrooms every single day, and are confident that they will continue under the new policies and practices we are announcing. This is a time for our community to reflect on what is core to our work, and what should and must evolve. Both sides of that reflection are critical for us to continue our work for our 21,000 students, and the thousands more to come.

We believe that our students have infinite potential and that they deserve a high-quality education that gives them the platform to excel at the highest levels and achieve their dreams. We believe that our leaders and staff are unmatched in their level of skill, love, and dedication. And we believe that our families choose us because they believe in our schools and in our educators. We will continue to hold ourselves accountable – as an organization, and as individuals who make up that organization – to ensure that Uncommon grows stronger from this time, that our school culture is one that is inclusive and supportive, and that each day we continue to help our students thrive.

Brett Peiser
CEO, Uncommon Schools

Julie Jackson
President, Uncommon Schools


Read past letters to the community:
July 2, 2020