ACSA’s Valuing Diversity Award winner Carol Osborne said understanding the experiences of students of color has been crucial to equity work in her district, which adopted its Racial Equity and Inclusion Plan in 2020.
Osborne honors each and every student’s voice
November 1, 2021
Name: Carol Osborne Award: Valuing Diversity Award Title: Associate Superintendent of Learning Support Services, Poway Unified School District
When people questioned the need for Poway Unified School District to have an ethnic studies curriculum, or when people belittled hate speech as just “isolated incidents,” Carol Osborne had something powerful to push back with: the students’ own words.
As this year’s recipient of ACSA’s Valuing Diversity Award, Osborne is adamant that a school leader’s responsibility is to listen to student concerns and make sure that each and every individual student is “valued, seen and heard.”
“You won’t hear me use the words ‘all students,’ because I feel that kids get lost in the ‘all’ — that it becomes like wallpaper and we don’t see it,” she said. “So when I speak about children, I speak about each and every student, because our students are individuals.”
Equity and inclusion were major goals for the Poway Unified School District when Osborne returned as Associate Superintendent of Learning Support Services in 2018. Discipline data had started to shift and the district had begun seeing an increase in hate harassment referrals and racial slurs on school campuses.
Osborne started by inviting principals to observe the experiences of students of color: How are they welcomed onto campus? When there is a discipline incident, are they presumed innocent? Are they called on in class? Are they isolated on the quad during lunch?
In 2020, Osborne invited a school parent committee, called Small and Mighty, to speak to all district leaders regarding their experiences of racism and hopes for their children. This expanded to the creation of Racial Equity Community Conversations across the district in 2020-21.
Then, the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning of 2020 began. Students created an Instagram account to bring awareness to the racism experienced in Poway USD. Osborne connected with them immediately to thank them.
“The focus is truly on elevating humanity through fostering understanding of one another.”
— Carol Osborne, Valuing Diversity Award winner
“What that post did is it allowed us to accelerate work that we were beginning,” she said. “I think the most important piece is talking with our students and our staff of color and understanding what their experience is and has been.”
Osborne and Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps met with principals and Black Student Union leaders who were clear about what needed to change: the adults in schools needed to be educated, discipline needed to be more restorative, and students of color needed to see themselves in texts.
Thanks to the relationships forged with their partners, parents and students, the district was able to bring forth a Racial Equity and Inclusion Plan, which was adopted by the board in October 2020.
Since then, much has been accomplished: Policies have been put in place to increase diversity in hiring; students in high school and middle school have a QR form to anonymously report incidents of hate; and every school in the district has the No Place for Hate program, which focuses on growing students’ capacity to lead anti-racism, anti-bias and anti-bullying efforts at their own campuses.
The district has also launched its Ethnic Studies and Ethnic Literature courses that today boast an enrollment of 644 students.
Darlene V. Willis, Ph.D., the co-founder/executive director of Concerned Parents Alliance/College Bound Programs, said Osborne is to be commended for her “ability to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people without anyone feeling degraded or unappreciated.”
“She has fought hard for underrepresented populations that don’t always have a voice in our predominantly ‘White’ school district, however, her work has not come without personal and professional sacrifices,” Willis wrote in a letter supporting Osborne’s nomination. “She has had to endure threats, name calling and ignorant people who have done their best to stop her efforts but to no avail.”
When working with adults concerned that teaching race is “divisive,” Osborne reminds them that this is about the students and what they want and need.
“The focus is truly on elevating humanity through fostering understanding of one another,” Osborne said. “When we talk about who people are, we need to talk about identity, and our identity is made up of many different aspects, and race is one of those aspects, ethnicity is one of those aspects, gender identity — all of those pieces are part of our identity. And if we can’t talk about that, then we have students who feel invisible. And when kids feel invisible, they’re not safe.”
2021 Valuing Diversity Award winner Carol Osborne.
2021 Valuing Diversity Award winner Carol Osborne.
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