As Newton schools respond to claims the community is unwelcoming to students of color, Kathy Lopes, who recently became the district’s first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, said she plans to ensure all families feel supported and to help teachers and students take an active stance against racism.
“I think representation is incredibly important,” Lopes said in an interview discussing her goals for the 2020-21 school year. “How do we make sure our material that we’re teaching, and those who are teaching the material, are representative of the diversity of the community?”
Lopes comes to Newton schools from a background in social work and academia. She worked at schools in Washington, D.C., and at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. More recently, she has been an advisor and adjunct professor at Simmons University.
Her introduction to Newton’s schools, she said, came while working at the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. The organization runs a program known as METCO that enrolls Boston students of color in suburban, predominantly white districts, including Newton.
Julie McDonough, a spokesperson for Newton Public Schools, said in an e-mail the district has made improving diversity, equity, and inclusion a goal for several years, but decided the effort had become urgent enough it should be led by a full-time staff member.
“Our entire leadership team is responsible for addressing issues such as Anti-racism, but it is helpful to have one person who is responsible for ensuring that our efforts are focused, thoughtful and relevant,” McDonough said. “Kathy brings a combination of rich leadership experience, and knowledge and passion for the work.”
Lopes said she’s been meeting with administrators, principals and community members to better understand how Newton schools can be more inclusive. Important steps could include hiring a more diverse staff and teaching a more diverse curriculum, she said, as well as creating training on topics such as racial identity development, implicit bias, and social-emotional learning.
Lopes said she also wants to collaborate with community groups such as Families Organizing for Racial Justice, a coalition of Newton families, and she spoke at the organization’s welcome-back meeting last month.
“I see myself supporting schools when incidents happen or national news kind of shakes us to our core,” Lopes said. “Just making sure that the community is present for our students and families who are emotionally impacted and that we’re standing clear in our values.”
Tamika Olszewski, a board member of Families Organizing for Racial Justice and Newton School Committee member for Ward 4, said many parents are excited about Lopes' position. Olszewski has twins at Burr Elementary School who currently are learning remotely, she said.
“We’re just hoping that she gets all the support that she needs from the district,” Olszewski said, speaking for members of Families Organizing for Racial Justice. “We’re primed to support her and champion the work that she’s doing, just because it’s so needed and has been an identified need for a number of years.”
Lopes said she is aware of concerns over the equity of the district’s reopening plan. Community members have questioned whether students who opt to learn remotely will receive the same quality of education as students who attend classes at least partly in person.
“It’s such a large community, such a large district with varying needs, that you’re going to get all different perspectives,” Lopes said of the reopening plan. “We’re doing our best to make decisions that provide the most equity and access to all — and particularly, those who have been historically marginalized to make sure that they’re not left out of this process.”
The district also was criticized in a letter signed by hundreds of alumni who called its schools a toxic environment for people of color, The Boston Globe reported last month. The letter, addressed to Newton leaders, said the city “needs an educational system that reflects its professed values.”
In an e-mail, Lopes said it’s important Newton community members “feel empowered to share their experiences and that they are validated.” The stories shared in the letter, she said, give the district “a better understanding” of how best to create a culture that is welcoming to all.
About 61 percent of students in Newton public schools last year were white, according to data from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Roughly 19 percent were Asian, more than 7 percent were Latino, more than 4 percent were Black, and 7 percent were of more than one racial background.
The district’s full-time staff was about 87 percent white last year, state data shows, with more than 4 percent being Asian, about 3 percent Latino, about 4 percent Black, and just more than 1 percent of more than one racial background.
An important part of Lopes' job, Olszewski said, will be helping teachers and staff be antiracist in their classrooms and school communities.
“I think for teachers there’s a courage that comes with this,” Olszewski said. “There’s the courage of actually being willing to call out a microaggression in the moment and being able to say, ‘OK, we’re going to tackle this particular book. It’s going to have some challenging themes. And not only am I willing to do it, but I want you to be willing to do it, too.’”
Lopes said her thinking on antiracism is aligned with the work of bestselling author and director of Boston University’s new Center for Antiracist Research Ibram X. Kendi. To break down barriers for marginalized groups, Lopes said, some “protocols and policies” that have historically benefited others might have to be undone.
“We have a community where I think a majority of people would say, ‘I’m not racist, and I’m not intentionally, personally causing harm,’” she said. “But to be an antiracist is, ‘How am I actively participating in a structure that causes harm — and unknowingly, sometimes?’”