In her first few months in the Watertown Public Schools, the new Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has met with a wide range of people in town to become familiar with the school district and the community, and to build relationships with other departments and organizations in Watertown.
The district created the new position in response to reports of students who had experienced racial bias and/or bullying in the Watertown Schools. One such incident was reported on by a local TV news station. The Watertown Schools have hired an outside group to conduct an equity audit, and hired Dr. Kimberlee Henry as the first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Superintendent Dede Galdston said Watertown, and Henry in particular, has taken on the issues of equity and inclusion in a way that has not been seen in many other communities in Massachusetts.
“This is a new role for Watertown, a new role across the state,” Galdston said. “We are forging together to figure out how this works in Watertown, because there really isn’t a blueprint,” Galdston said. “I appreciate Dr. Henry stepping in.”
Henry officially started working in Watertown on July 1, and Tuesday night she told the School Committee it has been a whirlwind since she signed the contract with the WPS. She has spent much of her first few months meeting with a wide range of people in town.
“Students have stepped up to have conversations, members of the community whose children have already gone through and graduated, whose grandchildren have come through the system,” Henry said. “Really a wide range of experiences have been shared. In all of those conversations there have been very positive things and in many of them there have been some very difficult things to hear and manage.”
She added that Galdston has been supportive of her work, which requires “having difficult conversations about ourselves and about each other.”
“Being a new person, it is hard to say to your boss, ‘I heard something today, are you sure you want to hear it?'” Henry said. “She has been able to take in the concerns, process them with me, and try to come up with actionable steps.”
Some of the people she has met with include teachers and staff, who are eager and willing to work with her, Henry said. She has received questions not only about how to engage in the classrooms but also as a coach on the athletic fields and spaces.
Henry said she does not see a need to totally get rid of the curriculum and put in a new one, for instance, but make adjustments.
“We should be including varying perspectives in our lessons, so I am not asking anyone to overhaul their lessons. You could simply add a perspective to what you are doing,” Henry said.
One challenge that Henry said she has identified is that some groups do not have a good support system.
“We have some decent supports for (English Language Learner) students, but in terms of families of color and students of color, the supports are few and far between,” Henry said.
The Watertown Schools also seeks to find a way to make the teacher staff and school employees more diverse. Henry is working with the director of Human Resources on strategies for posting positions and recruiting candidates.
Henry has also started to build relationships with other departments in Watertown.
“I have been working with the Police Department to try to strengthen our relations across departments and begin to think about what other community agencies and organizations can be a benefit to our students as we go through the equity audit,” Henry said.
Another part of the Equity Audit, which is being led by the Public Consulting Group, will be listening sessions for various groups in the district and community, including students, parents, and staff.
“I really look forward to people having the opportunity to share their perspectives in a confidential way and I really ask people to be open and honest in those forums so we can have as much understanding and information collected so we can have a strategic plan with our equity work moving forward,” Henry said.
The effort will be a long one, Henry told the School Committee, and she said it is important not to get discouraged.
“We are in it together. We can falter, we can make mistakes,” Henry said. “But the point is we need to try. Even if we trip along the way, we need to make the necessary steps for kids and for families. And then ongoing, we need to find ways to celebrate the small wins, in addition to the drawn out process, because systemic change takes time, but every step is so valuable and necessary.”
School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said Henry has an important role.
“While this is work for everyone it is really important that you are there to lead and guide,” Foley said. “It gives it direction. It gives it form. I appreciate the efforts. I appreciate the vision.”
School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said she is eager to see how Henry’s work progresses.
“I am really excited that so much attention is being given to work that needs to be done in the district,” Mosca said. “I appreciate how you laid out a plan. I feel it is a clear path — how the work is going to develop in the district.”
School Committee member Amy Donohue said she is looking forward to meeting with Henry, and said she is thrilled to hear that staff and even coaches have reached out to her.
“It is very important across the whole district for people to feel comfortable speaking with you. And I like how you identified that it is important to celebrate small wins,” Donohue said. “We have a lot of work to do, and identifying that we are making progress is important.”
Dr. Kimberlee Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-926-7700