Protesters march from the downtown mall to the Brunswick police station on earlier this summer to demand justice for George Floyd and an end to racism and police brutality. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick school officials recently launched a new equity and diversity initiative that one former Brunswick student said, if done correctly, will “change a lot of lives.” 

Earlier this month, Brunswick Superintendent Phillip Potenziano announced that in his new role he planned to “bring a greater focus on equity and social justice” in the district and launched a district-wide campaign to promote equity, diversity and inclusion within the schools. 

The announcement comes amid national and local protests against systemic racism after the recent deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement have called for an end to police brutality and racism across the board, including in the medical, court and educational systems among others. 

“We’re in transformational times in our country,” Potenziano said, “and education is a microcosm of what’s going on.”

Phillip Potenziano. Contributed photo

The Brunswick schools’ strategic framework for 2016-2021 “illustrates a commitment to equity that has been embedded into the district’s mission,” he said, but it is “clear that we as a school district must elevate and bolster this commitment. … There are many layers to our opportunity to create real change, and they all require deep reflection.” 

Potenziano plans to form a 25-person advisory group made up of parents, teachers, students, alumni, school board members and community members to help guide an equity plan. 

“As much as possible, the composition of the group will include underrepresented members of our community,” he added. 

The group will be tasked with reviewing board policy and procedures, programming, curriculum and assessments, instructional practices, staff recruitment, hiring and retention, student placement, resource allocations, culture and climate.

The power of the group will be somewhat limited. It will not be authorized to investigate individual acts of bias, threat or racism.

The work will officially begin in the fall. 

Maya Lopez, a 2016 Brunswick High School graduate, said the “exciting and necessary” initiative has “enormous potential,” but its success will depend on finding diverse voices to represent the community. 

Seeing that the committee is seeking black, indigenous and other people of color is encouraging and puts her at ease with the initiative she said, because policy changes made “by people who haven’t experienced this specific type of discrimination might not be accurate or could be unintentionally badly implemented,” she said. 

Lopez said she felt very “othered” during her time in the Brunswick schools and that an equity initiative then would have changed her life. 

“I know that there’s no one person to blame within that specific school, but because the (American education) system is oppressive, it would have helped to have something like this at the school to help educate my white peers as well as the teachers… I think that the biggest problem is ignorance, and if we just put in place the right education and the right approach to that education, I think it would change a lot of lives.” 

There’s not enough education surrounding the struggles people of color have gone through beyond slavery, she said. 

“It pretty much feels like we’re invisible as far as education goes.” 

Literature focused on “dead white old guys,” and she said her African American history class left much to be desired. 

The school should also hire a more diverse teaching staff, she said, adding that it would be “an insanely invaluable contribution to the people of color as far as seeing us represented with the school system.” 

Lopez added that in her experience, there is work to be done with the frequency in which students of color are disciplined over white students. 

“I saw that the black kids and the brown kids, me included, were labeled as troubled youth when there were incidents,” she said. “When we were involved we were usually the ones punished while our white peers were not.” 

For now, she said she understands the advisory group still needs to be put together, and that she is hopeful, if still a little skeptical, for positive change. 

One of the first tasks for the group will be to examine the schools’ student demographics, Potenziano said in an interview, and do a deeper analysis of the data and historical and future trends to figure out where they may be headed. 

Brunswick schools are diversifying, if only in seemingly small increments. 

According to data from the school’s Comprehensive Needs Assessment, in the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 44 black or African American students, 63 Asian students, 74 Hispanic or Latino students, six Native American or Alaskan Native students and 122 students who identified as being “one or more races.” There were 2,141 white students.

By October 2019, according to information from the Maine Department of Education, there were increases almost across the board. There were 53 black of African American students, 102 Hispanic or Latino students, 10 Native American or Alaskan Native students and 138 who identified as being “one or more races.” Only the Asian student population decreased, which went from 63 to 42 students. There were 2,071 white students. 

This means that in 2016-17, 12.6% of the Brunswick student body population was non-white, and by 2019, that had increased to 14.2%. 

Potenziano has experience working on diversity and anti-racism initiatives and served most recently as assistant superintendent and then interim superintendent in Regional School Unit 21, which made headlines for its handling of multiple racist incidents before his tenure. 

He helped the district move forward and said he is proud of the work he did, but that coronavirus interrupted some of the heavier lifting pieces that were scheduled for the end of the year. 

As a newcomer to Brunswick, he plans to start slowly, rather than coming in and making changes too quickly, despite his passion for the issue. 

“I’m reminding the community that it’s not a sprint, it’s more of a marathon, not a check the box kind of approach,” he said. “It will take time and may very well be painful, as any self-examination process is, but it may also bring up a lot of positives.” 

Aside from the group’s work, the school administration will also work with the Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants to take the Intercultural Development Inventory, the “premier instrument used nationally and internationally to measure a group’s and individual’s abilities (skillsets and mindsets) to bridge effectively across cultural differences so as to create an inclusive school environment,” Potenziano said in a release. The school board will also participate in training led by the group this fall. 

“As a district and a community, we must work to create a more just and equitable school system,” he said. “Our students deserve nothing less.” 

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