Every February since 1976, American presidents have designated February as Black History Month in recognition of the achievements of African Americans and to celebrate their role in our country’s history. I cannot think of a time when this has been more poignant. I believe we are at a crossroads in our country – we can choose acceptance and inclusion, or we can allow racism and prejudice to grow and fester until they destroy the very principle of equality upon which our nation was founded.

Phil Potenziano is the superintendent of Brunswick School Department. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilPotenziano and Instagram at Brunswickmesup.

This year, I created the Superintendent’s Steering Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This is one of my biggest undertakings since joining this school system. Comprised of representatives from the student body, staff, alumni, parents, community members and municipal elected officials, this committee is charged with examining all facets of our system – from the curriculum, assessment and classroom management to budget and resource allocation – and then developing a slate of recommendations for the Brunswick superintendent and school board.

It is a weighty task. Simply identifying areas that need improvement, or perhaps complete overhaul, will take time. Determining changes, shifts, initiatives and a timeline will be a process that requires steadfast tenacity. But I believe we are up to the challenge.

Committee members will serve two or more years, and the committee will meet at least six times each year. We have, in fact, already met three times, focusing on a broad range of topics, including cultural differences such as food, dress, celebrations, as well as how to achieve true equity by reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails through interruption of practices that negatively impact diverse students in our schools.

A particular focus of our work has been on understanding implicit bias. This is when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. There are many examples of this. For example, did you know that:

• Scientists have been found to rate potential lab technicians lower and plan to pay them less if the potential technicians are women.

• Taller employees receive higher wages than their shorter counterparts.

• Doctors treat patients differently when the patients are overweight.

• NBA referees that are white have been found to call more fouls on Black players, and Black referees call more fouls on white players.

• When qualifications are equal (credit score, financial history, income, etc.), Black and Hispanic people are less likely to be approved for mortgages.

If these biases are happening outside of schools, can you imagine the range of biases our students are experiencing in school? This committee is committed to identifying all areas – including but not limited to racial diversity – that need change, finding real solutions and transforming Brunswick schools.

This school system is a microcosm of our state and our country. If we transform our school system, imagine how far that impact can reach.

Let us celebrate Black History Month with unparalleled gusto. By genuinely appreciating the past contributions of African Americans, perhaps we can recognize once and for all their role in our country’s future.

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