Hackely’s K-12 community gathered to celebrate Lunar New Year.

Creating Inclusive Community

by Michael C. Wirtz, Head of School, Hackley School

“Hackley challenges students to grow in character, scholarship, and accomplishment, to offer unreserved effort, and to learn from the varying perspectives and backgrounds in our community and the world.”

The last phrase of Hackley’s mission — “to learn from the varying perspectives and backgrounds in our community and the world” — is the most important and the most challenging for us individually and as a school. The wording implies respect, understanding, empathy, and curiosity about difference. It urges us to celebrate the unique values, identities, and characteristics of each individual that makes up the community, thereby strengthening the whole. It is our call to be a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school.

At Hackley, when we talk about diversity, we acknowledge and celebrate those salient aspects of a person’s identity that make us all different from one another based on how they are expressed (e.g. race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion). Every individual is included when we talk about the diversity of the school because we are all different from one another; one person cannot be said to be “diverse” as the word describes a comparison to one another. We know that the diversity of the school community is especially important to current and prospective families. Through many conversations with current and prospective families during the admission process, as well as almost 1400 survey responses completed during 2017–2018 as part of the strategic planning process, we know that the diversity of Hackley’s student body is considered a differentiator and signature strength. Many families are attracted to Hackley over other options because of the diversity reflected in the school.

Importantly, diversity at Hackley encompasses more than identity (“backgrounds”) and it requires that we embrace the value that arises in a diverse community: differences in experiences, opinions, and thought (“perspectives”) that enrich the learning environment for everyone. In a diverse learning community, students are exposed to a broader range of ideas, challenging them to think deeply and differently, considering and seeing the world through new lenses. To remain relevant in the lives of our current students and those who will follow, Hackley must provide opportunities to examine complex issues from all sides. It is not our job to tell students what to think, but rather to teach them how to ask questions, gather the necessary information, and then formulate their own thoughts. The diversity of our community — students and employees — is essential to doing this well.

Hackley’s K-12 community launched 2019 with the shared understanding that community wellness depends on working together and helping each other.

While we celebrate the diversity present within the student body as a strength, we acknowledge that our faculty does not yet mirror this same diversity. Just as we seek to provide strong male and female adult role models for our male and female students, strong athletic role models and coaches for our athletes, and inspiring writers, artists, and researchers for our scholars, it is important to acknowledge and support the development and role modeling needs of underrepresented student populations, such as our black, Latino, LGTBQ, Middle Eastern, Asian, and South Asian students. We seek to hire the best candidate for every open position, giving careful consideration to the ways in which each potential hire will enrich and support the broader needs of the school. Hackley believes in a model of faculty engagement that promotes full immersion in the community, whether through coaching, overseeing student activities and clubs, or simply attending student performances and competitions. In these ways and so many more, faculty demonstrate a commitment to their students that extends beyond academics (e.g. learning algebra, writing a research paper, creating a piece of visual art) and includes their growth as people. Families who choose Hackley understand and value the ways in which the influence of great teachers remains with students and can change the course of a life. To best support our students, Hackley must continue to diversify our faculty to better reflect the diversity of our families.

Being a diverse community is one aspect of the challenge issued by our mission statement. Moving beyond diversity, it is critical that we be an inclusive community. For individuals who, for one reason or another, feel underrepresented within a larger community, the aspects of their identity that make them different are salient, whether that be race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender identity, physical ability, or sexual preference. Imagine attending a party where you are somehow very different from the other guests. Perhaps you are under-dressed or are not easily able to contribute to conversations for lack of a shared background. Maybe you do not share a common perspective with the other attendees. Although you engage in the party, you remain keenly aware of your difference, of the fact that something about you did not quite fit with the others, and that fact diminishes your experience. If the other attendees welcome you, get to know you, and affirm your difference, you stand to have a more positive experience. You feel validated and included. You belong. At Hackley and at schools like ours, there are students, families, and employees who experience both sides of this “party” every day and for different reasons. Being an inclusive community requires us to ensure that all of our members feel seen and valued for the diversity they contribute, diversity that, as stated previously, enriches everyone’s experience. If we fail to be inclusive, we risk not truly learning from one another.

One of the important ways in which we approach inclusivity is to create moments for students to pause and examine complex issues that span disciplines and the classroom experience. We view these not as additional, but as essential. For instance, last year in first grade, students read Shades of People and The Color of Us before engaging in a hands-on activity to create paint shades that matched their own skin tone and help give them language about differences. (We later repeated this exercise with parents at a Community Connections event last year, titled 64 Colors in the Crayola Box. Which One Is Me?). In October, the Hackley Parents’ Association (HPA) teamed up with the Middle School administration to bring author David Flood to campus to speak with parents and students, sharing his message about the importance of creating an inclusive community. This week the entire K-12 community came together to celebrate Lunar New Year, learning about the tradition and cultural practices behind this holiday. Later in the week, Hackley Upper School students will experience Prayers for the People, a dramatic recitation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In February, LaChanze Gooding P ’18, ’19, Tony Award-winning actress, will speak as the 2018–2019 W. E. B. Dubois Lecture Series speaker, an endowed series established by the HPA and the Hackley Alumni Association in 2007.

Each of these and other programmatic offerings seek to foster understanding and empathy amongst our students, helping them continue to grow in moral character. Hackley welcomes the broader engagement of the community in this work. The HPA hosts several Community Connections events each year, giving parents the opportunity to understand the nature of these conversations and the ongoing efforts within the school. (The next Community Connections event is on February 6 at 7:00 PM in Allen Memorial Hall with the theme “Celebrating Women in Leadership.”) Additionally, there are volunteer options for parents to engage in such programming, including the Building Bridges program in the Lower School and (in the years in which it is offered) the Trip Around the World. Programs such as these all serve Hackley’s mission and support the Portrait of a Graduate, as articulated by the habits of character:

  • Treat others with respect, honesty, and generosity in thought, word, and action
  • Act with humility, integrity, and sense of responsibility toward the greater good
  • Respect and strive to understand varying backgrounds and perspectives, fostering empathy, friendships, and community

Elements of today’s school culture and our priorities around this work were sown during Hackley’s founding. Hackley grew from the teachings of the Unitarian Church and — for their time — the progressive ideas of its early trustees. Samuel A. Eliot, the second President of Hackley’s Board of Trustees, was one of the founders of the NAACP and the Urban League. That the school’s founding leaders were thinking about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the early 1900’s — and that we continue to address them today — demonstrates that Hackley’s efforts to be inclusive can never be deemed complete.

Like most independent schools and the larger society in which they operate, the path from diversity to inclusivity has not always been smooth. While many respondents to our survey work last year noted an appreciation for Hackley’s diversity, just as many cited efforts in this area as a weakness. I hear from students in underrepresented populations that they would like to see a more diverse faculty and greater understanding from their peers about the experience of not being in the majority. I receive questions from alumni, asking about whether it is easier to be “different” today versus when they were at Hackley. I speak with parents, who do not always understand what we are trying to accomplish. To be the inclusive community we aim to be, we need to hear these voices, honor their experiences in and with the school, and put sustained and strategic effort into growing stronger by addressing these issues head on.

To better understand where Hackley is on that journey, the Board of Trustees asked me to review and report back on diversity, equity, and inclusion work during the 2017–2018 school year. I assembled the Task Force on Community and Inclusivity, a group of faculty, staff, administrators, parents, trustees, and alumni to collect information on curriculum and professional development, hiring and governance, and community programming. While there were many strengths noted, several key findings emerged from that process that provided areas for continued effort, including the need to create dedicated time and sustained programming to raise these topics with students, further professional development for faculty and staff, and the development of the importance and understanding of the role of this work within the school.

Following this report, Hackley’s Leadership Team began the 2018–2019 school year by engaging Dr. Derrick Gay to facilitate a workshop around multicultural competencies, skills deemed essential for success in an increasingly global and competitive world. Dr. Gay has done extensive work in this field, consulting with leading independent schools, businesses, and educational entities around the world. In working with the Leadership Team, he framed student fluency and comfort with aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion as necessary skills for college, career, and life. He pointed to the changing demographics of the country, the increasingly globalized economy, and many research studies about the ways in which diverse teams better address complex problems. His workshop provided a common language for the school’s leadership, helping ground the group in the tangible connection to our students’ future success as they develop skills to work within diverse teams. Dr. Gay will return to work with a subset of faculty and staff throughout the year, as they articulate an overarching statement of purpose for this work. That statement, a recommendation from the Task Force on Community and Inclusivity, will serve as a touchstone, guiding subsequent programming and professional development. I look forward to sharing it with the community prior to seeking its endorsement by the Board of Trustees next school year.

These efforts — and those still to come — are part of an ongoing process to ensure that Hackley creates a diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning environment, one that delivers on our mission, is consistent with our values, and best prepares our students for success on and beyond the Hilltop. By doing so, we seek to validate one another and support all those individuals that come together to create a community. This work, while challenging, is critical to the needs of all our students, their education, their development, and their preparation for an increasingly diverse and complex future. I hope you will join with me on this journey.