The work to build inclusive independent school communities has taken on a pronounced sense of urgency since the nationwide racial reckoning during the summer of 2020. However, this urgency hasn’t always led to clear next steps or action items for independent school partners.
Our analysis found that while most K-12 institutions issued statements on racial justice, just 42% of these statements included long-term actions. Furthermore, a recent EAB survey found that just two out of 71 heads of school explicitly indicated that they had rethought their approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, indicating this work may not be front and center for independent school leaders. As we prepare for the 2021-22 school year, it is imperative to turn your school’s sentiments on promoting equity and inclusion into action.
To learn about how one head of school employed a proactive approach to engaging her Board of Trustees in the school’s efforts to promote a sense of community belonging, we sat down with the head of Ravenscroft School, Doreen Kelly.
Over the course of her eighteen years at Ravenscroft, a PreK-12 independent school in Raleigh, North Carolina, Doreen has led her community with humility and curiosity to work on creating an inclusive environment for all students. Her approach to building belonging focuses on three core tenets:
- Connecting inclusivity to the school’s mission and values
- Leading from a place of curiosity to engage board members
- Incorporating student voice to illustrate impact
These core tenets can be used to support efforts to promote inclusivity and belonging at any independent school. Below is my conversation with Doreen to discuss how she brought these principles to life. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Mela Still (MS): How did you begin building a culture of belonging at Ravenscroft?
Doreen Kelly (DK): This work is a journey and one must respect that everyone enters the journey from a different place. You have to bring members of your community along –including your board – respect their place of entry, and honor that we need to “go slow to go fast,” as we do our “belonging work.”
MS: Why use the word “belonging”? What does that mean to you?
DK: For us, using “belonging” is rooted in our mission statement, which reads, “The Ravenscroft community, guided by our legacy of excellence, nurtures individual potential and prepares students to thrive in a complex and interdependent world.”
Because we're rooted in that very intentional language in our mission and DEI statement, we are aspiring to be an environment where everyone feels like they belong. We also recognize that we are not a community built on sameness and individuals come with different perspectives; we desire to foster empathetic and curious relationships across difference. We don’t always get it right or do it well enough. The work is ongoing and does not have an end point.
MS: Yes, we understand you used this focus on promoting belonging to engage the board in learning about transgender students years ago. Can you tell us a little more about that process?
DK: With the board, I focused more on what was being asked of me more than what I was asking them to do, when I intentionally began this work eight years ago.
I knew that as a non-sectarian school, rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, that it was highly probable, statistically, that we might have a transgender student attend. It was not an “if,” but a “when.” So, I reached out to the board and said “I’m curious, if this were to come about, what would your expectations be of me as a leader? Would you expect me to counsel that family out? I’m your sole employee and this is an important generative question for us to discuss.”
The board replied, “Absolutely not. We would never want you to automatically counsel a kid out. We would want you to work with your team to determine how we, as a school, could best meet that child’s needs.”
My reply to that was, “Ok, that sounds good, but none of us are trained!” So, we invited an expert in from Duke University to help us explore the complexities of the trans experience emotionally, socially, and physically. We learned a whole new vocabulary and introduced language at the governance level so that we could begin to plan. Because of this work in educating ourselves, our eyes were opened to the psychological and physical complexity of the trans student experience. Then, we shifted to talking about the role of governance and next steps. The Board was terrific in being clear we would never make this about one child.
We used our learning to become informed advocates for our students. This was not from a place of activism, rather from a place of advocacy. I know my role is to advocate for all students – that is my most effective “lane.”
MS: So, you spent about a year learning alongside the board to feel prepared to be informed advocates. Did this upfront work pay off?
DK: Oh yes. Less than 12 months later, a student and their family let us know that they are trans. Because we had done so much learning ahead of time, laid the groundwork, and begun conversations in the abstract we were prepared to invite the family in from a place of support as they navigated the complex journey together.
Throughout this experience it was important to me, as a leader, to be willing to sit in discomfort and recognize what I had to learn. It is important to be self-aware so that you’re not driving situations to perfection or a clear conclusion. As I said earlier: this work is a journey and building our capacity to be respectful, culturally inclusive, and empathetic are important.
MS: Absolutely. The challenge is that a journey takes time. How do you keep the board moving forward?
DK: This is not quick work. It is important to maintain intentional and ongoing training in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the board level. It means taking the time to learn how your board stays engaged, how to diversify the board itself, and how to continue to invite the board into ongoing courageous conversations. It also means staying open to what the board can teach you as a leader. We have amazing board members with professional and life experiences that can be so helpful.
MS: That is a great point. How do you keep the board invested in this ongoing training?
DK: It’s really compelling for a board to hear stories directly from the students, to learn from their experiences. That would be my recommendation for heads – to ensure you are getting student voices in front of the board. It takes some confidence and trust in yourself to open that window, but it’s worthwhile. Towards the very beginning of our diversity and inclusion journey I brought the board a letter from a student who was able to speak to his experience over a lifetime at Ravenscroft; he detailed the improvements to the school and where we still have work to do. This student was able to challenge the board as an alum and say, “Well done Ravenscroft, but not done yet.”
We put that line up in front of the board during our retreat. Reading that letter was emotional and impactful to the board and created a sense of urgency for them. Ultimately, their charge as a board is to set the vision and direction of our school that supports the duty and care of every student here. However, not every board member has direct connections to our current students, so it is the job of the head of school to get the perspectives of the students into the room with the board. As one long term board member reminds us, “It’s all about the kids.”
MS: What advice would you share with heads of school beginning this journey toward creating a more inclusive community?
DK: Once again, heads of school should begin from a place of curiosity and humility. They should start with open-ended questions and then listen carefully to the responses. This work cannot be done from the outside in, it must be done from the inside out – it’s culture work. My advice: take time to listen deeply in-between the lines and have the courage to say, “tell me more.” Hold that space of respect and curiosity for the person in front of you, especially when they hold positions that differ.
How the pandemic is causing heads to reimagine independent schools
See the results from our survey of 80+ independent school leaders