WATERTOWN — “Even if every single student in your district looked exactly alike, your district would still have diversity, equity and inclusions to address.”
These words were spoken by Gwendolyn Webber-McLeod, president and CEO of Gwen, Inc., at the Watertown City School District’s monthly Board of Education meeting held Tuesday night at Case Middle School and streamed live on YouTube.
Those three words — diversity, equity and inclusion — came up time and again Tuesday night during the presentation by Mrs. Webber-McLeod, the district’s third-party diversity consultant.
Following through on an agreement with the state attorney general’s office after an investigation into a May 2019 fourth-grade lesson plan at North Elementary School, which included a re-enactment of a slave auction found to have “had a profoundly negative effect on all students present,” the district has been working with Mrs. Webber-McLeod to promote more inclusive classrooms.
“When this opportunity presented itself to me, I was very excited to have the opportunity to come home and do this work,” Mrs. Webber-McLeod said. “...I was really thrilled to have the opportunity to support a local school district as it addresses what I would offer for your consideration is one of the most important education issues for you to consider.”
The investigation by the attorney general’s office concluded that on May 18, 2019, during a lesson unrelated to slavery, a teacher, identified as Patricia Bailey, held a simulated slave auction in which two Black students were bid on and sold to other students. The students were instructed to call the winning bidders “master” and take the bidders’ surnames.
The teacher further told the Black students they should not try to escape “because they would be chased down and violence done to them,” according to the agreement between the attorney general’s office and the district.
“When that happened, immediately we felt the need as a district to reach out and see how we could do better with diversity, equity and inclusion,” said District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr during her introduction of Mrs. Webber-McLeod. “...we can be the district that people look to and be proud of for celebrating diversity, being inclusive and making sure that we’re being equitable.”
According to her biography, Mrs. Webber-McLeod has more than 30 years of experience in leadership development, facilitation, strategic planning and the development of effective coalitions and collaborations.
Mrs. Webber-McLeod, who graduated from Carthage Central High School in 1974 and SUNY Potsdam in 1978, said after her parents, Barbara Webber and the late Lt. Col. Charles E. Webber, were stationed at Fort Drum in 1968, she’s considered either Black River or Watertown as her home.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Webber-McLeod gave a project overview of the city school district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan and introduced other members of her team. For 2020, as in the future, her goals for the district were clearly stated: identify diversity, equity and inclusion challenges in the district; create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee; and develop a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan to be implemented by the district.
“I can make this promise to you,” she said as she addressed the gathered members of the BOE, “that my company will do our very best to work with these very bright, talented leaders you have here, to create something that truly allows you to continually graduate diverse students that go out into the world and are successful.”
The next Watertown City School Board meeting is set for Oct. 6 at H.T. Wiley Intermediate School beginning at 6 p.m.