By Susan Riemer
For The Beachcomber
The island’s public schools will work to strengthen their racial equity initiatives as early as this fall thanks to a large grant to the Vashon Schools Foundation.
The Foundation, which has supported the Vashon Island School District for the last decade, recently announced that an anonymous donor had pledged $50,000 to the foundation over the next two years. The first $25,000 will be available for the 2020-21 school year. The donor designated these funds for the Racial Equity in Schools Initiative and specified that if racial equity work is fully funded with at least $15,000, the district may use the remainder to support mental health programs in the schools.
The news of the financial gift came at a time when people across the country are addressing systemic racism — and at a time when the district is facing budgetary challenges. Superintendent Slade McSheehy said he was surprised when he learned of the donation and that its timing could not have been better.
“I had just sent an email to some of my staff about being tighter with budgets and resources for our racial equity work. It was providence that this happened at this time,” he said, expressing gratitude for the gift. “Our district is certainly going to prioritize racial equity in this upcoming school year in our limited opening.”
The school district began its racial equity work in 2016. Since McSheehy joined the district in 2018, racial equity leadership teams at each school have developed initiatives for their students and teachers. McSheehy said that he had received a proposal from the high school for the next school year, but initially did not have adequate funding for it out of the $10,000 allocated district-wide. Now with this gift, he will ask the other schools to create proposals as well.
“We are going to be more organized around needs and making the proposals student-centered and trying to match up the resources with needs,” he said.
The main goal of the board’s racial equity policy, McSheehy said, is to remove race as a determining factor in student achievement.
Currently, 76% of district students are white; 13% are Latino or Hispanic, and 8% are two or more races.
The district is working to create a stronger sense of belonging for students of color, a significant measure that district surveys show is too low.
“My belief is that if students feel they belong, they will make stronger academic achievement gains,” McSheehy said.
Efforts include raising staff awareness about unconscious bias, adopting culturally diverse instructional materials and supporting a new student group called Racial Equity Pact.
McSheehy noted that the recent donation will not only allow the district to expand its racial equity work but also to evaluate how effective that work is.
“We will be able to see if our interventions and strategies are having any impacts,” he said.
“We are certainly doing a lot, but what I don’t know is if we are getting any results.”
While the donor will allow some of the funding to be used for mental health supports, McSheehy said he expects it will all go to racial equity work. He noted that through community partners, including Neighborcare, Vashon Youth & Family Services and The DOVE Project, the district has many resources for social and emotional student support. He also encouraged additional donations for racial equity work.
“This is a great opportunity to take this work forward and at a faster pace. The more people that help, the more we can do,” he said.
The Vashon Schools Foundation is in the midst of its annual fundraising campaign. President Beth Lyndsay said that the board had been braced for a difficult year, given the pandemic. Instead, foundation board members have been gratified to receive a $15,000 donation earlier this year, along with this recent donation.
“Two donations in just a few months … is really heartening. People who can give are stepping up and doing so, and it means so much,” she said.
Unless designated otherwise, additional donations to the foundation will go to expanding school library collections, K-12 STEM and the Citizen Science Partnership with the Vashon Nature Center, and the Chautauqua Spanish Intern Program, among other areas.
For more information about the foundation and to donate, see vashonschoolsfoundation.org.
Susan Riemer is the Communications Specialist for the Vashon Island School District and a former editor of The Beachcomber.