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DeKalb Public Schools hires first-ever director of diversity, equity & inclusion

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Peter Medlin
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Amonaquenette Parker

Four years ago, DeKalb Public Schools unveiled a Diversity Plan. It was the culmination of years-worth of work in an increasingly more and more diverse district. The pandemic was a wrench in the plans, but it led DeKalb to hire its first-ever Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

Fifteen years ago, when Amonaquenette Parker moved to DeKalb to teach, her best friend was a little concerned for her.

“I was told by my best friend who was an educator in another city, ‘Girl, are you crazy? It’s gonna be hard being a Black person in DeKalb,’” she said.

It didn’t stop her from moving and setting down roots for her family -- and she’s not alone. Every single year since 2008, the number of Black students in DeKalb has gone up. The school district now has twice as many Black students as when she arrived. But it’s something she’s thought about since in every position she’s been in. How can DeKalb be more welcoming and inclusive?

She’s been a teacher welcoming new students of color –- at times one of the only Black teachers they may have. She’s been a principal making sure new families feel comfortable and helping recruit fellow teachers of color to come to DeKalb like she did. And now she’s leading these conversations as the district’s Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.

Parker is the point-person for equity initiatives outlined in the Diversity Plan. Some of the plan’s goals are tangible, like increasing the number of teachers of color in the district. Others are a little more difficult to define, like “strengthening district and school unity and collaboration.”

Some of those plans have been hindered by the pandemic. Others, they just haven’t made much progress. For example, in the four years since the Diversity Plan launched, teacher demographics haven’t changed much at all.

Despite the lack of a district-wide shift, Parker says it was a top priority for her as principal at Huntley Middle School. It was a legacy she wanted to leave that she wrote down in her first month on the job.

“When I came to Huntley Middle School, there were three people: myself, the principal at that time and then a counselor. That was it,” said Parker. “When I was looking at some of the data just this past week, there were like 17 people of color.”

But she says the new job doesn’t have her shut in an office every day compiling data and building PowerPoints for professional development training. Her work touches every part of the district.

And she gets to step out into the community. She’s already had the chance. A recent community meeting hit home how crucial student voices are. There was a question about food waste at a breakfast program that could maybe be fixed by simply offering students water instead of milk or juice.

“He said ‘you're teaching us not to waste food, to take care of our planet, to take care of our future,’” said Parker. “And then it's like, ‘Well, what about water?’ ‘Oh, yeah, we would drink water.’ Why didn't we think of that?”

She’s also pulled in student perspectives to rewrite the student handbook.

“We didn't just get the students who teachers recommend. We got that kid or that parent who has been written up a lot of times. That kid that will be able to say, ‘You gave me an in-school suspension for that. It really didn’t even make a difference to me. I'm really proud of that,” she said.

Sometimes her work does mean analyzing data and getting into the nitty-gritty of student outcomes. The other day, she sat in on a meeting about 6th-grade enrollment and if having too many students will force some of them to have to move to a different school.

“Having conversations about the fairness to a family that we have welcomed to our community. [They’ve] been here less than three weeks and now we're saying we're gonna have to overflow you,” she said. “Even though you've gotten in the car, you drove your kids to their school, and you say, look at your school! That's where you're gonna go! Now, we're having a conversation about, ‘Hey, we're kind of tight in that grade. Are we gonna switch [their school]? That lies in this position.”

Parker says, even though COVID did make reaching some goals more difficult, they have made significant steps with their Diversity Plan.

For one, it was a key reason their second-year superintendent, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, chose DeKalb. She says they’ve also established a multi-lingual ‘Parent University’ program to empower Latino families.

Even with success stories like Parent University, she says the work is never done. They recently heard that some Arabic-speaking families wanted to feel more included.

“Not all schools send out all the information in Arabic. Even if just one family’s home language is Arabic, we should be communicating,” said Parker.

But sometimes the goals in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion aren’t as straightforward as "just include Arabic" or "hire more teachers of color." It’s about making sure everyone in the district is on the same page when it comes to making students feel welcome.

“A lot of times people hear the word diversity and equity and go ‘Ah, that scares me! What are you trying to say?’" she said. "But really it's, like, doing the right thing."

Parker says it’s a challenge in a community as culturally diverse as DeKalb -- “where urban meets rural” -- as she likes to say. But she says that diversity is a strength and makes her work all the more important.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.