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In light of district’s growing diversity, staff works to educate, celebrate

District mirrors national trends of increasing diversity

Byron Center — Before the pandemic and momentum surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement began to make headlines, Byron Center administrators recognized the need to be proactive about increased diversity in the district.

Each year more children of color are enrolling in the district, located in a predominately white, conservative community. Countryside Elementary Principal Jolynne Knowlton knew efforts were needed to welcome them as a valued part of the school system. She heads the Diversity Committee, formed in 2018. The group has spent the last two-and-a-half years not only recognizing and celebrating diversity in every school building, but facilitating conversations, offering training and resources and spurring dialogue.

Now, Knowlton sees even more how relevant and important the work is. “In light of everything that’s happened in our world since two years ago, in the world we live in where there is so much divisiveness, it’s more important than ever that our kids learn how to have conversations with other people that are respectful,” she said. “We have the opportunity to help kids learn that, to help the next generation do that.

As Byron Township has grown, its diversity has increased as well, mirroring trends across the nation. According to MI School Data, in 2019-2020, 81.4% of district students were white, 7.5% Hispanic, 1.4% Black and 6% were two or more races.  Compare that with 2002-2003, when 93.4% of students were white, 3% Hispanic, 1.8% Asian and 1.34% Black.

The committee includes staff members from all district schools and a parent representative. The goal is to add students next year. Byron Center High School’s diversity club, called Accent Unite Act, is also active with diversity efforts.

Byron Center Public Schools is growing in diversity

The work has been ongoing. Committee member Kat Sibalwa, a high-school and middle-school Spanish teacher, writes a monthly letter highlighting events and resources related to diversity in the area. The committee has hung banners in each building and created a graphic to illustrate diversity. They’ve watched and discussed a TED Talk on implicit bias and studied the work of author Huda Essa, on the significance of a person’s name. 

Staff has also participated in professional development led by Allison Nelson, an educational adviser for Trauma Informed Communities, on how diverse populations are impacted through the lens of trauma.  

School leaders are also reviewing classroom libraries and being intentional about having titles by diverse authors that feature diverse characters and about topics connected to diversity. History instruction is also being explored in a new light through different lenses and perspectives, Knowtlon said. 

Conversations have spanned microaggressions, biases and other behaviors. Change only happens with shifts in mindset, Knowlton said. “That’s when real change happens, when people start looking at their own behaviors.” 

Understanding Leads to Love

Committee member and English language-learner teacher Christy Tripp delves into educating herself and others around topics tied to diversity. She said it’s been a passion for much of her life.

“It boils down to love,” Tripp said. “It’s really difficult  to love people you don’t understand. The more you can build cultural competency, global competency, helping kids and staff understand people that are different from us, will help us to love people better.”

She led book studies on “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”, by Robin DiAngelo, for the district diversity team and followed that up with “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, with any staff who were interested. 

She said education and exposure helps students and staff develop a better worldview and even address some of their own misconceptions or ignorance on subjects surrounding diversity. 

Tripp said she continues to learn and grow her own understanding around issues. “When George Floyd was killed, that was the unfortunate incident for me that kicked my butt into gear to get my head out of the sand and pay attention to what was happening… It helped me pay more attention to what was happening in our history and currently.”

The district is intentional about having shelves filled with books with diverse characters

Getting to Know Others

Sibalwa is married to a man from Zambia and they have biracial children. Diversity is personal to her family.

“I believe we should love everybody and accept everybody for who they are,” said  Sibalwa, who has taught in the district for 15 years. “If you look at Byron Center’s history, without going into a lot of icky details, we haven’t always done that as a community. I want to change that because I know we have amazing people here. 

“We are becoming more diverse as a district. This world in general is becoming more diverse, and making sure people feel included instead of excluded is a big goal.”

When Sibalwa got married 12 years ago, she said she got many surprised looks from students when she showed her family photos. She believes that is because they were not exposed to people that are different from themselves. “A lot of people don’t have experiences with other groups of people who aren’t like them. I want to prepare our students for the real world.”

Knowlton said the work of the committee is woven into district communications. Careful thought went into creating a mission statement, she said, with every word added intentionally to help tell “Who are we?” and “What do we want to be?” 

“We wanted it to be powerful and encompass what we truly believe,” she said.

The statement: “Creating safe spaces for ALL as we welcome, celebrate, and value our differences. We strive to listen, understand, and learn from one another to grow personally and enhance our community.”

Knowlton summed up its potential impact: “If we could all do that we would be living in a different world.”

The committee’s slogan: “What makes You unique, makes us strong.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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