As educators, we have a responsibility to encompass and reflect the diverse world we inhabit and enrich. Diversity in education supports students and the greater community through developing interest in each others traditions and cultures, finding value in community engagement, and encouraging strong and healthy, empathetic relationships that embrace the fullest ranges of experience and identity.
At the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, we consider diversity and inclusion as the active and inclusive pursuit to educate, employ, and collaborate with people of diverse race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, age, ability and religious and ideological beliefs.
Parent to Waldorf fifth-grader, Janelle Avant, tells us, we owe it to our students to create a school community that reflects our surrounding community –
“Wouldn’t we all rather our kids be knowledgeable of other cultures and the larger world, so they can think without bias?”
Educational diversity, as it turns out, not only helps us shed bias, but makes us all smarter, as several studies in this Scientific American article point out. Being around diverse people makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working. In science, diversity gives unique innovations and conclusions to the same problems. It has also been proven, according to this report by the American Psychological Association, to encourage students to become engaged citizens after they graduate.
A truly diverse and inclusive community helps us all to feel a sense of belonging in the larger world and helps to build resilience. A recent study in the journal Child Development reported that students educated in diverse environments felt safer later in life as they became more comfortable with difference and different experiences.
A report by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Teachers College Columbia reiterate and compile all these findings and determine: “the benefits of school diversity run in all directions.” The authors write: “researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the diverse points of view and ideas and challenges that such engagement brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.”
Grades teacher, Jennifer Persinotti, has seen the benefits of an inclusive curriculum first hand. “Teaching an inclusive curriculum from such a young age means that our students form a connection and a sense of belonging to the greater world from their earliest years. As they rise through the grades, this emerges in the students as an independent interest in the ‘other’ and a desire to learn about what they perceive as different from themselves”
The Waldorf School of Philadelphia supports an inclusive and diverse school community in several key ways:
Faculty take every opportunity to reveal a true picture of the world and its people to the students. Through the curriculum, we are able to weave a thread of cultural unity and the feeling of belonging to the greater world in a developmentally appropriate way.
In the lower grades this is supported by telling multicultural stories, diverse artistic representations, celebrating festivals from around the world, and fostering a deep connection and relationship with nature. In the middle and upper grades, the curriculum deepens the foundation of what was introduced in the lower grades through the study of history and world cultures, geography beginning with our own neighborhood and city and extending to the world, and many, many biographies highlighting the contributions of people from a wide variety of backgrounds — geographical, cultural, economic, racial, gender/identity, and religious, in every subject.
This includes subjects like the study of indigenous people of Pennsylvania and the greater Northeast; ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and the Ottoman Empire; world geography including the detailed study of Africa and South and Central America; and also heroes of inclusion and justice. Enriching students this way fosters a broader appreciation of humanity and gives them a perspective on the many ways of thinking and being in our world.
The world picture and experience we strive to foster in the children is not one of uniformity, but rather one of appreciation and celebration of the different cultures that form the fabric of humanity.
Faculty members have participated in gender and identity awareness training and strive not to make assumptions about gender roles or identity, embrace tolerance and sensitive use of language. Our classrooms are also designed with diversity in mind — honoring and celebrating a variety of cultures, and experiences throughout the world. And our festivals seek to be inclusive through Dia de Muertos, Ramadán, Passover, and many more.
Waldorf parent, Janelle Avant puts it best when she says, ““The most positive thing coming from the diversity and inclusion efforts at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia is the conversation. Pulling back the layers of ‘why?’ Why is diversity lacking and what can we do to improve it? We have to peel back layers to see what exactly IS the issue.”
Culture improves when communities are willing to look more closely at diversity and have ongoing conversations about greater inclusion.
At our school we work each and every day to expand and strengthen our practices to:
- Embrace our student’s diverse experiences
- Celebrate differences in the classroom and in community events
- Engage in shared inquiry and dialogue
- Actively teach inclusion and respect for differences
- Lean into the challenging questions of our day
Our attention to diversity and inclusion is not only experienced in terms of curriculum content, but also in terms of action. Students actively engage in our local community through projects that consider cultural immersions with people of different ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.
Our school has hosted the event, Breaking Bread for Racial Justice in conjunction with the Philadelphia Children’s March. Steering collective member of the Philadelphia Children’s Movement, Maleka Diggs led our Diversity Committee in presenting workshops on themes such as racial bias, social justice and inclusion to parents, staff and neighbors in a series of workshops that have been ongoing since 2016.
Our school and diversity committee help to organize Family Neighborhood Meet Ups. Recently adults and children spoke to Veterans at the ACE’s Museum and learned about the experience of conflict directly from the people who live in our neighborhood.
This past year the Diversity Committee invited Historic Germantown to present a program at our school titled History Makers. It highlighted several different historic houses right in our neighborhood and allowed the children to participate in various activities with connections to the indigenous peoples that lived in this area, as well as to the freedom seekers traveling the Underground Railroad. Watching the children learn about and connect to the different people and cultures in this presentation was moving and inspired a few fantastic classroom conversations about the history of our neighborhood and Philadelphia.
For the 2018-19 school year, faculty and staff will participate in a series of trainings, including, Undoing Racism, which is widely recognized for its rigor and its emphasis on Racial and Social Justice. Our school will also collaborate with fellow Waldorf schools from PA and DC to present a panel discussion of educators, students and community members which will focus on Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice in Waldorf Schools and their communities.
Our MLK Day of Service in Collaboration with the Germantown Unitarian Society is something to look forward to, in addition to our ongoing collaborations with Friends of Vernon Park and Center in the Park for community service days.
The Waldorf School of Philadelphia strives to reflect the vibrant diversity of Germantown, Philadelphia, our country, and the world. Parents, teachers, neighbors and board members have recently collaborated to develop a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy to work to increase and maintain diversity within the student body, amongst faculty and staff, and across our community partnerships. We carefully monitor progress, evaluate trends, and benchmark this progress in our school and greater community.
Our school’s governing body has also creating a statement addressing our inclusive practices. AWSNA’s Statement of Equality begins “Waldorf Schools espouse principles of respect for human rights and the diversity of humankind and believe that inclusivity and equality is a journey of both moral and educational importance….”
(Read the Full Statement Here)
Teacher, Jennifer Persinotti, is proud of the work the school has committed to and believes that making positive connections and creating the needed space for difficult, yet necessary conversations, is the best way to move forward toward greater inclusion and diversity.
“Our Diversity & Inclusion Committee has wonderful leadership and a strong core of caring and devoted members who are dedicated to keeping this important work in the spotlight. Moving forward, I would like to see the school and our students continue to actively connect with our neighborhood and local community.”
Ultimately as a community we are committed to ongoing conversations and striving for improvement. We believe in connecting with our local community – working together makes us all stronger.