Friday, Mar 19, 2021
13-member board includes Rider faculty and alumni and administrators representing a cross section of New Jersey school districts
by Keith Fernbach
In an effort to attract and mentor future educators who are more culturally representative of the communities they serve, Rider University’s College of Education and Human Services (CEHS) has announced the formation of a diversity advisory board.
The 13-member board, which is chaired by Dr. Jason Barr, interim dean of the CEHS, is composed of Rider faculty, alumni and administrators representing a cross section of New Jersey school districts. It will look into how factors such as race, ethnicity, poverty, language, disabilities, giftedness, learning differences, religion, sexual orientation and gender impact the educational experience of students.
According to Barr, this initiative has been in the planning process for several years. Recent events, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing awareness of social and cultural inequities in our society, have accelerated the need to bring it to fruition.
“It’s critical to ensure that we’re preparing teachers, counselors, school psychologists and leaders who can be responsive to the needs of today’s children,” he says. “This is especially true in New Jersey, because we’re one of the most diverse states in the nation.”
Barr says that this can have far-reaching benefits for young students.
“As a psychologist, I’ve always been interested in the social-emotional learning that takes place in schools,” he says. “That’s why this so important. We’re focusing on creating an environment where students of all backgrounds feel welcome. They feel understood, and they feel that their needs are being acknowledged. When you have a teacher who either comes from a similar background as the student or is knowledgeable in working with a child from that background, that can make all the difference in the world.”
In addition to Barr, members of the advisory board include Rider CEHS faculty Dr. Aubrey Daniels, Dr. Susan Dougherty, Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola and Dr. Terry Pertuit, and career coach Elizabeth Davala.
Board members representing school districts throughout New Jersey are Greenwood Elementary School principal Dr. Nicole Dickens-Simon, Ewing Public Schools assistant superintendent Dr. Danita Ishibashi, Grice Middle School vice principal Rashaan Monroe, Nottingham High School school counselor Illiona Okereke, Hopewell Valley Regional School District superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith, Borough of Freehold Public Schools superintendent Dr. Rocco Tomazic, and Dr. Wicoff Elementary School principal Michael Welborn.
As an initial step, the board is creating a statement of values that are reflective of what CEHS represents. “The first thing we need to do is focus on articulating what’s important to us,” says Barr, “and once we have that foundation, we can implement change that’s reflective of those values.”
Barr has also outlined three overarching goals.
The first goal is to assist the CEHS in recruiting and retaining diverse candidates.
Barr notes that the demographics of teacher candidates nationwide are not reflective of the student populations they’ll be teaching, and Rider is no exception. As of 2020, CEHS enrollment was 7% African American, 14% Hispanic and 75% white, while public school students in New Jersey were roughly 16% African American, 27% Hispanic and 46% white.
He believes one of the solutions to attracting a more diverse group of future teachers is through enhanced outreach at the high school level.
“Many teachers from minority backgrounds have said the primary reason they went into the profession is because someone they cared about told them they would be good at it,” Barr says. “Otherwise they would never have considered it as an option.”
Barr strives to be more proactive about introducing students in diverse communities to the possibility a career in education. “We don’t want to wait for students to come to the University and say, ‘I want to be a teacher.’ We want the ability to go to the students and say, ‘Hey, you would probably make a great teacher and Rider has a path to help you succeed in achieving this goal.”
The second goal is to ensure that CEHS candidates are receiving appropriate diversity training.
This initiative aims to provide Rider students with opportunities to develop their ability to adjust and adapt instruction in ways that are appropriate for the diverse populations they will be working with professionally. Barr plans to use input from the principals and superintendents on the board to ensure that Rider’s education curriculum is preparing its students to meet the needs of the communities in which they’ll be teaching.
Diversity-related issues and training will be embedded throughout all aspects of the CEHS experience. Students who complete the program should be able to “demonstrate knowledge, skills and commitments to cultural competence, individual differences, creativity and innovation, and working with families and communities.”
The third goal is to educate the broader Rider University community on issues of race and class, and how such inequalities can affect a student’s path to and potential success in higher education.
Equality, diversity and inclusion are issues that shape people throughout their lifetimes, and the diversity board can help to educate the Rider community on the factors that impact students during their formative years.
“Very often we consider students in higher education coming to us as blank slates,” Barr says. “In many ways a whole new part of their life is beginning when they go off to college, but prior to that they have spent 18 years in a particular home environment and they have spent many years in a school system. We don’t often think of issues of race, equality and inclusion within a public school system and how that’s shaped how a student thinks by the time they come to college.”
Barr hopes that through moderated panel discussions or interactive forums, the Rider community can benefit from the shared expertise of the diversity board. “I think it would be very insightful for this group of principals, teachers and superintendents who lead very diverse districts to help explain what these students are experiencing during their time in the public education system before coming to Rider University,” he says.