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Amplifying student voices at Caesar Rodney

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

After living in the Caesar Rodney School District since second grade and taking leadership positions such as vice president of her class and president of the National Honors Society chapter, rising senior Amanda Eric said she is proud to be a Rider.

“Caesar Rodney is kind of like my home,” she said. “But, when you see things going on in your home, you want to address it.”

Following the national spotlight on Black Lives Matter, she and several peers wanted to see change in the district.

More than 3,000 people signed a petition, which Caesar Rodney High alum Matt Anderson started on Change.org June 2. Signers asked the district to review its policies, such as ensuring that humanities curriculum includes stories of diverse people, implementing diversity training for faculty and recruitment of teachers of color.

Anderson said he hopes the petition is the start of continuous community involvement. “It’s really something that I believe in, and I hope that I can help support the idea that we should be vigilant in making sure these changes are made,” he said.

The petition was partially in response to superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald’s first letter to the community, in which he expressed support for students amidst unrest in the country. Anderson said Fitzgerald’s response was not specific enough and did not provide concrete steps.

After reviewing the petition, Fitzgerald released a second statement June 12, which was also signed by school board president Jessica Marelli and Caesar Rodney High School Principal Sherry Kijowski.

“Our students have joined together and made it clear to the Caesar Rodney School District that they too have endured feelings of inequity. In response we need each of our Black students to know that we hear you and yes, Black Lives Matter,” Fitzgerald wrote in the letter.

He confirmed that the district is committed to key points mentioned in the petition, including reviewing curriculum, hiring practices and diversity training. He said the district plans to meet regularly with a Black student leadership group.

Anderson said the response was encouraging, and he hopes people continue to speak up to make sure these changes happen. “They’ve taken heed of what we’ve said, and they’ve shown their commitment to taking this as a step,” he said.

Kijowski released a separate statement June 12. She responded to a post she made, and later took down, on the school’s Instagram page.

“As your principal, I’ve spent a lot of time telling you that you should make the most of your two million minutes at CRHS. While my first social media post said ‘All Means All,’ I have come to realize that this has not been the experience for many Black students at CR High School,” she wrote.

“It has affected not only how you view your two million minutes in this building, but how you feel about being a Rider. Being a teenager is hard and I want each of you to find your place in this world. I want you to feel proud of your school, and I want each of you to feel that you contribute to the vitality and legacy of our building. This means that some things need to change. This means Black Lives Matter must be a part of the Rider experience.”

She included steps the high school plans to take. For example, she said the school is committed to supporting a student-led Black Student Caucus, which will help students connect with administration about issues of diversity, cultural awareness and equity.

For the full letter, visit CRHS’ Facebook page.

Black Student Union

Shortly after the petition started, a group of alumni and current students began to talk about how Caesar Rodney addresses racism and what changes they wanted to see. One student was graduating senior Mariam Fondong.

“We pretty much all got together and said, ‘Hey we need to create an action list and do something about that,” Fondong said.

The students decided to create a Black Student Caucus or Black Student Union. They met with Assistant Principal Larry Friend and other administrators June 10 to develop the idea.

Eric said the organization would create a space where students who are Black, indigenous or people of color can have open conversations. It will be a bridge between Black students and administrators.

The Black Student Union has full support from Kijowski and several teachers, Eric said. “We were able to express our opinions and have some good dialogue with administration,” she said. “We are really eager and super motivated to see this go through whatever point we get to.”

Next, the founding members will present a one-page proposal, laying out their goals and identifying a sponsor.

Fondong agreed with Eric that she hopes the Black Student Union will catalyze change. Some priorities they mentioned were a greater focus on sensitivity training and ensuring that minority students have access to advanced classes.

“I hope that [the administration will] be more willing to listen to students who are calling for better treatment of Black students at CR,” she said.

Teacher union takes action

Joe Hartman, president of the Caesar Rodney Education Association, said the teachers and paraprofessionals in the union talked about how to support their students and the Black Lives Matter movement at its monthly meeting June 3.

When he asked his members what they thought about making a statement, he said he was amazed by their unanimous support, passion for the cause and the heartfelt stories they told. “It was a long discussion, and it was hard,” he said. “It kind of changed my life.”

“It is time to discuss and re-evaluate some of our traditions,” part of the statement read. Our effort and conversations will benefit the beautifully diverse population of students of the Caesar Rodney School District. We know that Black Lives do Matter and we will continue to fight for equality for all of our students.”

The CREA members discussed specific changes they wanted to make. One is the creation of an Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee. Hartman is studying similar committees at the state and national levels. Then, he will interview candidates and appoint a chair.

Meanwhile, the district is in talks to create a new diversity committee. The school board approved a new position titled Coordinator of Equity and Diversity at the June 16 meeting. They will meet in a special workshop to fine tune the position next week.

“The biggest thing the district can do, and the rest of society as a whole, is just listen,” student Amanda Eric said. “I know that obviously we all have our opinions, and we all want to voice them, but there comes a time when your students are really passionate and they want to see change.”

Hartman and other administrators agreed in their responses. “Our students are watching and listening to us all the time, so it’s time for us to listen to them,” he said.