Diversity revisited: one year later


One year ago, Bolles released a statement saying they were no longer going to implement the Pollyanna curriculum due to angst. 

One year ago, Bolles vowed to “broaden areas to strengthen our various diversity initiatives.”

One year ago, Bolles promised to “revise our policies, procedures and handbooks and ensure they are equitably applied to everyone.”

One year ago, Bolles pledged to “keep the community updated on our progress in an open and transparent way.”

One year ago, Bolles assured they would “enhance the education of our community on all forms of discrimination, how to avoid it and how to react if encountered from others.” 

Now, we must evaluate the progress.

Adminstrative Perspective:

“This work didn’t start last January 26th; this work has been going on for a long time,” Mrs. Marks, Head of the Upper School stated regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on the campus. 

The diversity and inclusion efforts of the Bolles Upper School prior to when Mrs. Twyla Ashman. was named Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion two years ago. (Four years beforehand, Ashman was operating in the same position under a different title.) Since then, the DEI initiative has broadened, encompassing the efforts of not only Ashman but faculty, campus heads, the Multicultural Leadership Team (MLT), students, and the DEI Taskforce, all varying in domain and efforts.

The bulk of the DEI work falls on Ashman’s shoulders. From offering the faculty opportunities to attend the People of Color Conference hosted by NAIS whose goal is create an equitable and inclusive classroom, to creating a mentor program to match US students with alumni of similar profiles, to writing a DEI glossary, Ashman leads the DEI initiative at Bolles. 

The DEI Taskforce, headed by Ashman, is composed of faculty from each department. The taskforce initiated the newly implemented Safe Reporting Form for Harassment and the Bullying and Harassment Policy in the Student Handbook that reads, “Our community does not tolerate any activity that fosters or can be interpreted as harassment. Whether harassment is in person or via any kind of communication venue, students and parents must be aware that reporting such harassment is necessary for cessation.” 

The statement also clearly defines harassment as “displaying of offensive symbols,” “conduct or expression that demeans or degrades an individual or group based on that individual’s characteristics, color, race, or background,” “unwelcome or offensive sexual advances,” and “abusive, degrading or vulgar language and conduct.” More information regarding Bolles’ Bullying and Harassment statement may be found under the San Jose Campus School Guidelines and Procedures tab of the Student-Parent Handbooks page of the website.

The work for the Safe Reporting Form for Harassment started in October 2020 and was implemented in the first semester of the 2021-2022 school year. The review process, including discussions with the Multicultural Leadership Team, the campus heads and assistant heads, and administration of all campuses, came to an end a year and a couple months after its start. 

As of now, only two reports have been submitted to the form.

The DEI Taskforce also reviewed a program called Diversityedu.com for the school’s use that was applied in the curriculum of a specific course— the Bolles Wellness Seminar—renamed from the original course name Life Management Skills. The program contains education modules that go into detail about bias, microaggressions, and stereotypes. As stated by the diversityedu.com website, “our online courses and management tools use our proven methodology to teach skills for building inclusive culture.”

The taskforce has not met since October of last year according to Mrs. Marks, but has not been formally dissolved. However, the DEI Committee on the Board of Trustees, whose members overlap with the DEI Taskforce, now meets with more consistency.

The Multicultural Leadership Team on the US campus, started five years ago, recently initiated a diversity-based book group in which members suggest an optional faculty read. While last semester “Dancing in the Mosque” directed about 30 members of the upper school faculty towards developing an understanding of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, this semester the read will focus on disability.

Teachers on all campuses partook in DEI work through a “self-study” curriculum audit meant to allow any given teacher to reflect back on the sources they utilize in classes according to Mrs. Marks. “It’s really about examining what we are currently doing and seeing how we can complement what we are doing with voices that may not be represented,” Ashman stated.

In accordance with the curriculum audit’s procedure, teachers complete an audit form, filling in information about each unit, the DEI component, assessments, and activities. The audit is then submitted to the Department Chair to verify that it has been done, sent to Mr. Drew. and then shared with campus heads, Mrs. Natalia Aycart, and Mrs. Ashman who review the diversity and accessibility of the curriculum, as well as the ways it prepares students for post-high school life. The end result of a rigorous and effective curriculum for the school is Bolles’ accreditation. 

According to Aycart, the goal of the curriculum audit from the diversity perspective is to look at “where the global perspectives or global competencies arise in our current PreK-12 curriculum.” 

Marking its first year on the high school campus last year, the full curriculum audit took place from April-May of 2021 to December 2021. Ashman noted that she hopes to aid the process by bringing in a consultant with curriculum experience.

Heads of campuses usually guide activities that affect their particular campus or iterations of activities that other campuses also partake in. For example, the middle and lower school campuses both held a Diwali presentation and are currently leading activities on Black History Month on their respective campuses. High school clubs carry out many of these tailored activities on their campus. 

And yet, so few of all of the above initiatives are a reaction to the @blackatbolles Instagram. The introduction of this page to Instagram on June 13, 2020 shook Bolles administration, teachers, parents, alumni, and students in a series of Instagram posts highlighting the negative experiences of Black students at Bolles from alumni that graduated in the 80s until those attending Bolles in the 2020-2021 school year. “It just brought attention that we really need to take a look at it, not that we hadn’t been, but maybe that we need to be more intentional with how we go about it,” Ashman said of the Black at Bolles “outcry.”

Two initiatives, the mentor program and Safe Reporting Form, were reactions to the Black at Bolles. Both initiatives were meant to be a space to report and discuss the happenings of students of colors’ lives at Bolles. However, the mentor program, created for high school students of color to receive advice regarding their academic and personal life from alumni that have been trained to facilitate in the Mentor Program, has been largely unused—either due to COVID or the fact that “students are not fully aware that they need it,” Ashman stated.

Overall, Ashman emphasizes the evolving nature of diversity at Bolles. The Black at Bolles Instagram was a source of momentum for the DEI movement and for the communication of diversity and inclusion efforts at Bolles. On the new policy to communicate regarding DEI, Ashman stated, “I think the thing that put DEI to the forefront is more or less us communicating everything we were doing because we were doing all of those things before.”

Ashman would like to keep the movement going believing that , “you can always improve in everything.” Diversity on a campus is “continuous work,” and yet much like many students on the campus, Ashman is “a little impatient and I would like for things to happen a lot quicker than they sometimes do.” However, Ashman and Marks are hopeful for the future of Bolles: they see in the future a school where every student has a sense of “belonging at Bolles.”

Student Perspective:

“If we have a comfortable space for people to talk about their experiences, then we can see what everyone’s shared experiences are,” D’yasia Ford (‘22), President of Bolles’ Black Student Union, explained. “We can see where we can put a stop to those things [acts of discrimmination] and teach.”

Ford came to Bolles during her freshman year of high school and has served as a powerful voice ever since, pushing for more diversity initiatives and events to create a greater sense of cultural awareness and inclusivity in the Bolles community.

Specifically, for this year’s Black History Month, she, along with BSU, organized a kickball tournament fundraiser, a Black-owned business exposition, a student-run convocation, and a Black career day.

“This is not another month that you can just hang up a happy Black History Month poster,” she expressed. “No, we need to show the importance of this month. We need to all commemorate the lives that have been put forth.”

Previously, she also tried to get permission to make a BSU t-shirt bearing the Black Lives Matter fist, but it never got approved after it was deemed “too political.” To Ford and other members of the BSU, that response was not unanticipated.

“It’s expected for them to just sit back like, ‘oh, we tried, but we can’t really do it because other people are uncomfortable,’” she commented. “They are uncomfortable because of an experience that they don’t even understand. That’s not okay.”

For Ford, the comfort of the majority isn’t the priority. “If you can’t even have those types of conversations because of fear of what people will think, then that’s a problem in itself. At that point, it’s not about them,” she further observed. “This is something that needs to be done in order to make your school better not only for the students.”

Ford believes the showing of the True Justice documentary from last year and the dialogues stemming from that were a good start, but more still needs to be done. 

Reflecting on recent diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, she acknowledges that Mrs. Ashman has been doing an excellent job working with Bolles’ administration to pursue change, especially with the implementation of the safe reporting form and the increase in faculty/administrative conversation.

However, Ford believes student-level discussions, possibly in the form of roundtables, could strengthen the impact of diversity efforts. When she brought the roundtable idea to the administration, though, her efforts were to no avail. “You plaster us on your buses and everywhere, but you won’t make changes to help us through what we need to be helped through,” Ford said.

She often promotes the importance of conversation. “The biggest step in things like this is having conversations about it, and making sure you understand what is going on,” she expressed. “If you are not a minority you can’t really fully understand, but there is always empathy. There are ways to be connected.” 

Overall, Ford’s main goal is to improve the school environment for those who come next. She recognizes that Bolles comes with great opportunities but also wants to raise awareness that there are still issues to be addressed and promises that aren’t being kept. 

“We need to do better,” she noted. “You can’t change the whole world, but that’s a change that needs to happen in the world, and it begins with us.”

Parent Perspective:

“There are so many people in our community who do care and want to do something. On our own, we are unlikely to make change happen. But, if you gather enough of us individually together, that is huge,” Kathy Cheng, Bolles parent as well as Executive Co-Chair and Co-Founder of the Parents for Positive Change (PPC), explained. “As a group, we could be so much more powerful. If we speak up together, we have more weight.” 

Cheng, along with Katoia Wilkins, a fellow Bolles parent, united to create the PPC as a space for Bolles parents to discuss the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) shortly after the nation turned its attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Their group would eventually become an official Parent Association committee at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

Prior to the establishment of the PPC, Cheng and Wilkins had both previously gone to Bolles’ administration on separate occasions to address situations their families had encountered surrounding DEI.

Cheng recounted, “As we shared that with each other, we realized that it was a good opportunity when the world’s attention and our community’s attention was on this—DEI issues—that we had the opportunity to do something.”

“The events of the last few years have given people the courage to take a stand and speak,” Cheng noted, which was evidenced by the 70 parents who signed up for the PPC’s parent forums last year. Cheng said these parent forums were essentially a safe conversational environment for parents to express concerns, relate experiences, and voice ideas regarding diversity at Bolles. 

“I think the school administration sees and for the most part agrees [that more needs to be done], but in a community like ours—not just the school community but where we are located in Florida—you have a very strong voice on the other side,” Cheng brought up. “It is very reflective of the political climate we are living in.”

Before it became an official PA committee, the PPC met once a month where they put together a list of suggestions for administration and engaged in open conversations.

However, PA committee guidelines have changed the structure and frequency of PPC meetings, so the forum-style meetings have ceased. Instead, they have started “Courageous Conversations,” which brings together up to ten adults just to have difficult conversations around DEI. 

Their first “Courageous Conversations” session was in the spring semester of the 2020-2021 school year and involved using “race cards” from 904ward, a local nonprofit, as prompts, but they were asked by the school to not use the cards in their most recent session, which was held last semester.

Besides the “Courageous Conversations,” the PPC also has been focused on organizing different events on the various campuses to raise awareness of different groups or local leaders. The PPC has “campus leads” for all four campuses, who direct these initiatives.

Last year, for Black History Month, they created yard signs to go around the San Jose Campus displaying local Black historical figures and helped the Black Student Union bring in local Black-owned businesses. 

At the lower schools, the PPC also organized a Latin dance performance for flag time. 

It is through these smaller events that they have been successful in addressing and advocating for the changes that they believe Bolles needs.

“They’ve been making progress. I’ve noticed that there are certain readings that have been changed or been added that certainly weren’t there a few years ago,” Cheng said. “That was another thing that we have advocated for. As the faculty gets more opportunities to attend workshops and training on DEI, they’ve been implementing, on their own, certain changes in their classroom, and we are excited by that.”

Ultimately, though, Cheng feels “cautiously optimistic. It’s hard.” 

Teacher Perspective:

Alongside World Religions and Afrofuturism, the 2021-22 school year featured the debut of another DEI-based course called American Journeys. The class, focusing on how marginalized communities fit into the American fabric, ran its first full semester last fall with teacher Mrs. Kimberly Dividu. “As with all school cultures, we’ve been trying to make strides and efforts towards finding various other activities, programs, course selection opportunities, individualized curriculum changes in terms of what other literature we’re offering…to incorporate more of this DEI initiative.”

American Journeys was a DEI initiative largely born out of response to student interest. Many students after taking US History in their junior year wished to deep dive into specific eras, movements, or communities mentioned in the course, and so Dividu initiated an inquiry-based class for those students alongside US History teachers Dr. Kostandarithes and Mr. Tepas. Dividu stated, “Since it was built out of inquiry, we wanted to leave a lot of room for student inquiry.”

The curriculum focused on the history of seven major communities living in America including Native Americans, African Americans, women, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Asian, and the Islamic community. However, the conversations in the class always shifted to current events—which Dividu intended. She remarked, “They came to the class excited because they knew they were going to talk about things that were on their mind.”

And so, the class often included weekly social media scans and “meme talk” every unit to encourage students to change their lens and think about labels and assumptions even while looking at something so lighthearted as a meme they saw on the internet. The space to talk about current events “made them think differently and it made them take a step back before being reactionary,” Dividu noted. 

Everyone can learn about experiences that are not their own. As the product of a multicultural household (Dividu’s mom is Indian and Chinese and her dad is Portuguese), Dividu knows that inquiry and conversation is the only way a student can learn to understand another lens. American Journeys itself was born out of the need to “give our students the space to question without judgment, admit when they don’t know enough, be humbled when they think they knew it all, and learn to not win every argument.”

While the course only ran for one semester at Bolles, its curriculum began budding a year ago and the idea to add another intriguing history elective began two years prior to now. In the 2020-21 school year, casual conversations with Kostandarithes and Tepas bloomed into heavy reading and planning on the part of Dividu. In most of the planning stages, these three teachers were deciding, “what would be the best response to the interest and to the needs of our students.” 

Dividu spent six months diving into literature regarding marginalized communities. After the deep dive, Dividu submitted a course proposal that went through the administration and then to the Academic Council which approved it as a semester course in time for the 2021-22 school year. And the curriculum, according to Dividu, “was so what we needed” because “dialogue is crucial to DEI.”

Dividu had always hoped to create a DEI-centered course since obtaining a master’s degree in multicultural education, but at her prior jobs in New York, the curriculum never came to fruition, either because it “fell flat” or because it didn’t receive enough support. Dividu even stated, “I’ve had support from colleagues inside my department and outside of my department and I’ve had the support of the school.”

But Dividu wants more for American Journeys and for DEI initiatives at Bolles. She hopes to expand the American Journeys class to run two semesters with more students than she initially had; she wants for American Journeys to lead the way to other courses in the same realm, and she hopes to sponsor a student-led DEI initiative as a class like a food fair or religions of the world fair.

But most importantly, she wants the administration to have an open mind to new DEI initiatives. “We can’t have these ideas but then be like — ‘somebody should do it….’ Put some action to getting it done.”

Members of all mentioned diversity teams can be found here.