EMS Responds to Alumni for Radical Change

August 28, 2020 / Andrea Wenger
auditorium exterior

More than 300 Eastern Mennonite School alumni and friends signed “A Call for Institutional Equity and Inclusion” posted on the Internet on July 22, 2020. An email to school administrators and other staff introducing the public post was signed by “EMS Alumni for Radical Change,” and said they “want to support an institution that we cherish. We believe these changes can help EMS better meet its mission, goals, and better prepare their students.”

The Call to Equity and Inclusion identifies four areas of concern: Curriculum, faculty and staff; extracurriculars and the broader community; school identity and culture; and sex education and LGBTQIA+ inclusion.

Paul Leaman, head of school, and Andrea Wenger, director of advancement, acknowledged the email and public post immediately, thanking the alumni for their care for the school and passion for justice, inviting dialogue, and committing to engage with the letter in the coming weeks, even as they prepared to launch a new school year during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I, and EMS leadership care deeply with you about the concerns you’ve raised and your group deserves a much better response than can be provided today,” wrote Leaman in response to the 13-page document. “I simply want you to know your hard and sensitive work has been received and will become part of our consideration and action plans of the future… I am grateful for your help identifying ways we can improve.”

Wenger wrote similarly, “We are eager to engage with you on the content and ongoing process of strengthening EMS for all… We see your engagement as alumni as a positive thing. Critical feedback helps us learn and grow.”

EMS Board of Directors received the initial email and link to the call, and prepared a formal response at their first meeting, August 3. “We are deeply grateful for alumni and friends who embody the spirit of Christ and who wish for all to have a seat at the table, in our community and in our school,” said the letter, signed by Jeff Shank, chair, and Amy Mumbauer, vice chair. “We recognize and honor your passion for justice and equity. We also acknowledge that your concerns reflect stories of people who were hurt during their time at EMS, and for that we are sorry. We want to learn and improve.”

Even as the school focused over the summer on pandemic planning, a new Racial Equity Group met weekly and moved forward on a number of initiatives that speak to concerns raised in the alumni group call. These include:

– 15 faculty and staff took part in a three-part racial equity and inclusion training hosted by Virginia Association of Independent Schools.

– review of the high school US history and government curriculum with revisions and additions of more diverse voices beginning immediately.

– Addition of two classes at the high school level: African American History and African American literature.

– Administrative call for each staff and faculty member to set a professional development goal this year on a racial equity theme.

– Establishing a chapel theme (grades 6-12) for the year that will create space for people to share stories of belonging or not belonging, “This is My Story.”

– Further development of library resources and web-based resources for faculty and staff personal education and curricular support.

– Launch of a student-led Anti-Racism Student Association. Follow the group on Instagram @emhsantiracismsa

EMS has also named Andrea Wenger as the school’s first Title IX coordinator, a role that is necessary to be in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as a school that receives federal funding support. The position will receive questions related to discrimination and assure proper procedures are established for educating students and staff about harassment and grievance procedures.

Human sexuality curriculum is under review by the school’s principals, director of academics, counselors, Title IX coordinator, and health and physical education teachers. EMS has two qualified full-time counselors, who are available for one-on-one work with students, as well as group processing, collaboration with principals, and curriculum consultation. Debbie Katz is the high school counselor, and Gini Trotter is the K-8 counselor.

“The alumni call was a good development for us,” says Maria Archer, K-8 principal. It came in the weeks following the death of George Floyd and the country’s renewed grappling with racial inequity. “We know we have work to do, things to learn, and ways to improve.”

EMS leadership is eager to hear from individuals or groups who would like to share how they were hurt at EMS, either in a specific incident, or by an accepted cultural practice, so leadership can express apology and learn how to improve. “We are sorry for hurts,” says Paul Leaman. “Please reach out to individual members of the school’s leadership team, or another trusted person in the organization. We want to hear from you.”

Members of the Strategic Leadership Team are:
Paul Leaman, head of school
Maria Archer, K-8 principal
Justin King, high school principal
Patsy Seitz, director of academics
Mike Stoltzfus, director of business affairs
Andrea Wenger, director of advancement and Title IX coordinator

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