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“Belonging here”: a reflection on RV’s diversity initiatives
March 6, 2023
Almost 10 years ago, Rancocas Valley began a review of its policies and procedures to examine the impact of these practices on the increasingly-diverse student body. According to the NJ Department of Education’s School Performance Reports, between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years, the percentage of white students decreased, as did students who identify as African American, but the percentage of Hispanic students increased, as did the percentage of students who identify as two or more races. In addition, the school saw a slight rise in students who identified as non-binary or gender queer.
In response to some of these demographic shifts, RV launched the Vision 2020 initiative which sought to create systems and policies that would better meet the needs of students in a changing social environment.
As this plan was progressing, a number of other factors contributed to the implementation (and even acceleration) of the the Vision 2020 plan. Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which led to a national summer of racial reckoning, RV faced a number of accusations from students and families about the treatment of minority students. The COVID-19 pandemic also unveiled a rising wave of mental health concerns among the student body. These events would also shape the changes that RV would implement in an effort to address growing racial, emotional and social tensions in many students’ lives.
“Ensuring improvement”: an overview of RV’s VISION 2020 plan
A large part of RV’s identity in recent years has been its implementation of the VISION 2020 program, which RV created to “ensure that Rancocas Valley is on a constant trajectory of improvement to the year 2020 and beyond.”
The VISION 2020 initiative was first coordinated during the 2016-17 school year during a series of meetings with superintendents from sending districts, BOE members, RV administrators and more than 200 RV students and alum. The implementation of the VISION2020 program is spearheaded by the “steering committee,” a group of 35 RV stakeholders who met during February 2017 to fully flesh out the initiative.
Eventually, on February 28, 2017, the RV BOE adopted the foundation of the VISION 2020 initiative. Part of this foundation were four specific strategies dedicated to fulfilling the mission of the RV school district. By the time the final version of the VISION2020 initiative was approved the the BOE on June 27, 2017, the steering committee had devised 21 “Strategic Action Plans” to go along with these strategies. Action Plans 17 through 21 are dedicated to “providing experiences that deepen the understanding and appreciation of diversity.”
Action Plan 18 aims to diversify RV’s staff via active recruitment strategies. RV intends to accomplish this by advertising job opportunities to HBCUs and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. RV has worked closely with Nemnet, an organization that aims to diversify school staff nationwide, in order to reach out to more teachers and education specialists from underrepresented communities.
Action Plan 18 also aimed to create a Future Teachers of America club to encourage more RV students into entering the teaching profession; this was accomplished with the Future Educators of America club, established during the 2022-23 school year by Mrs. Sherman and Mr. Heiser.
Action Plan 19 aims to evaluate the severity of and rectify RV’s achievement gap. RV namely looked at GPA, diversity among class levels, class rank and standardized test scores. Assistant Principal of Pupil Services Mr. Ron Wence worked to measure and quantify the achievement gap, working in tandem with the student information services coordinator. RV also established a data team that compared statistics from RV with statistics from places like Montclair and Los Angeles to better identify RV’s achievement gap; the team met 4 times during the 2018-19 school year.
Action Plan 20 aims to implement the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate initiative at RV and to apply to become a No Place for Hate school appointed by the ADL. Many administrators and faculty believe that RV was successful in this; RV incorporated the No Place for Hate initiative into its anti-bullying regulation via its HIB program, which began in the 2018-19 school year. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, the NJ Department of Education graded RV’s adherence to the NJ Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act that all NJ public schools have to follow. RV received an overall score of 77 out of 78, with the only one point being deducted because the school safety/climate team did not meet twice during the school year to discuss school climate issues. RV received perfect scores in the 2019-20 and 2018-19 school year and became recognized as a No Place for Hate school on May 23, 2018. Action Plan 20 also resulted in the creation of RV’s No Place for Hate Breakfast club, created in order to “[engage students in] peer leadership training through the Anti-Defamation League.”
Action Plan 21 established the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency Committee, led by Mr. Stephen Joseph. The other members of the committee are Ms. Valeska Ochoa, Ms. Danet Poteat, Ms. Brighid Marquess, Ms. Karen Carlson and Ms. Bouchra Heiba. One of the main goals of the committee is to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment at RV through cultural events such as Black History Month, Latino Heritage Month, Pride Month and French Week. In addition, to further cultural awareness among RV staff, more than 50 RV students and faculty attended seminars at the University of Pennsylvania related to fostering a more diverse and inclusive environment at RV, and RV entered the Delaware Valley Consortium Excellence Through Equity during the 2019-20 school year.
Many of these Action Plans were implemented years ago, many RV students feel that they’ve had a noticeable impact in diversity at RV
“[At Lumberton Middle School], my classes were not as diverse as my classes here,” said junior Dillon Macdonald when asked if he felt that the VISION 2020 initiative has been successful.
Another common sentiment among RV students is that the VISION 2020 program is nothing more than a slogan, and wasn’t explained to students in any actual depth.
“I have no idea what [the VISION2020 program] is,” said junior Kalyan Davé.
In contrast, RV Principal Joseph Martin believes that the VISION2020 program has resulted in noticeable improvement throughout RV.
“As a principal, I feel that it is making an impact on our building… We feel like we are using our resources to make RV the best place that it can be.”
“Teaching the whole human”: RV’s work with the DVCEE
Rancocas Valley Regional High School participates in the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence and Equity (the DVCEE) as one way to nurture its diverse population. As they preach the acronym PRIDE (the D of which stands for diversity), a lot of the work is done to promote diversity: professional development, inclusive courses, as well as student-run clubs and organizations.
“[The DVCEE is an organization that] offers research-based instructional support for all levels of educators, counselors, nurses, administrators [and] teachers to work with what in our world sometimes you recognize as sub groups,” Director of Curriculum and Instruction Ms. Matozzo said. “A subgroup is sort of a big catch-all phrase for your different demographic population. You have students who identify as white, black, Pacific or Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Asian, [or] Native American, [etc]. Within those groups there are other subgroups: ELL (English Language Learners) [and] students who identify in the LGBTQIA+ area. Each of the workshops are tailored to meet the needs of those learners in our schools so that our staff and administrators know what the best practices are and how to make sure that we are appropriately, equally representing all students and adults in our school community.”
The DVCEE is the main organization RV uses for professional-development. Professional development can be formal classes, seminars, or workshops that aim to develop their skills as educators. But the DVCEE is not the only organization RV works through— the ASCD and the NJ Bar Organization provide professional development opportunities as well.
Mr. Stephen Joseph, a member of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Cultural Competency Committee, explains RV’s role in these DVCEE professional development opportunities.
“We collaborate with other districts from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and even some from Delaware, on different diversity initiatives that stem from curriculum to…clubs and activities to equity policies to just general school functions,” Joseph said. “They also have different school events too, sessions that we can attend. Those sessions can range from dealing with common LGBTQ issues that could arise to school policies to state regulated policies and how they’re changing.”
The DVCEE tends to have about one or two offerings a month. Although administration cannot require teachers to go to professional development that is available during their teaching hours, they can give them the resources they need to attend if they are interested. Teachers can also discuss what topics they need to learn about to better serve their students equitably.
“The one area where people feel like they need additional training or support tends to be in the LGBTQIA+ community with regard to gender binary, gender language, [and] gender expression because that’s something that is also explored in a lot of different ways in our curriculum,” Matozzo said.
There is a lot of ambiguity and factors to consider with these topics. For example, Mr. Joseph uses the example of transgender students using the bathroom. A law may suggest one thing to offer equity, but that student may not want that.
“You can have a law or policy, and you could abide by it, but sometimes that [transgender] student doesn’t want to do that,” Joseph said. “Part of that [could be] they’re still coming out or still realizing themselves and they don’t feel comfortable. You don’t want to institute that policy on them just because it’s a policy to make them feel better, and they’re not ready yet. So it’s a little bit of everything, so sometimes there’s wider conversations of what would make the difference in general.”
Additionally, on half-days when students are sent home early, teachers stay late to work on professional development. Teachers get to become learners and open up tough conversations; these forms of professional development provide the opportunity for teachers (and RV) to evaluate their areas of strengths and weaknesses as far as equity goes.
Mental health is interconnected with equity and the ability for a student to feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. RV collaborates with the National Center for Safe Supporting Schools (Mental Health) organization.
“We’re in the second year of NCS-3 training where we can better identify and open up conversations for students who we think might be depressed or anxious or might want to hurt themselves in some capacity,” Matozzo says. “If you take mental health and then you take a student who feels that because of the color of their skin or the shape of their body or their sexual orientation or the words that come out of their mouth or their ability or disability, feel that there’s something else stacked against them where they can’t be comfortable being themselves, that contributes to someone’s mental health.”
The goal is to create an environment where students can grow and thrive, not in spite of their differences, but because of them.
“People might say well in spite of his disability—it shouldn’t be framed that way,” Matozzo said. “He will be okay as a result of his disability. You have to learn to compensate for certain things or to learn things in a different way. Like you don’t learn things the same way I learn things and the teachers have to be able to know all that and 150 times for 150 different people simultaneously, and in 72 minutes, and that’s a lot, so we need to make sure that all of these things are presented in a way that is useful and will impact your world.”
This applies beyond disabilities, including any level of diversity.
Because you’re lesbian, because you’re bisexual, because you’re Black or brown or biracial or Asian or [an] immigrant, first generation, all those kinds of things, you want to embrace those components of you and you want your teachers to understand how to teach to all components of you, not just what they see or don’t see, or what assumptions they make.
— Mrs. Matozzo, Director of Curriculum and Instruction
“Because you’re lesbian, because you’re bisexual, because you’re Black or brown or biracial or Asian or [an] immigrant, first generation, all those kinds of things, you want to embrace those components of you and you want your teachers to understand how to teach to all components of you, not just what they see or don’t see, or what assumptions they make,” Matozzo said.. “That’s why the DVCEE offers programming, and then there are other things that we want to build upon.”
Professional development is more than education. Instead, it encompasses the other types of growth students will make besides learning. A lot of that has to do with self-growth and comfortability in the classroom.
“Trying to find ways to teach the whole human is the goal of education, but also then focusing on what diversity then means to us, and how we embrace that and raise it up and support that, is the main mission of the DVCEE and what RV is looking to do,” Matozzo said. “We are a very diverse school and that is a benefit because the world looks a whole lot more like us than other places so we have to find ways to capitalize on that and make sure everybody feels that way.”
Ms. Linda Wittman teaches English at RV and has recently become involved in designing a Freshman Seminar course at RV. Professional development and this course tend to have the same goal: fostering a sense of belonging in students and reaching them in the social-emotional aspect of things.
“There’s a need for students to be able to confidently express themselves and keep true to their opinions while having a conversation, not an argument,” Wittman said. “It’s okay to be different and feel differently and everyone can have different opinions, but still be part of our RV community and still have peace within it.”
The class offers an opportunity for students to personally reflect on what kind of ancestor the student wants to be, according to Wittman. Students can explore how they want to be remembered by not just their future family, but by those around them. Additionally, students can embrace their own diversity while respecting others.
Also new to RV is the African American Studies 9-week elective course. There is also a Latino Studies class that has been around for a few years, but does not run every year.
Having classes that specifically address these topics will ultimately lead us to be better people because we will understand the stories of everyone and how it all blended together, not just politicians or people who made the news, but the average and everyday Americans, the people who are the workforce, the people who historically have been oppressed, understanding the bigger picture.
— Mrs. Alspach, History teacher
Mrs. Cheryl Alspach worked on developing the African American studies class at RV. The class offers a chance to deep-dive into the topics that students don’t get to cover in US History I and II.
“Why we even teach history is [because] when we look at these stories of people in the past it helps us understand humanity, understand the way things are, and emphasize with each other,” Alspach said. “It also helps us create our own structure and understanding of how the world came to be. If we don’t tell the stories of all people then it’s really easy to wedge certain groups out or stick to certain stereotypes. By telling everyone’s stories, it’s a more inclusive history [and] we see everyone as part of the whole human story. Having classes that specifically address these topics will ultimately lead us to be better people because we will understand the stories of everyone and how it all blended together, not just politicians or people who made the news, but the average and everyday Americans, the people who are the workforce, the people who historically have been oppressed, understanding the bigger picture.”
RV also offers student run-clubs for people interested in learning about different cultures, or providing support for marginalized groups. These clubs include the Black Student Union, Circle of Women, Women in STEM Club, Jewish Culture Club, Korean Culture Club and the Gay-Straight Alliance.
The importance of these clubs and professional development comes down to the continuous opportunity to learn and expand your mindset.
“I’ve learned something from each one,” Joseph said.”I’ve had a takeaway from each one, whether it’s a way to do something or an interesting activity or something that was unique or different, or maybe a population that I wasn’t thinking about—maybe an underserved population.”
A brief history of the achievement gap
In order to understand the complexities of many initiatives at RV, it’s important to look at the broader issue of the achievement gap in American public schools
In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Throughout the next 69 years, great strides have been made to ensure that all students get equal access to a good education.
However, despite it all, there still remains an “achievement gap,” a visible difference in academic performance between different demographics. Whether it be overall grades, SAT scores, or state tests, white students generally outperform Black and Hispanic students academically, while Asian students tend to outperform all other racial groups. The average SAT score for a Black high schooler is 926, whereas the average is 964 for Hispanic students, 1098 for white students and 1229 for Asian students. The causes of this gap in performance are not entirely clear and are a topic of debate.
One potential cause is school policies based on “tracking,” the grouping of students into different classes based on their previous performance and current academic ability. Students are placed into classes with those with similar academic performance to their own. The highest performing students are placed into more rigorous classes, while those underperforming are put into less intensive classes to accommodate their skill level. While students used to be railroaded down their track with no room to move into other tracks, this has gradually evolved into the concept of class leveling. High schools across the country, and of course including our own, can offer a variety of course levels, such as AP and IB classes, alongside the traditional honors, standard and accelerated course offerings.
Proponents of course leveling (providing different levels of the same class) claim that it allows hard-working students to challenge themselves by taking more difficult classes and be more competitive in college admissions, while allowing students who are underperforming or simply do not have an interest in a certain subject area to take less rigorous classes.
Those against different course difficulties claim it causes inequality in the education system, because the best teachers at a school’s disposal typically teach honors classes, leaving those in less rigorous courses with a lower quality education. In addition, taking higher difficulty classes like AP and honors classes frequently require the student to receive a recommendation from a teacher, a decision which in theory would be based purely on academic performance, but in practice may be prone to discrimination. Students of color could be trapped in a de facto track of taking the lowest difficulty classes, when they may be capable of tackling higher level courses. In the long term, opponents argue, class leveling may partially explain the achievement gap; white students can enjoy the benefits of being taught by the school’s best teachers and a more rigorous education, while minority students may be left in the dust.
With this in mind, some more progressive school districts have considered or even put into place a policy of “deleveling,” the partial or complete removal of course levels, and replacing them with a single class curriculum that all students will take. “Deleveling” is viewed as a way to more equally distribute teachers and ensure all students receive a similar quality education. Unsurprisingly, however, deleveling policies have attracted widespread and vocal criticism.
“I think removing honors and other higher difficulty course levels would end up hurting students looking to challenge themselves with harder coursework.” said RV student Brianna Mascali. “At the same time, it would raise expectations for CP students higher than they might be prepared for, so everyone loses.”
“I believe it’s ultimately up to the student to put the effort in and succeed. ‘Deleveling’ classes wouldn’t accomplish much besides lowering the bar for everybody.” said senior Jonathan Reymann.
While debate over the role that school policies play in causing the achievement gap and possible solutions continue, there are other, less obvious potential causes of the gap. For example, the “immigrant paradox” reveals differences in culture and attitude regarding education may also provide an explanation.
The “immigrant paradox” refers to how children of immigrant parents tend to outperform children of non immigrant parents academically, despite the disadvantages that most immigrants have to face when moving to the United States like low levels of education and language barriers. Research has shown that the paradox is most likely caused by the attitudes of immigrant parents towards education. Most immigrants to the United States came in search of better opportunities for themselves and for their children. They naturally encourage their children to study hard and do well in school to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them in America.
This idea may help explain why Asians tend to outperform all other ethnic groups, including whites, who would in theory have the most advantage. 84% of Asian Americans are either immigrants or children of immigrants, and so according to the ideas expressed above, the vast majority of Asians will be driven to do well academically. This does not just apply to Asians however; children of first generation African immigrants also perform better academically than their African American peers who were not born from first generation immigrants.
It should be apparent that there are a variety of potential causes for the academic achievement gap, and it is likely that it is a combination of many different factors that ultimately cause the differences in academic achievement between different races. Regardless of the causes of the gap, in the end the fact is that it exists. While we have made significant progress in promoting educational equality, we still have plenty of room for improvement.
Addressing the needs of different learners: welcome to RV PREP
RV PREP plays an integral role in meeting the needs of non-traditional learners
As part of the RV’s Strategic Action plan, the Rancocas Valley Personalized Readiness and Education Program, also known as RV PREP was launched.
According to the RV website, the purpose of the RV PREP program is to increase support for students by giving them greater opportunities for the skills needed for post-high school success.
“One of the things that we definitely do is we personalize everything,” RV PREP principal Vanessa Meekins-Montgomery said. “We go through and we make a plan of what do we need to get done this year and what do you need to get done to graduate, and then we go backwards.’’
The learning environment is not the only personalized aspect of RV PREP. The application process to get accepted into the program takes many factors into consideration.
“It usually starts with a guidance counselor [who]would initiate the process. We [also] get three references from different people in the building, whomever interacts with the student,” Meekins-Montgomery said. “The student has to answer four or five questions [and the] guidance counselor goes through a list of questions of everything they’ve done [at RV’s main campus] to help the student be successful. Once we get that, we take all the application and there’s a committee that reviews them.’’
In the last few years since RV PREP was first opened, there have been many changes to the demographics of the RV PREP population, which also has great impact on the image of RV PREP.
“It ebbs and flows…at one point we had so many girls,” said Meekin- Montgomery. “This year, we have the largest Hispanic population that we’ve ever had. People have an idea of what alternative school students look like or should look like and one year we were the absolute antithesis of that.”
RV PREP is home to a range of different students so,“You couldn’t say it’s just this type of student or just a different kind of student,’’ Meekins-Montgomery said. “We have students that have school phobia, we have students who are credit sufficient and we have everything in between.”
RV PREP continues to play a major role in the RV community by providing students with an alternative education and by meeting their academic needs. This keeps more students in district, as opposed to attending specialty programs or being home-schooled. Administrators argue that the socialization that RV PREP students continue to get within a different academic environment that is more “personalized” allows them to thrive where they would otherwise struggle. The tight-knit bonds many students leave PREP with are more sustainable and beneficial.
“Kids come to [RV PREP] for all different kinds of reasons, so we create environments for [students]…where they can be successful. We have students that have school phobia, we have students that are credit deficient and everything in between.”
Examining the distribution of race demographics with the new addition of the Accelerated course level
Has the new ACC course level changed classroom demographics in recent years?
After the Board of Education approved the Excellence Through Equity Quality Program Review by the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity (DVCEE) on April 27, 2021, the review recommended that the district reconceptualize diversity, which continues to be a topic of discussion regarding the distribution of race demographics across class levels with the addition of the Accelerated (ACC) level.
“Accelerated courses focus on a more rapid, or accelerated, pacing, presuming a mastery of skills which allows for expedited pacing and instruction,” said Director of Curriculum and Instruction Tracy Matozzo. “Skills, such as reading comprehension and the ability to separate information from non-essential information, are already there, which allows for a greater dive into the material.”
The administration continues to refer to the recommendations made by the DVCEE to improve to the culture and environment of RV, and a particular focal point expressed in the review included fostering an “equitable opportunity to learn,” which relates to how students are impacted by the new ACC level and how race demographics have changed since it’s addition.
The opinions regarding the ACC level are widespread with some having positive or negative outlooks, as well as others remaining neutral on the subject. Such varying opinions lead to controversy about the new level and how it benefits students across the board.
“The addition of the ACC level is providing a unique opportunity for a select number of students to achieve a high level of success in a challenging environment,” math teacher Mr. Pinto said. “Before we had the ACC level I think students were faced with the daunting task of deciding between Honors or College Prep [CP] and the vast gap that exists between those levels. ACC students now are able to go into a level that isn’t as rigorous and fast-paced as the Honors track but don’t have to limit themselves or settle for the minimum level available in the CP classes.”
On the other hand, there are mixed feelings about the addition of the ACC level and how it affects students who are at that level as well as those who are in CP or Honors/AP courses.
“Some students were feeling frustrated about the pace of a class and how much content we could get through, so now that I don’t feel like I have to make sure everybody’s with me in terms of the instructions. I do get a sense that those students don’t feel as frustrated anymore [in the ACC level],” English teacher Mrs. Garvey said. “However, when you started pulling out the students who did feel more confident or willing to speak up, it can really suck the life out of the class itself and also take away from students being able to learn from each other in a social way, which is a huge aspect of how students learn, so that has been affected in a CP-level class for sure.”
Although the ACC level does allow students to challenge themselves academically and isn’t as rigorous as the Honors and AP courses, it does raise questions about how CP-level students are affected as well. Some teachers and staff have accused the CP level as becoming a “dumping ground” for lower-level students, which can then contribute to more behavioral issues and distractions from learning.
“It was maybe to the benefit of the higher level kids in pacing, but then to the detriment of the lower level students who really did learn and get something out of being around students who were a little higher in skill level than they were,” Mrs. Garvey said.
However, considering the recommendations made by the DVCEE concerning diversity, some teachers do not see discrepancies in race demographics or how students are performing across class levels.
“I don’t really see any racial issues regarding [class demographic composition] in any of the classes,” history teacher Mr. Freitag, who teaches several different levels of history, said. “Students are performing in general accordance with the group that they’re in. I think that students of various demographics within the levels are doing equal to their colleagues, so I’m not seeing an issue where certain students within a level are underperforming.”
Alternatively, other teachers have observed differences in the racial makeup of different class levels.
“I’ve observed not as much actual diversity, but a fairly decent balance [in Honors and ACC courses], but I would still say that most of those classes have an overall white majority,” Mrs. Garvey said. “I feel like Honors had more different types of ethnicities [whereas] there is still diversity [in CP classes] but it seems more balanced between just predominantly white or Black students.”
This seems to echo some student voices at RV, who are concerned with the stratification of different demographics across the class levels. A number of student anecdotes point to a larger lack of diversity in the more advanced classes. For example, in a class of 25 students enrolled in an English III CP class taught block one last semester, the class included 12 students who identify as Black or African American, seven students who identify as white, four students who identify as a mix of two or more races, one student who identifies as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander and one student who identifies as Hispanic. If you walk down the hall and visit a block one English III Honors class of 24 students taught during the same period, you would likely see a slightly different demographic composition: 15 students who identify as white, three students who identify as Black or African American, three students who identify as a mix of two or more races and one student who identifies as Asian. While these differences may not be striking, they are noticeable, especially to students who have maintained similar levels throughout their high school years.
However, other teachers — and students — point to the ACC level as more representative of demographics at RV. In the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the NJ School Performance Report, RV’s demographic makeup consisted of 52.6% of students who identify as white/non-Hispanic, 22.6% of students who identify as Black or African American, 13.9% of students who identify as Hispanic, 6.2% of students who identify as Asian, 4.4% of students who identify as two or more races, 0.2% of students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native and 0.1% of students who identify as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Some ACC levels seem to better mirror this demographic composition, including an English III ACC block five course and an Algebra I Honors block two course.
“In my experience, the ACC and Honors levels do have an overall level of diversity that is greater than the CP levels,” Mr. Pinto said. “I have found that the Honors and ACC levels have a larger range of students that belong to all of the racial categories while the CP levels reflect more of the average population dynamics here at Rancocas Valley.”
In 2020, the DVCEE recommend that RV “reevaluate course placement and leveling policies and procedures to encourage more students to access more rigorous academic pathways at RVRHS.” The ACC largely came out of these discussions.
Although the new level has changed the distribution of race demographics in different course levels, the option for an ACC track has only been available for two full school years, so its impact is still not fully concrete since it has not been implemented as long as the CP and Honors tracks.
“It is very tough to say for certain whether or not I have seen a difference in race demographics across the levels prior to the addition of the ACC level,” Mr. Pinto said. “The ACC level was introduced only two years ago. Within that time I have only taught two classes at that level so I think it hasn’t been implemented for a long enough time to make any clear observations in regards to the impact of race demographics.”
Many students seem to find a balance between the rigor of Honors and the ease of CP within the ACC course, which, in the 2022-2023 academic year, has larger class sizes than in years past.
Faculty, administrators and students agree that there is still work to be done in equalizing the playing field and making Honors and AP classes more accessible to all demographics. RV faculty have held professional development sessions in the recent weeks to discuss current AP offerings and ways to encourage students from all backgrounds to enroll in more rigorous courses. The inclusion of newly-created pilot AP programs, like the AP African American Studies course to be taught at RV next year, are largely viewed as positive ways to diversify higher-level courses.
“I’m hopeful that [potential new AP courses like AP African American Studies] can pull a mix of students more largely representative of RV’s demographics as a whole,” said English teacher Mrs. Sherman, who teaches both English III Honors and ACC classes. “It’s not just about making the course more accessible, it’s about making the concept of AP and Honors classes, the rigor of these, more attractive to students from all backgrounds.”
Familiar faces and belonging: student perspectives on race at different course levels
Sitting down with two students to examine their experiences at different academic levels
As a part of the Holly Spirit’s reporting on RV’s possible diversity issues, we sat down two upperclassmen of color, Shishir Patel and Charlie Risell, to talk with them about their experiences here at RV. Patel and Rissell both live in Lumberton, with Patel’s family being of Gujarati Indian descent and Rissell’s family being of Mexican descent.
Patel is a senior, and this year, he enrolled in AP Calculus BC, AP Physics, AP Gov, AP Lit and Honors Anatomy and Physiology. He is also an officer in National Honor Society, Math National Honor Society and Science National Honor Society. As a senior, Patel began his time at RV prior to the implementation of many of RV’s new diversity initiatives.
Patel notes that he’s observed “slight changes [in diversity], but nothing drastic” in regards to diversity in his classes over the years. However, Patel said that the perceived lack of diversity in his classes may be a result of how small the group of Honors students at RV is.
“There’s definitely a different group of people that take Honors classes,” he said. “As you progress [through grade levels], you start to see a lot of familiar faces [in Honors classes] whereas with a CP class you’re exposed to a way larger pool of people.”
Fortunately, Patel’s experience at RV regarding diversity and inclusion has been largely positive; he frequently reiterated that he’s always felt welcome at RV.
“Not that I can think of,” said Patel when asked if he’d ever had any experiences at RV where he was treated differently because of his race. “Rarely am I the only Asian person in my class… rarely are there only a few Black students in my classes. Definitely less [than RV’s general demographics] though.”
That isn’t to say that RV hasn’t struggled with diversity in Patel’s time here; Patel noted the lack of teachers of color as an issue here at RV, saying that there are “only a few” non-white teachers at RV.
Since the introduction of the Accelerated (ACC) class level at RV, the program has come under criticism from those who believe that the addition of a level in between College Prep and Honors will make it harder for students from underrepresented communities to get recommended for Honors classes by their teachers. While Patel said he understands where this criticism comes from, he disagrees with the notion that the Accelerated classes act as a barrier for certain students to get into Honors classes.
“I understand the thought process,” he said. “But students can waive out of classes and choose to take an Honors class that they weren’t recommended for… [the class level that you take is] a very voluntary thing.”
Charlie Risell is a junior who enrolled in CP English, Accelerated Algebra 2 and Accelerated Chemistry. Like Patel, Rissell is an upperclassman and has been at RV since the dawn of many of the school’s new diversity initiatives.
When asked about these initiatives, Risell claimed that RV is “definitely” more diverse than Lumberton Middle School.
“Lumberton was mostly white…I’ve noticed a lot more different groups of people in my classes here,” he said.
Risell was also critical of the racial distribution in Honors classes in comparison to that of CP and Accelerated classes at RV, saying that they don’t match the overall racial demographics of RV.
“Hell no,” Risell said when asked if his Accelerated classes were more diverse than his CP classes. “There’s so many white people in my Chem class, it’s insane.”
Like Patel, Risell was critical of RV’s lack of teachers of color.
“Aside from [my] Spanish teachers, I’ve never had a Hispanic teacher at RV,” Rissell said. He also noted that even outside of his own teachers, he’s noticed that RV has very few teachers of color.
Unlike Patel, however, Risell believes that RV’s implementation of the Accelerated class level is deeply flawed and does more harm than good.
“They say you need a 95 in Accelerated to get into Honors, which is stupid,” he said. “I think it definitely prevents certain kids from getting into Honors.”
Fortunately, similar to Patel, Rissell has never been treated differently because of his race at RV, saying that he’s never felt out of place at RV because of his race.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged here,” he said.
Gender and science: the push to diversify the ever-changing field
The gender gap in rigorous science programs at RV is reflective of larger trends in gender distributions among the sciences
A main aspect of the numerous diversity initiatives RV implemented is the prevention of gender inequalities within the classroom. Upper-level science classes, including AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Biology, AP Environmental and Honors Anatomy & Physiology, appear to be the most gender-segregated Honors-level classes at Rancocas Valley.
It is no secret there is a gap between genders in these classes. The gender makeup of AP Biology in the fall 2022 semester was 24 females to eight males. As for AP Environmental Science and AP Chemistry, the gap is not as drastic, with there being four males and seven females, and seven males and 10 females, respectively. However, like AP Biology, Honors Anatomy & Physiology has far more females than males.
AP Biology teacher Ms. Clymer-Smith notes that this is a common trend each year in these upper level science classes, especially in the AP Biology and Anatomy classes. When asked why this could be, she suggested Biology and Environmental may be viewed as “softer sciences.” For male students, they may be choosing an AP Physics class over an AP Biology or Environmental class because it is perceived as more rigorous, and therefore more favorable to a college they are applying to. Ms. Smith also revealed it is rare for her Biology students to plan to focus their careers in research. Instead, most of her students want to go into health sciences such as nursing or medical school.
On the other hand, each year, AP Physics is a predominantly male class; this year it is made up of 16 males and only four females. While AP Calculus BC is a math class and not science, it is important to note there are 11 males in that class and only five females. In this year’s senior class for Project Lead the Way, the engineering program at RV, there are only two females in the program and roughly 20 males.
Senior Kiersten Ebersole, one of the four girls in AP Physics and one of two in PLTW, explained why she wanted to enroll in these classes.
“Having realized during the seventh grade that I wanted to go into an engineering—or some kind of a STEM—field, I knew that going into high school I wanted to focus my course load around that,” she said.
She also noted that her enrollment was shaped by her career aspirations.
“I want to go into mechanical engineering, and with my mechanical engineering degree, I hope to either go into aerospace or automotive engineering,” she said. “I love cars, so I think that would be so awesome to do someday where I could design cars.”
Ebersole explained that engineering is a way for her to combine her love for art and design with her passion for mathematics and science. As one of the only females in her classroom, Ebersole reveals at times there have been situations where she has felt unheard.
My physics teacher actually said one time that he purposefully ignores the girls in the class when they answer questions because he wants us to speak up more.
— senior Kiersten Ebersole
“My physics teacher actually said one time that he purposefully ignores the girls in the class when they answer questions because he wants us to speak up more. He read some kind of article [that said that] girls don’t talk enough in the class; they don’t have enough confidence so they don’t speak up enough as they should, so they don’t always give answers to questions that they know,” she said. “I’m trying to decide whether it’s helpful or not at the moment, because it kind of dilutes my confidence a little bit. After I say the answer and he doesn’t say anything, I just don’t say anything else. And being ignored over and over again makes me want to talk less in class.”
Rancocas Valley’s gender gap in these science classes follows a common trend we see today in America. Just over 13% of nurses are male. Women make up 70% of physical therapists. At RV, a majority of aspiring health majors are also female, therefore AP Biology and Honors Anatomy & Physiology are going to consist mainly of females. On the other hand, under 16% of engineers are women. This is the likely the same reason that at RV Project Lead the Way and AP Physics are predominantly male.
There has been a push to increase the number of women going into engineering, as well as other S.T.E.M. majors at RV. This year, Ebersole became the founder of RV’s Women in Stem Club.
“I started the club to promote more girls in STEM fields and learning about STEM,” she said. “In the club, we talk a lot about science, technology, engineering, and math. We just went on a Lockheed Martin field trip to encourage women in engineering and create connections between women actually in the field at the moment and show girls what it’s like to be an engineer.”
Ebersole believes that it is important to increase the number of women working in a STEM field to allow for diverse perspectives that lead to new ideas for innovation. By creating the Women in STEM club she is hoping to inspire more girls at RV to go into these fields. However, even with the formation of groups like Future Medical Professionals of America at RV, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a push to get male students to enroll in “softer science” courses like AP Biology.
Lack of diversity in teaching staff reflects larger national trend
Many students criticize RV for lacking teachers of color, but the problem is a systemic one, not just an RV one
Rancocas Valley strives for diversity in both their teachers and students, seen as the letter “D” in the school’s PRIDE acronym around the building. Attracting and hiring a more diverse teaching staff is a prominent priority for the school system, especially following the DVCEE’s findings in 2020. The high school goes about this using strategies such as local job fairs and the app LinkedIn.
“The nice thing about LinkedIn is when people post their profile we can recruit and encourage people to apply,” said Director of Curriculum and Instruction Tracy Matozzo. “We look for profiles to diversify our population by gender and by race to the best of our ability.”
In using a national app such as LinkedIn, RV has a much more extensive range of possible new employees, rather than trying to hire solely through a local job fair. Having access to hundreds of people searching for jobs in teaching allows RV to be able to hire more people of color and work towards diversifying the school.
“It’s a lot more competitive than it was five or six years ago because there’s so few people to fill positions in addition to so few people of color to fill positions as well,” said Mrs. Matozzo.
Post-pandemic America has seen a wave of teacher retirements and resignations. Although this causes difficulty in growing and diversifying school staff, the diversity of the staff still did not match the diversity of the student body in years prior to the pandemic.
The National Center for Education Statistics collected data on public school teachers’ race and ethnicity in America in 2017-2018. The data showed that a vast majority of teachers in public schools were white and non-hispanic. When the majority of students were white in a school, the majority of teachers were also white. For schools with the majority of students not being white, the majority of teachers were still white.
The importance of representation of both race and ethnicity within school staff is seen through the students.
Emersynn Fair, a Junior at RV, said, “I’ve only had two teachers of color since I’ve started school.”
“Being Asian, I was wondering if there were any asian teachers in the school, because I’ve never had an asian teacher,” said junior Bea Faigal. “We claim that a key thing of RV, in PRIDE, one of the letters is diversity, which yes that is seen in our students, but not in our teachers.”
Like Faigal and Fair, many students are aware of the low numbers of teachers of color in the school system and how it affects them — but that this is also not just an RV problem. As of January 2022, nationally, only seven per cent of teachers in America identify as Black. RV currently has two classroom teachers of color in its main campus building. Two guidance counselors identify as Black, and one administrator at the RV PREP building identifies as Black.
RV has started to address this more directly with its annual Diversity Job Fair held every April. Last year, RV attracted dozens of qualified candidates to engage with districts across the south Jersey region.
“We are experiencing staffing shortages across New Jersey schools, which has compounded the challenge many of us already faced to increase minority representation in our workforce,” Superintendent Christopher Heilig told the Burlington County Times last spring. “By joining with schools across our region, we hope to raise visibility of this job fair and attract interested and qualified candidates who will help us deepen the understanding and appreciation of diversity through education.”
RV plans on holding another Diversity Job fair for districts on the area this April, and hopes to attract even more candidates.
Another initiative the school has launched in an effort to draw more diverse candidates to the district is the formation of the Future Educators of America group, which is a club for prospective teachers to get a taste of teaching before entering higher education.
“Our hope is that with the formation of the FEA we will be able to make a prospective teaching force that looks more like our student body,” said Mrs. Sarah Sherman, the club’s adviser. “A ‘home-grown’ program can help spark interest across different demographics and encourage students to return to RV one day as a teacher.”
While much of the lack of diversity stems from national trends, RV continues to search for creative ways to attract more diverse teachers and staff from across different backgrounds and walks of life. Studies show that the more the teaching staff looks like the student body, the greater an impact it can have on student academic outcomes.
“Hey, why don’t we have off?”: where RV stands on closing for religious holidays
RV seems like it’s one of the few schools that does not close for certain holidays, but this isn’t necessarily the case
RV is making a concentrated effort to address inequalities and representation, so why does RV not give minority groups such as Jewish, Hindu and Muslim students holidays off despite many schools in the area doing so? The answer is much more nuanced than having a large amount of students to whom the holiday may apply.
Jewish High Holidays
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the two most important holidays in Judaism. Together they are known as the High Holidays and have a similar significance to Judaism as Christmas and Easter do to Christianity.
“When I was growing up, these were not just holidays, they were called THE High Holy-days, so they are on the highest level of holiness.” Rabbi Memis-Foler of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel said. “They are not just a day of celebration, we spend the entire day in the synagogue worshiping and pray[ing] with family [and] reflect[ing]. It’s not like people have time to focus on work or homework to be in school or to be at work.”
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, which lasts two days. However, it is observed by mostly Conservative and Orthodox Jews and most schools that have off for Rosh Hashanah only have off the first day. Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement and is the holiest day in Judaism. Jews that celebrate fast from sunrise to sunset.
“Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year and Yom Kippur is the day of atonement.” Rabbi Memis-Foler said. “It is a 10 day period where Jews across the world reflect on their behavior in the past year and look where they done wrong and make improvements to do better in the future.”
It is impossible to know the size of RV’s Jewish community due to the lack of detailed data on the religious makeup of the student body. However, it is generally believed among Jewish students and non-Jewish students alike that the Jewish community of the sending districts is rather small compared to other schools. This is an obstacle for people in support of closing for the high holidays because usually schools only close during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if they have a large Jewish population.
“We don’t have any information on religion for students,” said Vice Principal Wence,who is in charge of Data and Processing.
None of RV’s sending districts have off for both of the high holidays. However, Hainesport gets off for Yom Kippur and Lumberton gets off for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Among other local high schools, Lenape, Shawnee, Cheroke, Seneca and Moorestown get off for both High Holidays. However, Northern Burlington and Delran do not get off for the high holidays. Some schools such as the Cherry Hills and Eastern get off for the second day of Rosh Hashanah that only more religious Jews observe.
“I think that they should [give students days off on the Jewish High Holidays] because it is important to celebrate the holidays and recognize Jewish culture even though there are not that many people of Jewish descent or celebrate the Jewish Holidays but it is still important for those people,” sophomore Max Kinney said. “Normally I would [take off] but I didn’t this year because I have so many classes I have to deal with. If I had off, my grandparents would come down to my house and we would have a good dinner and celebrate as a family.”
Diwali or Deepavali is a holiday that is mainly celebrated by Hindus but is also celebrated by Janists, Sihks and the Newar Buddists in Nepal. According to Wikipedia, it is known as the festival of lights and symbolizes light triumphing over darkness.The festival is most associated with Laksmi, who is the goddess of prosperity and Ganesha, god of wisdom and removal of obstacles. The holiday is associated with other gods depending on the region.
“It’s kind of like India’s New year celebration. It’s very big over there, almost like the kind of new year we celebrate here and the Lunar new year in China,” sophomore Ruhan Shah said. “It’s bringing in new prosperity, new relationships, [and] happiness… we all hope for a better future so this [is] just one step in building on to that.”
Diwali lasts five days but the height of celebration is on the 3rd day and schools that give off for Diwali only give off for the third day, called Lakshmi Puja. Rancocas Valley does not give off for the third day, although many other south Jersey high schools are beginning to change that. This school year, Cherry Hill Public Schools changed its school calendar to have school closed on Lakshmi Puja. Twenty-two other school districts in New Jersey close for Lakshmi Puja; however all of them are located in either North or Central Jersey.
“I think, personally, we should have off on [the third day of Diwali]. I know a lot of people in this school who celebrate the holiday and it is a big time to also gather with your family members around here and have big parties and catch up basically and just have a chat,” said Shah.
Eid al-Fitr (Eid for short) is a holiday that is celebrated by Muslims on the first of Shawwal and marks the end of Ramadan, a month in the Islamic Calendar where Muslims fast every day from sunrise to sunset. According to Wikipedia, Muslims participate in a salat (Islamic Prayer) special for Eid that consists of two units – called “rakats” – and is performed in an open field or large hall. After the salat, Muslims are treated to a variety of sweet dishes which is why the holiday is also known as “Sweet Eid.”
“Prior to Eid-al Fitr, we have Ramadan, we fast from sunrise to sunset and we celebrate our fast on Eid,” sophomore Syed-Muhamed Yasir said.
Many schools are starting to close for Eid. The closest to RV is Cherry Hill Public schools which recently added Eid Al-Fitir for the 2022-2023 school calendar. The school district of Philadelphia also closes for Eid al-Fitr as well as Eid al-Adha, another prominent Islamic holiday.
Similar to Jewish students, it is believed that RV does not have a large Muslim population. There is only anecdotal evidence to back this up as the school does not collect data on the religious makeup of the student body.
“I noticed we weren’t off for certain holidays, but my sister was in a different district and she was off,” said Principal Martin. “She was like, ‘yeah, we have a higher population of this religion.'”
The RV Administration and the Board of Education have no plans in the future to close schools for the religious holidays of Jewish, Hindu and Muslim students. And, closing for these holidays could create a slippery slope and require RV to close school on all religious holidays, which would be impossible.
“My point is, where do you draw the line at which religion?” said Principal Martin. “So if you do Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays, Hindu, Buddhist, where do you stop?”
Despite this, RV’s administration has been making efforts to make the school more inclusive for minority students. The debate over closing schools for non-Christian religious holidays remains, at times, a contentious one, but as it stands RV has made no attempts to close school on minority religious holidays.
News Editor Mya Collins reflects on the work we have done as a school community, and considers the direction in which we need to go
Through examining RV’s status regarding diversity initiatives and how the district has responded to the recommendations from the DVCEE, it is evident that the administration is prioritizing the progression of those initiatives to improve the culture and environment for students and staff.
The RV district has made headway with diversity initiatives, which are uncommon in neighboring districts. Following the Excellence Through Equity Quality Program Review, the administration has improved upon various areas of concern highlighted by the DVCEE in the report including adding more diverse courses into the curriculum and fostering an inclusive environment.
As the Co-President of the Black Student Union, I value the support from administration because our club is uplifted by the RV community as a whole. We are able to continue our service projects while also stressing the importance of Black excellence and joy in the community, and other districts may not have that same experience or positive relationship with their administration.
I value the support from administration because our club is uplifted by the RV community as a whole. We are able to continue our service projects while also stressing the importance of Black excellence and joy in the community, and other districts may not have that same experience or positive relationship with their administration.
RV continues to foster an inclusive environment where clubs, not solely limited to the Black Student Union, but others such as Circle of Women, Students Helping India and Gay-Straight Alliance, are able to flourish in the community with the support of the administration.
We found few students who talked about RV’s inadequacies in terms of making an inclusive and safe environment for all. On the contrary, most students pointed to specific policies, activities and events which fostered a sense of inclusivity and normalized diversity at school. This is a stark contrast to a number of schools surrounding us who are currently facing different challenges with creating and maintaining equity. Part of the impetus for exploring this topic was a piece completed in January 2022 by Cherry Hill East’s Eastside, which highlighted a number of instances of discrimination among students at Cherry Hill East. We were thankful to have not found evidence of this mindset here at RV.
This is not to say, in any means, that RV is perfect and absent of racism, sexism, homophobia or prejudice. There are always murmurs of issues among students. As the administration continues to improve the culture and environment of RV with its diversity initiatives, there are still aspects in the DVCEE’s review that need to be addressed and improved upon, which included diversity at the staff level and student tracking.
The term “tracking” in the education system refers to the grouping of students in accordance with their perceived achievement levels. As RV continues to develop the different levels from CP and AP to better cater to all students, there are some negative aspects associated with drawing out students from lower-level classes which can impact the learning environment of other students who are at that base level.
As a Black and female student in Honors and AP courses at RV, I have rarely walked into a class full of students who look just like me. More often than not, I continue to be a minority in my advanced classes. It is easy to disregard the importance of being in a class with other students of color, but that sense of community is essential for growth as not only a student, but a person as well.
Tracking in education can lead to discrepancies in the distribution of gender and race demographics in different levels, and RV continues to refer to the DVCEE’s recommendations regarding these courses.
The assumption that we don’t need to talk about race like it’s a bad word is just as damaging as the very attitudes we seek to change.
In the interview process, there was a shared experience among our journalists who faced hesitation from interviewees to discuss topics such as race and gender demographics in the classroom — especially from teachers. As the RV community reflects on the improvements made regarding diversity initiatives and the headway that administration has made, it is important to have these difficult conversations and continue to evaluate the district. Having uncomfortable conversations is crucial in growth. It is a practice that started with the diversity audit in 2020 and is not yet complete; the assumption that we don’t need to talk about race like it’s a bad word is just as damaging as the very attitudes we seek to change. It is our hope that our faculty will meet students where they are in this progress, not shy away from a discussion simply because it makes them uncomfortable. Teachers are human too; they can be vulnerable and honest, just like students.
Although some topics may be perceived as sensitive, they are irrefutably important and need to be addressed in order to continue to improve the culture and environment of RV and lead by example for neighboring districts.