Submitted by Nichole Smith, Montverde Academy

From November 29 through December 2, 2023, over 8,000 people, including 2,000 students, attended the NAIS People of Color Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, a conference that has been held annually for more than 35 years. This year’s theme was “Gateways to Freedom: A Confluence of Truth, Knowledge, Joy, and Power.” The conference primarily attracts participants who serve on a diversity committee or other group associated with diversity at their school. 

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) describes the event on its website: “The NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC) is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. The mission of the conference is to provide a safe space for leadership, professional development, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools.”

Representatives from Montverde Academy attended the conference in hopes of bringing the principles presented at the conference to further MVA’s commitment to support diversity in the school community. Our representatives included Mrs. Margaret Price, Assistant Dean of Students for Multiculturalism, Leadership, and Student Programs; Mrs. Emilie Fracker, Associate Dean of the Middle School; and Mrs. Angie Helm, Upper School Social Studies Teacher.

“It’s a conference for people of color,” said Mrs. Fracker, “but everyone is welcome to attend as an ally and with the perspective of going to learn and to understand how to be supportive. My biggest takeaway was the importance of making safe spaces for students from minority groups and diverse backgrounds within our school culture, a space where they feel like they can be themselves and bring their whole self to this community without having to alter who they are in order to fit in.”

“When you look at the affinity group spaces,” said Mrs. Price, “everyone in the room mostly looks like you. And right away, your psychology is more relaxed.”

Ideas from the conference have been shared with the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, which has discussed the possibility of creating affinity groups at MVA. “One idea is to have affinity spaces where people can feel that truth, that deep comfort. The question then becomes, how can we extend that [comfort] outside of that space?” said Mrs. Fracker.

“We shared a document with the DEI Committee that gave recommendations for the next steps of the work, we gave them professional development recommendations, we talked about some short-term actions that can be implemented quickly, and we also shared some resources,” said Mrs. Price. “The next steps in the work will be to make it so inviting and welcoming that everyone wants to take part.”

In her role as Assistant Dean of Students for Multiculturalism, Leadership, and Student Programs, Mrs. Price wants to have a space for students to grow, and she hopes to listen more and be more in the moment with them. “Recently, I was in my office and had a student from the Caribbean come in who said, ‘Hey, I heard we’re going to have a Caribbean party. I have some ideas.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well, come in.’ So he came in with six or seven students from Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, and the Bahamas; and they began to speak in their Caribbean native tongues. They were cracking jokes – they were laughing and saying, have you ever had this food, that food? They were connecting. I wanted them to enjoy that moment and know that I was available for them to share.” Mrs. Price has had similar experiences with other student groups, including the Chinese Club, the Muslim Student Union, the Jewish Student Union, the Black Student Union, the Spanish Club, and the Brazil Fest Student Committee. “[At the conference] I learned that I need to make sure I’m listening and allowing students to share who they are so that when they leave my office, they know the campus does appreciate them and who they are.”

“I wanted to attend this conference in order to be a more conscientious educator,” said Mrs. Helm. “I mainly attended courses that were specific for the classroom and that gave me tools and resources. My biggest takeaway, however, was from one of the speakers who focused on teaching with joy. I absolutely love what I do and want to be sure that is felt in my classroom and in everything I do on campus. It is important that I have an environment where all of my students feel loved, accepted, and seen.”

Montverde Academy will incorporate these principles in sessions during its professional development days, emphasizing empathy and inclusivity in teaching to continue to create a welcoming and supportive space for all students.

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