FNSB School District headquarters

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Administrative Center is seen Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in downtown Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

All principals in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District have undergone diversity, equity and inclusion training along with staff at about 12 of the district’s 34 schools, according to Kate LaPlaunt, assistant superintendent over elementary education, and Rodney Gaskins, diversity consultant.

For the 2021-2022 school year, they hope to offer DEI training at more schools and to expand to students.

The goal is to make sure public schools foster a welcoming environment. Boosting inclusiveness is part of the strategic plan approved by the Board of Education. DEI work is happening at schools and organizations across the country.

Gaskins is one of two consultants hired by the school district to perform diversity work this school year. He conducted an external review of school district operations and called for all district employees to take diversity, equity and inclusion training. Gaskins, who owns RMG Business Consulting, also recommended that the school district hire a diversity, equity and inclusion officer and conduct a full review of curriculum and teaching.

“Every identity matters,” Gaskins said. “How can we create an environment where we all can be celebrated?”

No one is asked to change their beliefs at diversity training, Gaskins said. A variety of people feel misunderstood and, through talking about it, people realize how much they have in common, Gaskins and LaPlaunt said.

During the training, participants discuss implicit bias, misconceptions about social groups, microaggressions — which are described as subtle or unintentional acts of discrimination — and how to be better allies to people who experience discrimination, according to Gaskins and LaPlaunt.

They declined to allow a training session to be observed. They said it would change the character of the training where people are encouraged to discuss personal experiences and beliefs.

The training involves large and small group discussions. Gaskins and LaPlaunt shared some of the questions raised during DEI training: Do you bring your full identity to every setting? Or do you keep things private? Is that a burden or a privilege?

The training is based on ideas by the National Coalition Building Institute, which “offers training programs that motivate people to change their prejudicial attitudes in an innovative and positive approach not through changing people’s minds but changing people’s hearts,” according to the description on the school district website.

Results from the latest school climate survey show that 15.3% of students think people of different cultural backgrounds, races and ethnicities do not get along well at school. The rate of students who agreed or strongly agreed that diverse students get along well at school was 84.7%. The number of students to answer the survey question was 4,678.

Staff were asked a similar question about whether schools emphasize showing respect for all students’ cultural beliefs and practices and 91.6% agreed or strongly agreed, while 8.4% disagreed or strongly disagreed. The number of staff to answer that question was 780, according to the survey results.

Principals were required to take the diversity training, and they are deciding whether to offer it at their schools, according to Gaskins and LaPlaunt. Any principal can request it for their staff. The three hours of training is conducted in two 90-minute sessions.

“We really try not to focus on only race or gender,” LaPlaunt said.

Schools where staff have undergone the training include West Valley High School, Hutchison High School, Tanana Middle School, North Pole Middle School and primary schools such as Joy, Hunter, North Pole, University Park and Pearl Creek, according to Gaskins and LaPlaunt.

Reactions to the training are mixed with some people who say it doesn’t go deep enough, while others say it made them feel uncomfortable, LaPlaunt said.

It’s hard to gauge results, LaPlaunt and Gaskins said, but as trainers they see people softening to each other and better recognizing each other’s humanity.

“The more places people feel like they belong and are accepted — treated with kindness — the more they feel they can be resilient and let things roll off their back,” LaPlaunt said. 

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.