The Williamson County Schools Board of Education held its first meeting with a diversity and inclusion firm on Thursday, beginning the process of assessing its culture and policies with the goal of racial reform and a broader ideal of safety and empathy for all students and staff.
Last month, the school board unanimously voted to enter into a four-month contract with Fostering Healthy Solutions (FHS), a local mother-son-led organization which has worked with companies and institutions globally to guide and support their goals concerning diversity and inclusion. At the end of this contract, the district may decide to enter into a subsequent yearlong contract.
“They will be guiding us in our work, and it will be based on what we hear from our community, based on our community’s needs,” said WCS Superintendent Jason Golden.
FHS was founded by Dr. Anita Foster-Horne, the company’s COO, and her son, Shan Foster, the CEO. Foster-Horne has a doctorate in organizational leadership and a master’s in social work, and Foster is a graduate of Vanderbilt University with a degree in human and organizational development and worked with YWCA for about six years before starting this new venture.
During the firm’s first meeting with the school board, the Fosters asked the members to share some of their goals and expectations for FHS’s work within WCS.
“We are not a cookie-cutter company,” Foster-Horne said. “We build out everything based on what the needs of the individual client is. We believe in respect. We do the research. We investigate, and then we believe in confidentiality.”
District 9 board member Rick Wimberly shared that his ultimate goal is safety, and District 12 board member Nancy Garrett said she would like to see a “renewed emphasis on respect.”
“The thing that I think is on my mind as much as anything is what we can do though this project to make sure that all of the students and all of our staff are feeling safe and comfortable and that situations that make them feel unsafe and uncomfortable are documented and are followed up based on whatever our procedure is,” Wimberly said.
Foster-Horne said one of the ways FHS will assess the district’s current state is by observing teachers and classes and listening to teachers’ experiences to determine how they and their students can be better supported.
District 2 board member Dan Cash inquired further about how the firm will engage with teachers.
“Right now is not the time to disrupt not one day of what a child can learn,” Foster-Horne said. “I 100% am in favor of not disrupting a child’s day. That’s not fair, and that’s not what we’re here for.”
She further clarified that she and her son are not looking to “tattle” on teachers but want to hear their stories to understand the needs of the district. Foster said they will spend some time on data gathering and building relationships through sessions like “lunch and learns” with stakeholders and meetings with district leadership.
“We can’t make recommendations on anything that we haven’t spent the time studying,” he said.
Foster-Horne said she recognizes that conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion are uncomfortable, and not everyone has or will have a shared perspective. She said she hopes to find the “equal medium” that will allow different people to have these difficult conversation.
Cash stated that bullying “is so big,” asking where the firm would start in tackling this issue, particularly as so much bullying occurs online, outside the schools’ jurisdiction in the digital age.
Foster said the benefit of hiring a consultant firm is that, while neither FHS nor the district can take action concerning bullying outside school jurisdiction, the firm as a third-party organization may be able to identify “blind spots” in current policies and procedures concerning bullying.
District 7 board member Sheila Cleveland shared that she would like to see teachers and staff embrace diversity within the schools.
“My hope is that we don’t inadvertently label individuals and groups — such as white, Black, gay, transgender, etc. — by teaching how to deal with it, basically, or handle it,” she said. “I’m looking at it this way: to recognize and embrace individuality, cultural differences with respect and acceptance.”
District 6 board member Jay Galbreath said some families are concerned that the outcome of the district’s work with FHS will be teachers incorporating a particular political perspective in their teachings. Similarly, one goal District 3 board member Eliot Mitchell shared is to distinguish between being “politically correct” and truly sensitive, sharing that he would like to see WCS empower stakeholders to bring equity- and diversity-related issues forward and educate its staff to be empathetic to these issues.
Foster-Horne again emphasized that the firm’s purpose is to come alongside WCS to guide it in meeting its goals, adding, “We don’t work in a political space of conversation.”
The Fosters explained, per the district’s request, they would like to help develop a data-based strategic plan that would span three to five years.
The data-gathering process will include various events and meetings that the firm will hash out with district leadership in the coming days. After FHS helps the district develop the plan, its next steps will be to educate WCS staff to equip them for the changes to come and then guide the district in executing the plan.
“If we have accomplished everything that WCS wants to accomplish, then we’ve made a great start,” Foster-Horne said. “And I want to say ‘start’ and pause there because then our work doesn’t finish. This is a process. It happens over time, and it takes time.”
Foster said he and his mother hope to, in helping to meet the district’s goals, create a model of how to pursue inclusion for other school districts.
“I heard you all say loud and clear that you have a standard for education, you have a standard for excellence, and so as we continue to push on that standard of excellence, Williamson County has an opportunity to show the rest of the world how to do this in a way that works,” Foster said. “We are fighting alongside of you to be able to set that example because there are other school districts who have not engaged in this who need to, that need an example.”