District receives $10K ‘Safe and Supportive Schools’ Grant

Westfield Public Schools Director of Assessment Denise Ruszala and Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – The Westfield Public School district was recently granted $10,000 from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “Safe and Supportive Schools” competitive grant program to do some work on creating an environment where all students feel safe and supported by staff, according to Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and his administrative team.

“It really starts with adults creating that environment for students,” said Susan Dargie, director of curriculum and instruction. She said the district had already started the work with Mass Mentoring, a non-profit organization focused on helping staff to develop positive relationships with students.

Susan Dargie, WPS director of curriculum and instruction. (AMY PORTER PHOTO)

Dargie said over the last several years, administrators, individual teachers and schools have taken courses on culturally responsive practices, helping staff to use a wide lens to explore culture in the classroom, including gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and more.

Other courses studied trauma in students, the effects of which can be long-lasting and significant and create barriers to forming relationships with supportive adults, she said.

“Cultural responsiveness, trauma informed practices; how to help children process and meet their social and emotional needs so we can meet their educational needs. Many students have experienced trauma. With COVID, this is a timely learning for us,” Dargie said.

The Safe and Supportive Schools grant was given to the district as a whole, to work with experts in supporting leadership in the schools to develop the most supportive climate for students to learn, said Denise Ruszala, director of assessment and accountability for the district. She said the grant will go towards professional development.

“All schools have developed teams that will complete a very extensive self-survey,” Ruszala said. The data will be reviewed by the International Center for Leadership and Education, DESE’s approved vendor who will look at the district’s strengths and where they need to improve. The district will then have to create an action plan on what they are going to do to make schools safer.

Dargie said the schools will have a plethora of data, and will be able to see where their particular school is in the data. “The beauty of this is as a leadership team we will be able to support each other. How can I work to improve. We can lean on each other’s strengths,” she said.

School administrators and selected staff will also participate in a year-long course focused on racial equity, provided by The Equity Imperative. DESE partnered with this vendor who is providing all the training and professional development for school districts who received the grant.

Participation in the Safe and Supportive Schools grant will allow the schools to integrate their action plans into the larger district improvement planning process. Czaporowski said the stated goal for the district over the next three years is “to strengthen an environment and school culture that honors and celebrates diversity and responds effectively to the social-emotional experiences of every student and family.”

“This is going to be our district goal starting in July 2021 through June 2024. Schools will also use this goal but may personalize it more based on their self study results,” Czaporowski said.

“The reality is, in terms of education, there are 15 to 30 very different kids, with different backgrounds and cultural experiences in a classroom. As educators who help our students learn, our hope is that this work will help get more kids in a position to learn,” Czaporowski said.

Czaporowski said some of the schools are actively working on this, such as Westfield Middle School’s Generation Leadership student groups, and some of the work they tackle. He said Westfield High School principal Chuck Jendrysik also meets with a group of students on school climate.

“We are all different in our town. The key is to respect other people’s differences and not to judge them for it,” Czaporowski said.

“It is not our intention to indoctrinate people. We are trying to teach people that everyone has human rights, and everyone deserves respect. Sharing with people that differences are okay – you can still be friends with people even if you don’t have the same ideology,” Dargie said.

“To have an understanding of other people’s differences – how boring would it be if we were all the same,” Ruszala said.

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