Evergreen Public Schools on Tuesday announced the creation of an executive director of equity and inclusion position tasked with supporting marginalized students; the district already has someone to step into the role.
Klarissa Hightower, former associate principal at Shahala Middle School, will start the newly created position July 1. Hightower is also formerly a teacher and administrator in the English-language learning program in Portland Public Schools. Hightower will be paid $180,335.
The announcement comes in the midst of ongoing racial tension in the United States, as thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country since George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day. His death reignited broader discussions about racial inequity, including in public education, where students of color often experience poorer outcomes than their white peers.
Evergreen Public Schools has about 25,000 students, about 45 percent of whom identify as people of color.
“As I witness what has historically been impossible, now taking shape locally and nationally right in front of my eyes, my heart is filled with hope,” Hightower said in a district press release. “This hope births action, and that action creates change. I am so honored to serve my community in leading this change.”
Vancouver Public Schools announced similar action last week, reporting that it would hire a diversity and equity director, and conduct an audit of policies to determine where district practices fail marginalized students. Hightower’s first task will also be an equity audit of the Evergreen district. She will also help organize an equity committee of community and district leaders to address further steps for the district.
“We stand with our communities of color against racism, social injustice and inequity,” Superintendent Mike Merlino wrote in a districtwide email sent Tuesday. “We recognize that we too have our own work to do so we can close the racial opportunity gap. … In order to do so, we must transform our organization at all levels.”
District board members also pledged to work to improve the lives and experiences for the district’s students of color. Longtime board member Victoria Bradford said at Tuesday’s board meeting that the district “doesn’t have room anymore” for people who aren’t committed to promoting equity for students and staff.
Those comments were echoed by teachers and community members who submitted written testimony to the school board, calling on district leadership to hire more educators of color, to install equity committees at each school and to work with teachers to better support students of color.
The Evergreen Education Association, the district’s teacher union, urged the district to work directly with the union to “dismantle institutionally racist policies and practices.”
“As educators, we understand the ugly and racist history Black Americans and people of color have experienced since the founding of the American Colonies,” union president Bill Beville wrote. “We recognize institutional racism is embedded in the criminal justice system, and all political and social institutions, including public education.”