I am a BIPOC student who attended FVS for all four years of high school. It was a really hard time; I struggled with depression and anxiety and school and sports. I had mainly white friends and those are the people I still talk to from school. We talk about FVS sometimes, and they have nothing but good things to say. I always feel like I did something wrong to not have the same memories they do."
—July 29, 2020 post on the BIPOC@FVS Instagram page
It’s been a summer of tumult. COVID-19 continues to spread from person to person and country to country, creating a pandemic of disease and despair. In the United States, several recent deaths of Black people while in police custody have spawned nationwide unrest and a surge of activism focused on systemic racial injustices.
For a broad swath of people, these simultaneous crises have served as a catalyst. They’ve led us to reexamine how we live, work and learn together. They’ve generated a growth mindset and a new determination to create meaningful change in our communities and our institutions.
Fountain Valley School alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff are no exception to this renewed desire to build a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive community—both on and off campus. Throughout the summer, Head of School Will Webb has received hundreds of communications on this topic. Some people have offered meaningful suggestions about how to create a culture of change at FVS. Others are concerned that the school hasn’t done enough to ensure it’s an anti-racist institution.
Although they admit the criticisms are hard to hear, Webb and Assistant Head of School Rafael Muciño remain committed to meaningful change and are seeking to capitalize on the groundswell of support that has emerged.
“This work has been underway for several years, but the voices we have heard have provided a critical catalyst for new work underway,” Webb says.
In June, FVS formed a Diversity Task Force made up of 10 members from all school departments. The task force met weekly to discuss how the FVS community can better implement and increase DEI initiatives. Also in June, FVS launched a self-survey in which students, parents, alumni, and faculty were encouraged to share their candid experiences and observations about racism and discrimination.
“One of the most important takeaways from the self-survey is that it’s critical to engage in the process of listening to the experiences of others, to take that feedback to heart, and apply it to the process of moving the organization forward,” Webb says. “If one human being has had a negative experience, you can bet that many others have as well. And even one person having to endure that is too many.”July 3rd & August 24th posts on the BIPOC @ FVS Instagram page
Using results from the self-survey, comments from the FVS community and input from the task force, in August the FVS faculty held two days of in-service meetings focused on DEI. “In five years, I want this mindset and this work to be a tacit part of who we are and the fabric of the school,” Muciño said at the opening of the in-service meetings.
Faculty members met in small groups during the meetings, and will continue to do so as a part of the regular schedule. One of the goals behind these groups, Muciño says, is “how do we better articulate to our community our DEI work and clarify that it is mission-driven; consistent with our core values; and encompassing of our entire school community, including students, staff and parents?”
In August, the task force transitioned into a permanent Diversity Committee that is charged with overseeing DEI recommendations for the fall semester and the next three years. “This is an organizational and community priority for us at every level and in every manner,” Webb says.
But of course, it’s easy to talk the talk. Here’s how FVS intends to walk the walk when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion now and in the future.
DEI Task Force RecommendationsThe following are excerpts from a summative document created by Rafael Muciño that includes recommendations from the DEI Task Force that will guide the DEI Committee in its work over the next few years.
“Our charge was to discover effective ways to learn, teach and engage in dialogue on DEI topics with every member of our community, employees and students. We are proud of what the School has accomplished over the years, and we acknowledge that our work needs to continue. Not only do we have to renew our commitment, but we need to be explicit and communicative with our community about fighting systemic racism, marginalization and discrimination. We need to ensure that all of our students have access to an equitable and transformative education."
It is the work done by everyone in a consistent manner and with a shared language that will have the best and biggest impact in moving the needle. Our hope is that this energy translates in the evolution and transformation of our culture so that internally, we’re continuously engaging in an organization-wide exploration of, and dialogue on, issues of equity, diversity and inclusion.
One of the most important outcomes of the task force was the recommendation to create a standing DEI Committee. The committee’s task is to educate the School by helping us understand that DEI work has always been about the health and well-being of the entire school community; about creating an environment where all students and adults thrive. Also, the committee wants to harness the current wave of desire to do better, to be better, and to assure that this powerful social and racial movement is not allowed to become another passing one. And finally, we want to find ways to better articulate to our community our DEI work and clarify that it is mission-driven, consistent with our core values, and encompassing our entire school community, including students, staff, and parents. Most importantly, the committee will help us hold each other accountable while furthering the work of diversity, equity and inclusion through our positions, systems, practices and procedures.
In addition to these tasks, the newly formed committee will review additional short- and long-term recommendations made by the DEI task force. Examples include:
- Through small-group support advisers and crucial conversation skills, front load topics to help advisers be/feel better equipped and ready to engage with students.
- Teach and practice crucial conversations with students as well as with adults.
- Bring afternoon activity coaches up to date on our DEI work and plans for moving forward.
- Continue with student affinity groups.
- Educate the community on the current financial resources available to students of color for participation in all FVS programming where fees may create an obstacle.
- Review accessibility of various afternoon programs and athletic offerings.
- Review accessibility of signature programs; locations/purposes of interims.
- Review the curriculum to reflect the School’s support for DEI work.
- Conduct a full DEI audit on policies and protocols.
- Draft an FVS Statement of Inclusion.
- Continue to send students/faculty to the NAIS People of Color Conference and create a rotation to ensure every faculty member attends at some point.
- Provide professional development opportunities for all faculty members related to DEI.
- Explore the role of a DEI coordinator on our faculty.
Assistant Head of School, Rafael Muciño, leads a DEI workshop
Muciño, a native of Mexico, became a part of the FVS community 16 years ago. He began as a Spanish teacher and then became chair of the languages department by the end of his first year. Eleven years ago, he was promoted to academic dean, and four years ago he was named the assistant head of school.
“When I arrived, it was in people’s minds that we wanted to have a more diverse student body and faculty. And since then, that’s been part of the School’s overarching goals,” Muciño says. “But I have to say that when I arrived, it was more of a feeling of checking it off the list rather than an intentional effort to have this be part of our ethos, part of our school.”
When Webb was named head of school in 2013, he and Muciño made diversity, equity and inclusion one of their top priorities, with a mission of permanently changing the culture and mindset about DEI within the FVS community. “It must be in our very being, in everything we do, keeping it front and center,” Webb says.
As an independent school unhampered by red tape, Webb believes FVS has an opportunity to be a true DEI learning laboratory. “We get to work hard every day at creating the type of culture and environment within our school that we desire to see represented outside the gates of our school,” he says.
“If we can do that well here and create safe spaces for people to feel welcomed and appreciated for who they are, and provide them with the opportunity to flourish, to take risks and grow as human beings, then they can take those experiences they learn here and go do that in the communities they enter after their time here. If we can establish this ethos in our students now, we can work to have a positive impact on the world, but it must be front and center, and we have to do it right.”
One of the first initiatives Webb and Muciño undertook in 2013 was to shift toward being a student-centered culture, which included being mindful of and supporting the many and diverse perspectives and cultures that exist in the FVS community. Webb and Muciño also implemented systems to ensure accountability, which resulted in some initial turnover of staff and faculty.
We have very intentionally and purposely taken on and attended to the culture of our organization. We’ve been clear about who we are and how we operate, and we work each day to reinforce the expectations set forth in our community guideposts of assuming the best and leading with questions, talking to each other and not about each other, treating each other with respect and dignity, and seeking to build understanding and connections where division exists."
— Will Webb, Head of School
The school has also increased student activities related to DEI. Unity Day and all-school meetings in recent years have included Dr. Eddie Moore, founder and program director of the White Privilege Conference; At the Table with Dr. King—an educational live performance focused on the life of MLK and the American civil rights movement; and a presentation about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre by Dr. Sean Latham, FVS class of 1990.
FVS’s Office of Admission has built partnerships with nine organizations and schools throughout the country that serve predominantly BIPOC populations, and staff members attend recruitment events at these locations regularly. FVS was also one of the first boarding schools in the country to admit transgender boarding students. Through the Office of Admission, FVS allocates nearly $3 million of financial aid each year to students which helps break down systemic socioeconomic barriers. In addition, two standing endowments benefit these efforts. The Henry B. Poor Endowment was created in 2010 to honor the commitment of Mr. Poor in supporting students of diversity, spirituality, and character. The Scott Family Scholarship Endowment Fund was created in 2009 and provides scholarship opportunities for Native American students on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in Montana, and Native American Students who are residents of Montana or the Sheridan, WY area. With support from this fund, FVS has welcomed two Native American students to our community this fall.
We’re assessing on a regular basis how we recruit students, how we advertise, what the admission experience is like for our families of color. We’re making sure we clearly communicate the resources that are available, and are leveraging our financial aid budget to support those initiatives."
— Will Webb, Head of SchoolJuly 26th post on the BIPOC @ FVS Instagram page
Great strides have been made to add diversity to the FVS Board of Trustees. Webb has prioritized achieving a balance among genders, increasing racial and ethnic diversity, and including alumni from five of the last six decades.
But the BIPOC@FVS Instagram page, which was created by an anonymous author in June as a space for BIPOC members of the FVS community to share their stories, presents a big-picture view of the School’s leadership through the lens of diversity.
A July 26 post on the page notes that out of 27 faculty and staff leadership positions at FVS, 17 are held by white males, nine are held by white females, and one is held by a person of color (Muciño.)
Webb and Muciño are well aware of this issue and have taken numerous steps over the last five years to try and improve it. However, while Colorado Springs is known for its mountains, those features aren’t just geographical—they’re also obstacles to recruiting a more diverse faculty and staff.
“The number one thing that works against us is our location. Whether it’s real or perceived, people of color often have a certain notion of Colorado Springs that usually does not align with the kind of community that would be their first choice,” Muciño says. “In addition, they visit our website and see nearly every teacher is white, and that is not terribly appealing to people of color.”
Indeed, only three members of the current FVS faculty are BIPOC. But despite the inherent difficulties in attracting AND retaining members of these groups to FVS, Webb and Muciño know that this is among the most important work they must do. “You can go one of two different directions: Throw your arms up in the air and say it just is what it is, or you can be intentional, seek out different avenues to attend to it, and be dogged about it. And that’s the path we’ve chosen to take,” Webb says.
For the last seven years, Muciño has been a constant presence at regional and national diversity job fairs and forums like the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference. Five years ago, he took a few students to the NAIS conference. In subsequent years, he has taken more students and several faculty members to the conferences. “So there has been a trend of people getting more interested and willing to engage in these conversations,” Muciño says.
Still, nothing prepared him for the explosion of interest in diversity, equity and inclusion that occurred within the FVS community this summer.
Five years ago, I gave presentations to faculty in order to create some healthy discomfort as a point of departure for growth. But it was incredibly challenging. People didn’t want to talk about it."
— Rafael Muciño, Assistant Head of School
But during a spring of quarantine and a summer of social unrest, many members of the FVS community have had the time and motivation to look at and embrace these hard truths.
In June, FVS alumni began circulating a form letter that began at Colorado College, calling for FVS to, among other things, stop tokenizing Black students, condemn the police departments involved in recent Black deaths, acknowledge that the FVS campus sits on unceded territory of Ute peoples and work to build relationships with local indigenous peoples, introduce classes about race into the FVS curriculum, hire and enroll people of color, and invest in student anti-racism resources and efforts. This form letter was followed by the launch of the BIPOC@FVS Instagram page and numerous emails to Webb, Muciño, the dean of students and the School’s Board President.
“Our job was to listen and acknowledge that there are individuals who have experienced FVS in a way that is NOT what we intended, and that it was not pleasant for them,” Muciño says. “It was critical that we resist the temptation to respond immediately, to be defensive. This has been among our biggest challenges—to just listen.”
Both Muciño and Webb admit they haven’t conveyed their past DEI efforts very well to both the FVS community and outside world, and are committed to doing better in the future.
“So we’re taking a more proactive approach and doing it through the lens of: ‘These are the things that are underway, we’re constantly growing and developing, and we’re doing so to positively impact the world via the student experience here and the growth and development each of our students undergoes.’”
It’s not in our nature to tout the work we’re doing, because it feels like seeking praise for doing the right thing. But we realize in today’s world we do have to tell our story, and we have to do it honestly and accurately and in a way that’s representative of the wonderful organization that this institution is.”
— Will Webb, Head of SchoolDEI Workshops gather outdoors
Along with FVS parents, students and alumni, faculty and staff have also been eager to foster a renewed culture of DEI at the school.
All of a sudden, what was two or three teachers trying to engage our community became 20 to 25 teachers who were ready and willing to embrace the discomfort and engage in these conversations.”
— Rafael Muciño, Assistant Head of School
The Diversity Committee, which will be a permanent part of FVS operations going forward, is chaired by the new Assistant Dean of Students and History Faculty Member MacKenzie Kuiper. She was hired in July after working at a boarding school in Virginia, and has a master of laws degree in advanced studies in European and international human rights law from Leiden University in the Netherlands.FVS Diversity Committee members include:
- MacKenzie Kuiper, Asst. Dean of Students and DEI Committee Chair
- Kathleen Czop, international student adviser
- Torey Davie, English faculty
- Amanda Dedrick, assistant to the head of school
- Nathan Eberhart, languages department chair
- Jennifer Grubb, school counselor
- Jed Haupt, history teacher and Interim co-director
- Jenna Lin, mathematics teacher
- Tyler Moore, assistant director of admission
- Steve Tulleners, director of athletics
“We wanted the committee to be as inclusive as possible, with members from each department,” Kuiper says. “There’s a tendency in schools for there to be a divide between staff and faculty, so it’s important to us to have a voice in all areas of the school.”
Creation of the Diversity Committee was the first Diversity Task Force recommendation. Other task force recommendations for the fall semester include continuing with the small faculty groups formed during the August in-service meetings.
These groups of seven to eight individuals are led by Diversity Committee members. During one of the inaugural meetings, their work focused on training inspired by the best-selling book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
“We’re preparing to talk about uncomfortable topics related to what’s happening in the world, and how to navigate those conversations with students,” Kuiper says. For instance, at the Sept. 2 small group meetings, participants role-played around topics such as “what would you do if a student wore a straight pride shirt? What if a student wants to talk about how all lives matter? What would you do if students were loudly singing a song using the N-word in a dorm?”
Kuiper says that after each small group meeting, members will discuss what they learned with their advisor groups and advisees. There are also plans to incorporate the small group teachings into student activities like Chapter 1 for freshmen, the residential life program, and the student life curriculum.
“We understand this is not easy work. It creates anxiety as people engage in these conversations, especially with students. There’s the fear of making mistakes, saying the wrong thing. We’re asking our faculty to take on a growth mindset and embrace the discomfort,” Muciño says.
“I believe that everyone here wakes up with very good intentions of fulfilling our work and responsibilities. But throughout the day we won’t always get it right—whether we say something or don’t say something; we do something or we act in a way that’s contrary to our good intentions. But we’ve got to act and not let our fears hold us back because if we do, we’ll miss the opportunities to engage in crucial conversations with students and each other.”FVS cohorts continue to gather and discuss Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
THE PATH FORWARD
Over the next three years, Diversity Task Force recommendations include reviewing the FVS curriculum to reflect the school’s support for DEI work; conducting a DEI audit on policies and protocol, including disciplinary policies; reviewing the accessibility of afternoon programs and athletic offerings through the lens of cost and culture; and hiring a DEI coordinator for the school.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but one that Webb and Muciño say FVS is fully committed to—and for which they believe the time is right.
“Because of COVID-19, we’ve had to rethink nearly every aspect of how we learn together and live together. Perhaps the silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s set up a perfect model and catalyst for individuals and society as a whole to lean into discomfort and be open to meaningful change,” Webb says.
“I think we do a good job of putting our core values of courage, compassion, curiosity, self-reliance and open-mindedness front and center. Now, I’d like us to be really good about moving that from the theoretical to a true application of how we live those values and what that looks like in everything we represent.”