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CKSD hires its first diversity specialist

Leah Kyaio - Courtesy photo
Leah Kyaio
— image credit: Courtesy photo

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

How’s this for a job description: map out diversity training and learning programs for every school in the Central Kitsap School District.

Sound daunting? Maybe, but that’s the meat and potatoes of what Leah Kyaio is charged with doing during the next couple of school years.

Kyaio began work as the district’s first diversity/mentoring specialist on Jan. 14. She now faces the tasks of cultivating diversity relations in the district and narrowing what some call an “achievement gap” that has several minority students lagging in graduation requirements.

“Central Kitsap has really kind of stepped up to the plate and said, ‘this is what it’s about,’” Kyaio said during a roundtable discussion on Wednesday.

Executive Director of Human Resources Jeanne Beckon, Communications Assistant Julie Forville, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Julie Goldsmith and Superintendent Greg Lynch also were present during the meeting.

The hiring comes after several years of planning and debate by the district and its diversity committee, which sits under the umbrella of Lynch’s Task Force Resource steering committee.

“Leah’s hiring is the culmination of three-to-four years worth of work and we’re really proud of that,” Lynch said.

Lynch acknowledged at Wednesday’s school board meeting that the idea of hiring a new, full-time district employee could be seen as controversial, in light of the district’s projected budget shortfalls that may force another school closure. But he insisted Kyaio’s hiring is a matter of the district using their resources efficiently to help improve student learning.

Kyaio’s budget is covered in full by funding from state initiative 728 and shakes out to about $72,000 annually. CKSD receives about $4.8 million in I-728 funding each year.

The position was originally conceived of as two separate entities — one to handle diversity training and another to tackle mentoring — but was combined because of a conspicuous trend of minority students falling behind in graduation requirements.

An analysis of district WASL scores at a November 2007 study session revealed that of the 258 non-white seniors in the district, more than 9 percent failed to meet WASL reading standards, more than 27 percent failed to meet math standards and nearly 8 percent failed to meet writing standards.

In contrast, only 5 percent of white seniors failed to meet reading standards, while 22 percent failed to meet math standards and about 6 percent failed to meet writing standards.

There are more white seniors in the district overall and more who have failed to meet WASL standards versus non-white students.

“We recognize that we have a lot of work to do in the area of diversity, but the good news is, we recognize that we have a lot of work to do,” Lynch said.

Kyaio comes armed with a laundry list of credentials to get that work done. The Russelville, Ohio transplant has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in education/special education and is working toward a Ph.D. in education. She’s been certified in several teaching and training programs and has run her own consulting business, Shape Shifters, to provide training in areas such as cultural competence, impact of poverty and conflict resolution.

Despite the excitement surrounding Kyaio’s hiring, the district isn’t looking to present her as a silver bullet to issues surrounding diversity.

“If you have one person, you don’t have diversity,” Kyaio said. “Yes, I’m good at what I do and I’m the right fit, but I ain’t the end-all.”

The district’s goal for her is to build momentum with already-existing diversity training and mentoring programs at CKSD schools to the point that they’re self-sustained.

“We really want to support buildings and their efforts they have (already),” Goldsmith said.

One of the most visible diversity training programs in the district has cropped up at Central Kitsap High School. “Journey on the Road to Cultural Proficiency” is the name that’s been attached to J.D. Sweet and Beth Blandin’s program, which is run through their independent diversity consulting firm, New Phase, New Ways.

The program has made use of traditional diversity training, literature circles and peer discussions, among other things, to promote diversity awareness at the school. It’s met with mostly positive reviews from CKHS staff members.

Sweet said he’s excited and optimistic about Kyaio’s hiring.

“We welcome whatever Leah brings to the table,” he said.

But he’s also skeptical about the district’s plan of action.

“I am not impressed by anything they say — I want to see action,” he said. “If they just meet, meet, meet; talk, talk, talk and assess, assess, assess, there’s no change.”

Lynch expects that it will take through the end of this school year and next for Kyaio to develop various “plans” for each school. Both said they wanted to be sure to develop effective training models that didn’t just amount to one-and-done processes.

“Just because you’ve got the training doesn’t mean you’ve got the skills,” Kyaio said. “The work you do around diversity does not happen quickly. There’s lots of room to make big mistakes.”

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