A Leader with a Direct Line of Impact

As head of middle school and chief diversity officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md., Rodney Glasgow knows diversity and inclusion are critical components of discerning leadership.

Also a noted author, speaker, trainer, and social justice activist, Glasgow is himself a graduate of an independent school and has dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to working in K-12 education. He recently spoke with DiversityIS about his dual roles at St. Andrews, best practices for creating inclusive campuses, the challenges faced by independent schools in this work, and more.

As both head of middle school and chief diversity officer (CDO), you are uniquely positioned within the administration at St. Andrews. Do you find that fulfilling the duties of both positions is difficult or taxing? How does each role inform the other? Both of those roles in and of themselves are hard jobs and very taxing. Just one of them is a lot to carry, and to carry both … can be almost a Herculean task. I will say, however, that I enjoy the synergy of those roles.

Certainly, I feel like every principal — whether in elementary, middle, or high school — is or should be a diversity director. So much of what I am charged with in terms of creating a school culture that supports the academic, social, and emotional growth of kids is also my goal as a CDO for the whole institution. Recruiting faculty members, and ensuring their ability to bring their full selves and … give their all to the school for the betterment of the educational and social environment, is also a goal of mine as CDO. I don’t feel like I am ever wearing two different hats.

I’m wearing one big hat, and I rather like it.

It makes my CDO role easier having that level [of authority] because I am in such direct leadership around things like curricula, special events, assemblies, and all those things that diversity officers are trying to affect. I’m already in the direct line of impact.

So many independent schools seem to focus on diversity and inclusion. In your opinion, are independent schools ahead of the curve in these areas compared with public K-12 schools? I think we are ahead of the curve in that we tend to have the financial resources, the permission, and lack of red tape. We can really delve into these issues in a much deeper and more resourced way than most of our public school counterparts can. In that way, we’re ahead of the curve. We can talk about pretty much what we want to talk about, and anything that we want to do, within reason, we either have or can raise the money to do it. That is a powerful place to be in.

At the same time, the history of independent schools is the history of elitism and white flight, and retreating from these issues. We began way behind. Public schools began much more ahead of the curve, and private schools came out of that motion in the 1990s.

In what areas do independent schools struggle the most with creating diverse and inclusive environments? At St. Andrews, what are the most significant challenges you face along this journey? I think the biggest area that independent schools struggle with in creating diverse and inclusive school communities is that we actually are quite selective and elite even though we’re not elitist. Because we have highly selective admissions and a big price tag, we have to be what we strive to create — diverse communities — because there are folks who can’t afford to come to the school, and we can’t afford [to fund everyone]. Private schools are not that wealthy that we are able to do that. One of our biggest barriers is the financial model of private schools.

The other big barrier is that private schools through history tend to be physically located in places that are not accessible to the common person. We tend to often take up residence in elite and suburban neighborhoods. Even in urban neighborhoods, we tend to be in those areas that are somewhat culturally exclusive. 

Then there is the push and pull. Even though we came to the other side in the ’90s, independent schools are still places where a lot of people want to be sheltered and that shelter kids from the diversity of the world as well as places where parents want their kids to have a global experience. How do you balance all of that political, social, and economic diversity in one small, intentional community? I think that’s probably the most significant challenge we face.

We’re always talking about how we can push forward our commitment to equity and justice and not leave behind or isolate those parents for whom this is new and who are not quite sure that those values align with their own. We don’t have many of those, but we [have some]. We’re a microcosm of the country in that way. How do we live our values of diversity and not just say that all voices are welcome as long as those voices agree with us?

St. Andrew’s is an Episcopal school, and some might think, “Does the religious aspect of your school get in the way?” and actually, it’s quite the opposite. Our Episcopal identity gives us permission and almost a mission of being equitable and inclusive across a broad spectrum of identities. We use our religion to hold up our intentions. But we’re still part of an elite group of schools, and we have to balance that image as we do this.

One of the ways we do this is through affinity groups. Those help take care of the members of our community who are big in voice yet small in number. We also have a diversity team and … a divisional coordinator who just focuses on diversity issues. And we create time for that in the curriculum and, in the lower grades, through the homeroom structure. 

How can K-12 schools convey the message and value of diversity and inclusion to young children who may not yet understand what these words mean? I love that question because I often hear people say, “They’re too young to understand this,” or, “We don’t want to introduce them to that.” What I know about young people now, having worked in K-12 schools for almost 20 years, is that little kids can understand pretty much everything big kids can. The words may need to be different, but the concepts they get.

They understand diversity very instinctively, they understand inclusion and exclusion very instinctively, and more importantly, they are cultural detectives in that they know what we’re talking about and what we’re not talking about. The things we choose not to talk about with them in an age-appropriate way become messages that we’re sending just as much as the things that we are talking to them about. I could speak with a kindergartener about anything I could talk to a 12th-grader about, but the ways in which I talk to them, the language I use, may be very different.

With all kids, especially those who are younger, I like to understand the question they’re asking or the conversation they want to have as distinct from the question I’m afraid they’re asking or the conversation I don’t want to have. If a kindergartener asks me “What is gay?”, there are a million things I’m not going to talk to them about. My response is, “Tell me where you’ve heard that word, and what do you already know about it?” I want to know what they already know. I don’t want to presume any knowledge or lack thereof. I find that the most concrete thing I can say to educators of young people is you have to pause and assess what they are coming into the conversation with — never assume it’s nothing. From there, fill them in [by asking,] “What do you want to know about that? Why are you asking that question?” 

How does St. Andrews prepare its students to be culturally competent so they can succeed in the even more diverse and rigorous world of higher education? The first thing we do is give them a culturally diverse environment in K-12. For a lot of students, they go off to college and that’s the first time they have really had to live with people of all different cultures, and it’s a shock.

But our independent school folks, and definitely St. Andrew’s kids, are used to being around a broad range of diversity, so the diversity of college is not a shock for them. It’s actually a comfort. It’s home for them, and in that space, they’re set up for academic success because they have been exposed to a diversity of teachers, a diversity of teaching styles, and they’ve been encouraged to see that their teachers are human beings who have their own stories and who they can connect with.

Through your work as founder of the National Diversity Practitioners Institute and Diversity in the Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia area, what have you learned from other educators and administrators regarding best practices for creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive K-12 campuses? For me, the number one best practice, at least for private schools, … is you need to have someone in [a diversity] role who is responsible for making sure that you are moving along strategically on all fronts and who has that long view across the school.

Some schools like to say it should be everybody’s responsibility, and I absolutely agree with that. Everybody — the parents, educators, and administrators — should be engaged in this work. But it must also be somebody’s job, at least one person. I am blessed to have a team, and I think the team approach is right.

I talked earlier about private schools being well-resourced, but it’s also about where you are allocating those resources. You have to make sure you’re allotting a healthy budget for financial aid if you want to have cultural and economic diversity. You want to make sure that if you have a diversity office, that office comes with a budget that is robust enough to support programming, special speakers, and training. And you want to be looking at how much money you’re spending on the professional development of faculty, administrators, and staff around cultural competency skills.

The third thing I would say is you want to have some kind of systematic assessment every couple of years on where your school is on a couple of key diversity measures. We think of this work as anecdotal, but you really want to dig down to what the major student outcomes [are], like who is on the honor role, who’s getting into highly selective colleges, what does that look like across sections of students, how are students of color fairing. … You also want to look at your attrition and retention rates.

You should do the same for faculty: How is faculty diversity spanning over time? Are we retaining folks well? Are we promoting a diverse faculty base? What does our leadership look like? There are a number of things that should be measured and tracked over the life of a school.

You also need a bold and accurate statement of your school’s commitment to equity and inclusion, and you want people to know what it is in the admissions and hiring processes. You want it to be in your handbooks so that when people join your school, they know they’re joining a community that cares about these things.

The one thing I would add is that every school is in competition with itself on this. No school has made it, because you could always be more inclusive, you could always be more equitable, more diverse, than you were before.

Any final thoughts? The only thing I would add is that, in this political climate, we can question how far we should go, [but these times] show the kids the value of the skills we’re teaching them. These are life skills. … They are going to have to untangle the challenges of living in a diverse national and global community. The thing I’m really echoing to people is that no matter how inhuman somebody seems, work hard to find the piece of humanity in them, and let that be your starting point. The base level for this work is that there is a piece of humanity in everybody, and we have to start there.

Alexandra Vollman is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. Rodney Glasgow is a member of the DiversityIS Editorial Board.