DEI at PRS: Are We Walking the Walk?

PRS aspires to be a school that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. How are we doing when it comes to implementing those ideals?


The official Diversity Statement of Pacific Ridge School.

Pacific Ridge School prides itself on many things, one of which is its goal to become a diverse and inclusive community. One way to reach that goal is through the school’s commitment to the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program, headed by Susan Woods, the director of Community and Inclusion. Another way is by incorporating the DEI program’s goals in the school’s Admissions office, headed by Jennifer Bjornstad, the director of Admissions. There are also many co-curricular affinity and alliance groups that students can join to support DEI work, like the Black Student Union, the Gender Sexuality Alliance and the Anti-Racist Group. Lots of special events at PRS, like the performances and speakers at Community Life, also bring DEI content and perspectives to the school. Finally, of course, there is the school’s academic curriculum, which can incorporate DEI perspectives into the design of classes that students take every day.

So how has the DEI program been doing recently? To find out, we spoke to students, faculty and administrators about the 2021-22 school year and what they noticed about the different DEI initiatives at PRS.

First we spoke to students leading some of the affinity and alliance groups. The PRS website states, “Affinity groups allow students and faculty [to] connect, build trust and affirm their identity and experiences.” Affinity groups are composed of people who have a common identity (Jewish Affinity Group, Black Student Union, etc.), while alliances can include having a common identity or having a commitment to allyship with that identity (Gender Sexuality Alliance, Feminists United, etc.). Overarching all of these groups is the Student Equity Advisory (SEA), where leaders of each group meet. SEA functions as a way to connect the leaders of all the affinity and alliance groups on campus.

Connor Qiu (‘22), a student leader in SEA and the American Asian Pacific Islander (AAPI) affinity group, explains that those groups are a space for meaningful conversations about topics that concern members and their collective identity. Connor further points out that an important aspect of groups like AAPI is education, which is commonly showcased during Community Life, for example the guest speaker who spoke about AAPI experience and identity, Dr. Drew Ishii of Sage Hill School, during AAPI Heritage Month. Many affinity groups organize Community Life events that share aspects of their culture, social issues they confront and other characteristics of their identity that they find important. As Connor Qiu says, “Those Community Lifes show people things that they usually wouldn’t see in their daily lives.”

Solange Dzeketey (‘23), treasurer of the Black Student Union (BSU), agrees. She believes that affinity and alliance groups are important for their student members in order to “make sure that for at least one period a week their voices are heard.” The Community Life event hosted by the BSU during Black History Month exemplified this. Choreographer Kara Mack, along with performers, Nigel Zuniga, Onyi Love and Kayin, demonstrated the range of West African instruments and rhythms, disproving the misconception that African culture is a monolith. Solange summed things up by saying, “I think definitely my experience in my affinity group has been great. We’ve had movie nights and parties outside of school and also in school. We’ve been able to do all of our goals to bring our culture to the PRS community and it has been really rewarding to be a part of the group.”

Having members of the community be introduced to cultures different from their own can help everyone to expand their knowledge and create a more harmonious and rewarding school environment, but is it truly working? Connor Qiu comments, “I see people start to become more aware of diversity issues. I can’t say for sure people actually want to address them.” Earlier in the year, at a grade level meeting for the junior class, Nicole Ramirez (‘23) said it’s not effective “to keep explaining how racism is bad when students have already heard that message so many times by now.” She suggested that anti-racism work at the school needs to move forward to something new if not everyone is getting the message, judging by the fact we still have bias incident reports happening, and she received loud applause from the assembly. Recently an online poll by the Journalism & Media Studies class also found that anti-racism is one of the top issues that students want to see addressed by the Student Council.

Another way to implement the school’s DEI mission is by making updates to the curriculum in academic classes. Sunny Hill, who teaches high school English classes, said, “I think there’s definitely an attempt to show more diversity and inclusion in the texts.” She provided an example by presenting the book choices for the English 10 curriculum, including Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir of Wiesel’s experiences during the Holocaust; My Place, a memoir by an Indigenous Australian author, Sally Morgan; and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a novel by Colombian author, Gabriel García Marquez. Talking about her AP English Language class, Ms. Hill said, “We also looked at Brent Staples’ Black Men and Public Space and that raised a lot of discussion when we did close reading where we went line by line. It was almost suspenseful – like “What’s going to happen?” – and then it changed our perspective because we were able to see what was happening.”

The History Department has been developing a curriculum for an Ethnic Studies class and is hoping to launch the class next year, if there are enough student signups. Dr. Scott Silk, the History Department chair, says that “it’s extremely important for students to learn about other cultures, religions, ethnicities, racial groups, etc. If the addition of an Ethnic Studies course is the way students are exposed to this information, it’s definitely something all schools, including PRS, should do.” Susan Woods, who is also a history teacher, has been leading the development of the curriculum. “I want to tie the class to contemporary values, exploring historical roots that make us who we are now,” Ms. Woods said. “History classes look at how history has impacted today [and] Ethnic Studies is relevant to students’ ethnicities and current understanding of culture.”

Admissions is how we decide who the students are in the school, so it’s an obvious area for thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion. Jennifer Bjornstad, the school’s director of Admissions told us that currently 37% of students on campus are of color, meaning students from a background that is either multi-racial, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern or Black/African-American, in that order from biggest to smallest representation at PRS. Five years ago this percentage stood at 31%, so Ms. Bjornstad believes the rise in the number of students of color has been a sign of progress at the school. Among other independent schools the percentage tends to be around 34%, Ms. Bjornstad added. Despite this progress, she believes that we should by no means be satisfied with this number. Ms. Bjornstad emphasized the importance of outreach as we attempt to admit students from more communities. Along with this, she suggested that PRS focus on the overall experience of students of color, which includes having their identity reflected among faculty and feeling welcomed on campus.

One DEI-inspired program, the No Place for Hate campaign, got a lot of attention at PRS this year, with posters around the school and a major campaign launch at an All School Announcements meeting in November. Last year, PRS formed a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and subsequently made plans to introduce the ADL’s No Place for Hate campaign. The campaign’s mission is to engage students and staff in dialogue on the topics of bias, bullying, inclusion and allyship, and Ms. Woods thought that made it a great match for the DEI program at PRS, including the No Place for Hate pledge that people take when they sign up to join the campaign.

On November 30th, Ms. Woods took the microphone at the campaign launch and asked all students to sign the No Place for Hate pledge, promising a pizza party to the grade that made the most pledges and uploaded the most selfies wearing No Place for Hate stickers. Shortly after she spoke, email inboxes across campus pinged as the No Place for Hate signup form was sent out. It asked for each student’s name and grade, and had a space to upload a selfie while wearing the bright yellow No Place for Hate sticker.

However, there was a mixed reaction to this style of campaign launch, so we interviewed 28 students, including some from every grade level, to gauge the overall student response. There was widespread agreement about the values of the No Place for Hate campaign, with students commonly saying they want the PRS community to put those values into action. However, using pizza as an incentive, and handing out stickers to take selfies and post them on Instagram, were considered a distraction from the actual issue by lots of students. In general, older students were more critical than younger students, but there were different opinions at all grade levels.

In the middle school, Tess Twardoswki (‘27) said, “I think it was pretty good, it was really engaging. Admittedly I don’t always pay attention to other announcements. That one I actually do remember being really engaged.” However, Brielle Burman (‘27) believed that there should be no pizza party incentive, saying, “I think people should just do it out of the kindness of their hearts.” Another aspect of the pizza controversy was that many Grade 7 students were complaining about not getting the pizza party they won, even by mid-May, more than five months after the No Place for Hate campaign launch.

In the high school, Yasmin Bola-Akindele (‘22), a leader in the Anti-Racist Group and the Black Student Union, said, “Why do kids need to be rewarded for something they should be doing in the first place? ‘Oh I won’t be racist if I get a slice of pizza.’” Her opinion was echoed by others. “For the people who actually care, they’re already doing something. They don’t need a sticker or a slogan to make them want to do it more,” said Shannon McMahon (‘22). On the other hand, Ella Beauchamp (‘24) said that “because you are working with a bunch of high schoolers, there usually has to be an incentive to get them to do something. Even if they believe in the cause, I think an incentive always helps.” Several high schoolers used the word “performative” when commenting on the pizza and selfie part of the campaign, while others admitted that they had not actually read the campaign pledge before signing it.

The requirements to be a No Place for Hate designated school include forming a specific committee of students, teachers, administrators and parents, but after the No Place for Hate campaign launch we asked Ms. Woods if that committee had been set up and she replied honestly, “No.” At the same time, the No Place for Hate poster was hung in the front of the school in the month of January and there was a school Instagram post featuring photos of students wearing No Place for Hate stickers. By the end of the school year PRS did receive official designation as a No Place for Hate school from the ADL, but it still wasn’t clear if the required committee had been formed. Ms. Woods recognized that some students had concerns about the No Place for Hate campaign, so she invited feedback by saying, “if any of your readers have ideas or concerns about the program, I’d love to hear from them.”

Plans for the DEI program this year included a long list of events, programs and other projects that Ms. Woods needed to organize or coordinate, a huge job that she said was made even more challenging by the impact of the pandemic over the past couple of years. For example, this year there were special focus months like Black History Month, AAPI Heritage Month and Neurodiversity Celebration Week, along with the No Place for Hate Campaign, the many different Community Life events that overlapped with DEI work, an ongoing DEI audit of the school’s academic program, DEI-focused training sessions and conferences for teachers, administrators and student leaders, and evening events with the Parents Association.

Overall, there seems to be strong community support for the DEI program on the PRS campus, but putting that program into action requires a lot of work, so there needs to be a lot of support for people like Ms. Woods and the others who are doing that work. Future success may also require some new ideas, and some new ways of communicating, to determine if we are being effective at DEI and how we can measure that going forward.

To read about Hannah Tison’s experience and process writing this story, click here.

To read Erick Maganda and Vivian Zhang’s story about the proposed new Ethnic Studies courses for California high schools, and PRS, click here.