Christian Robles, Contributing Photographer

Elm City Montessori School staff held an open community conversation on Wednesday to talk about how the school incorporates BIPOC authors into its curriculum to support staff, students and families in identity exploration.

About three years ago, ECMS first started its “One Book, One School” program, which means that each month, every ECMS student reads one book by a BIPOC author that the school deems is “free of stereotypes and harmful messaging.” Wednesday’s community conversation follows another forum last week on fostering a culture of social justice in the charter school’s seventh and eighth grades — ECMS is expanding to a middle school next year — and is part of the school’s larger focus on developing its anti-bias, anti-racism programming.

“‘One Book, One School’ is a project we see … as a good starter package, starting the conversation with families, with learners,” said Amelia Sherwood, the school’s anti-racism and anti-bias director. “Books are so relatable and easy for you to go into critical conversations around race, around bias.”

Sherwood, who works with other staff members to select books, told those in attendance that decisions about programming are made the summer before school starts. School staffers consider questions about authorship, the meaning of the book and what identities are being represented in each narrative.

This year, ECMS selected a diverse array of picture books for each school month. At the beginning of the school year, students first read “You Hold Me Up” — a book about the meaning of unity and community — by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel. For Black History Month in February, students read “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson. Next month, students will read “The Proudest Blue” by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali. This book tells the story of a Black Muslim girl finding pride in her identity despite being bullied at school.

Teachers received copies of each “One Book, One School” book and discussed them in ECMS classrooms. In preparation for in-classroom lessons about the books, school teachers held mock lessons among themselves to fine-tune their presentations. 

ECMS Principal Julia Webb praised the initiative for emphasizing the role that teachers play in anti-bias, anti-racism education.

“We don’t just deliver books [to teachers] and say go teach a lesson,” Webb said. “But we can prepare our teachers to enter these conversations with the correct content information, with the correct language and their own exploration reflections.

Executive Director of ECMS Eliza Halsey said that community forums like Wednesday’s event are meant to help spark more districtwide interest in anti-bias, anti-racism education. Going forward, ECMS plans to continue focusing on creating a robust system of anti-bias, anti-racism education. According to ECMS magnet resource teacher Dave Weinreb, the school plans to hold a staff recruitment event on April 7, as a part of the school’s efforts to recruit instructors who are “Montessorians of color.”

Webb added that the school’s efforts are part of larger regional efforts to hold frank conversations on diversity and inclusion. She praised New Haven Public Schools for centering teachers in these conversations, particularly through the district’s Courageous Conversations program. Courageous Conversations is a third-party coaching service that trains district teachers and administrators on topics of racial sensitivity and equity.

ECMS is NHPS’ only local public charter school.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu