Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity - something school staff members in Pequot Lakes are striving to do.

The SEED Project is a national program that partners with schools and communities on leadership development to drive personal and societal change toward social justice. In Pequot Lakes, it means a chance for growth.

“It’s an opportunity for teachers in school districts that want to work on equity within their schools to basically just improve,” said Karen Rubado, a sixth grade reading and language arts teacher in Pequot Lakes and a SEED facilitator for the district.

The SEED program at Pequot Lakes was a recent subject of scrutiny after Superintendent Chris Lindholm mentioned it in a video about equity practices and staff development as part of a collaborative project called “The Rural Reveal.” Lindholm discussed his experience coming from the Twin Cities to Pequot Lakes and his desire to help marginalized students feel more welcomed.

He spoke of the SEED Project as one of the mechanisms Pequot Lakes is using to achieve that goal and described positive outcomes resulting from that work.

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Some community members took issue with Lindholm’s characterization of the Pequot Lakes community as a place that may not be welcoming for everyone, and some specifically called out the SEED program. It led to a single-issue school board work session on April 12, followed by a public comment period hosted by the board.

Rubado took SEED training in the summer of 2017 along with teachers Deanne Trottier and Sheri Levasseur to become a facilitator. They brought what they learned back to Pequot Lakes and then led two groups of teachers through SEED classes - one in 2017-18 and one in 2019-20.

The nine-month course consists of one class a month during the school year. About 60 Pequot Lakes staff members went through the course, with 51 current staff members certified.

“SEED classes can be crafted to meet the needs of the local community. So we wouldn’t expect a SEED class in Minneapolis or New York or some place like that to have the exact same needs as a SEED class in a small town like Pequot Lakes,” Rubado said.

“When we were trained, we were given this opportunity to explore our own biases. … It was an opportunity to hear from the experiences of people that we would never in any other context be able to hear,” she said.

Rubado said teachers learned in the leadership course how to make sure their classrooms are set up to be inclusive for all students. SEED is not a curriculum for students, though. In fact, students may not even know what the program is, as teachers do not discuss it with them.

“What SEED has done for us is allowed us to craft the systems in our classrooms, think about our classroom practices through this lens of inclusivity,” Rubado said. “‘Is what I’m about to do, is the system I have set up welcoming and inclusive to all students?’ So it’s not a matter of one group of students getting less and another getting more. It’s everybody having a voice, everybody being included.”

One of the misconceptions around programs like SEED Rubado said she hears is they favor students who might be in the minority or who feel excluded.

“And I think it’s just as important for all of our students to be in an inclusive environment to learn how to include themselves,” she said.

“Part of our school’s mission is to prepare students for life after Pequot Lakes and to be able to consider other perspectives, understand the broader world," she said.

Rubado’s strong desire for equity in her classroom likely stems from her time as a special education and alternative education teacher.

“I think that background has always had me leaning towards equity and inclusion,” she said. “And so then when I moved on from alternative ed to sixth grade, I don’t think I ever lost that part of myself that desires to see all students included.”

Even though it may not feel like a small town like Pequot Lakes has a lot of diversity, it actually does, Rubado said, whether it’s racial, religious, economic or some other kind. Not everyone thinks the same or comes from the same background.

“There are just so many reasons why kids might not feel included, and that has never sat well with me. So given this opportunity to take this training, it just seemed like a perfect fit," she said.

But Pequot Lakes isn’t the only place where diversity and inclusion training can be helpful.

“I think there’s work to be done in every community. I don’t think Pequot is uniquely in need of it compared to other places,” Rubado said. “I think all places can benefit. We can all work on being more welcoming and more open to a variety of viewpoints, everywhere. I think that’s been true over time, and it’s certainly true now.”

Frequently asked questions

The district compiled a list of frequently asked questions about the SEED Project and provided answers on its website.

A full list of questions and answers is available at https://bit.ly/3xuNEFg. The website is updated as new questions come in.

The following are some of the questions the district provided answers to.

Who approved SEED?

  • The school board approves the Alternative Career Pathways program annually in partnership with the teachers union, allowing for internal professional development opportunities to qualify for internal graduate credits to be applied to placement on the salary schedule. The school board approves the professional development budget annually as part of the overall district budget. Alternative Career Pathways proposals/projects are approved by an internal committee represented by teachers and district administration. Professional development expenditures are approved and monitored by the district teaching, learning, and technology coordinator. Because the SEED program has been funded through both the Alternative career Pathways program and professional development budgets, it has been approved by both entities.

How is SEED paid for?

  • The initial training for the facilitators and materials for the annual cohorts was paid for by Sourcewell as an approved Alternative Career Pathways project. Graduate credits or stipends for participation in the annual cohorts are paid for by the school district.

How long has SEED been around, and why are there papers on its website about white privilege?

  • The National SEED Project was founded in 1987 by Peggy McIntosh, who wrote several papers on white privilege, which are included on the organization’s website. Those papers are included on the website as a historical reference, as they were the foundation on which the project was built. They are not, however, a focal point of the local SEED program.

The local SEED classes addressed privilege in a broader sense. Participants listened to and read about the experiences of people who have had a more difficult time navigating the systems in place in society due to their race, income level, gender, sexual orientation or disability. They reflected on the systems they’re a part of and those that they helped create (such as their own classrooms) and practiced recognizing when those systems, by their design, may create barriers for some people but not for others.

  • Why “equity” and not “equality”?

The goal of educational equity is to find out where each student is at in their learning and what they need in order to be successful. Equality, on the other hand, would mean that each student gets exactly the same thing. Both equity and equality share the goal of fairness; however, equality can only work if all students start in the same place and need exactly the same things to grow as learners.

Theresa Bourke may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.