Like other districts across the nation, Long Branch Public Schools found itself forced to deal with the twin forces of racial and social justice protests and a pandemic that further exposed the inequities students of color face daily. And in the middle of this turmoil, the board also had to do a midyear search for a superintendent.

“It was a highly sensitive time fueled by the impact of seeing our nation struggle with discrimination and racism,” says Tasha Youngblood Brown, president of the board of education for the 5,800-student shore district in Monmouth County. “Our students had questions. Our staff and teachers had questions. Everyone struggled to make sense of what was happening nationally and how it was impacting our district.”

Long Branch, a low-income minority majority district, is no stranger to “the hard conversations” around racial and social justice, Superintendent Francisco Rodriguez says. One of the 31 SDA districts (former Abbott districts) in the state, with four of five students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, it is one of only a few in the nation that has an Academy of Social Justice within its high school.

Over the past two decades, Long Branch has seen significant growth among students whose first language is Spanish and Portuguese. Today, 55% of Long Branch’s students are Hispanic-Latino, 25.5% are white, and 16% are African American. Almost one-fourth (23.9 %) are English language learners.

As the board discussed how to dive more deeply into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, the district had to look for a new leader. Michael Salvatore, who had been superintendent since 2011, resigned in December 2020 after he was named senior vice president for administration at Kean University. The board narrowed the list to three internal candidates and selected Rodriguez, who was serving as principal at Amerigo A. Anastasia Elementary School.

A New Position in the District Rodriguez, who started Feb. 1, calls his new job “an honor, a privilege and a sacred trust.”

One of his first initiatives was to reorganize the district’s leadership team to “embrace all facets of diversity, equity and inclusion” and create an office specifically devoted to DEI issues.

“Our community has reflected a diverse tapestry of culture, language and opportunity since I was a child,” says Rodriguez, the first Long Branch native to serve as superintendent in the district’s 170-year history. “There is no question that the children and families we serve will benefit from an ever-present and devoted office … that exists to keep our lens focused on diversity, equity and inclusion for all.”

The new superintendent didn’t have to search far and wide when selecting the first DEI director. He had seen firsthand the work of Markus Rodriguez (no relation), a longtime student advisor at Anastasia Elementary School.

“His skill set is as diverse as the role we’ve asked him to undertake, and he will need to draw upon all of his experience and skills to be a bridge of understanding and a guardian of DEI,” the superintendent says.

Markus, a 22-year Long Branch employee who taught for five years before becoming a student advisor/school counselor in 2004, describes his role “as an advocate in service to families and children.” Fully bilingual in Spanish with “passable Portuguese skills,” he prides himself on “building relationships with the community, with families, with students, essentially one at a time.”

“It’s a necessary part of the job to have that kind of connection with the community,” says Markus, who started in his new role March 1. “You have to have an open heart to really address issues that are really hard to talk about for so many people. Often when we are in polite company, people will say to me, ‘It’s really, tough to talk about issues of race and racism.’ The answer is, ‘Yes. Yes it is, but how do we start to fix that?’ We start by educating young and educating early.”

Building on the DEI Council already in place in the high school academy, Markus created a districtwide group that now has community, staff, and administrative representatives from each of Long Branch’s 11 schools. The group, which meets twice a month, is reviewing the district’s curriculum and policies to ensure they are focused on DEI best practices. Group members also will provide resources and DEI advocacy services to students and staff at the school level.

“We really have to dig deep into the curriculum and what’s being taught,” Markus says. “Is there implicit bias? Have we looked at it through this lens in the past 10 to 15 years? Do we need to revisit? All of these pieces of the puzzle are part of the reason our district decided we can’t possibly do this without having a dedicated space for it.”

Brown says eliminating “racial and gender fences so that students don’t feel isolated and alone” is critical. Ways to do this, she says, include the sharing and celebration of cultural differences, creation of inclusive classroom spaces, and the development of a collaborative, DEI focused environment for students and staff.

“As our students enter the world upon graduation, they will need to learn how to interact, learn from, and embrace those that are different from them,” Brown says. “As educators and employees, it’s important that we embody the practices we teach.”

While the DEI council looks broadly at curriculum and policies, Markus Rodriguez has been conducting an equity audit of the district’s day-to-day operations. The scope of this work is huge, ranging from a data-driven dive into the district’s hiring practices to a look at whether kindergarten lessons have a DEI focus.

“Just to give you an example of what’s on my desk today, I’m doing an audit of a language survey,” Markus says. “I have a breakdown of how many students we have in each building who speak a certain language. I’m looking at the data to see if anything jumps out. Does one building have more resources than the other? Why is that? Are resources allocated in an equitable manner?

“Questions, questions, questions,” he says. “The only way to get the answers is to ask.”

Moving Forward in a Post-COVID World  As students prepare to return to school this fall in a post-COVID world, Markus notes a large number will come back with as many — if not more — challenges than they faced prior to the pandemic. He believes developing an equitable, inclusive environment for all will help Long Branch blunt issues such as learning loss and the social/emotional challenges students will face as full in-person classes resume.

“The children who were at risk before didn’t stop being at risk. In fact, it got worse,” he says, noting that food insecurity has been an issue since the pandemic began. “We had a lot more boots on the ground, doing home visits at a distance, and it was obvious that families were going through an extremely difficult time. It’s been pretty amazing how the community has responded, but we have to keep responding. We can’t stop now.”

Throughout a conversation with School Leader, Markus Rodriguez keeps returning to two words: Connection and conversation.

“I find a way to connect with people to help them understand that the whole issue of racism is not just about color. It’s about equity,” he says. “You have to start that conversation wherever the person sitting opposite of you is. They may not be ready to have the conversation or don’t have the vocabulary to do so, so it’s on you as an advocate to say, ‘That’s all right. Let me tell you my story and we’ll go from there.’

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s partly why teachers avoid conversations or lessons that deal with diversity difference,” he notes. “But we owe it to our kids to start and have those conversations and to lead them in a way that results in understanding, empathy, and ultimately, equity.”

In the long run, Markus says the district’s most difficult task will be to help the community understand that DEI is “a daily thing you’ve got to recognize, you’ve got to work at, and you’ve got to be about.” He says the DEI council representatives represent an “army of educators” who want to “build something amazing.”

“The biggest challenge is keeping the importance of the office, the reason, the why, at the forefront,” he says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh yes, well DEI makes sense when people are dying and people are getting shot and there’s riots.’ It’s when things calm down, maybe DEI is not commonly in conversation, that we will be challenged to keep that lens and that voice alive and heard. I believe we’re up to that challenge.”

Glenn Cook is the former executive editor of American School Board Journal, the magazine of the National School Boards Association. A freelance writer and photographer, he remains a contributing editor to ASBJ.