NEW BEDFORD – The start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February provoked a strong reaction from many, and the school community at the major New Bedford Regional Technical High School was no exception. So, when some students began calling for Russia to be removed from the display of world flags hanging in the school’s main lobby, Principal Warley Williams was delighted to have the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Family Engagement Director on his staff, whose areas of expertise include facilitating healthy conversations about challenging topics.
“Mrs. Dennis’ approach was to make them see that although there is a war, it is very much a political war; and that there are people in this building who are Russians and may or may not approve of this invasion by Russia,” Warley Williams said. “So I love that she’s here to do this, because without that understanding, our students and even our staff would be forgotten with this typical feeling between us and them.”
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For Denise – who has now spent five months in her position at GNB Voc-Tech – these kinds of conversations are essential. However, they are only one part of the job. As the first to fill the all-new position at GNB Voc-Tech, Dennis is responsible for guiding the school towards equality, diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the school’s operation and culture.
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“My job is to make sure our high school is a welcoming environment for everyone… and to look at how we make sure our curriculum, our policies, everything we do reflects our student population,” Dennis said. “Here we want all of our students to be represented in many ways.”
For now, one of her biggest focuses to this end, Denise says, is increasing school diversity — an issue that’s been a hot topic statewide for educational technology schools since state education officials and others, including the new mayor of Bedford, John Mitchell, in claiming that voc-tech’s admission policies were discriminatory.
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“I will be reviewing and evaluating the admissions process, and looking at the data will be key as we go through that,” Dennis said. “Looking at things like – did we get any increase in ELLs, or our students of color? So my role in looking at the admissions process is to really look at the data from the previous process to now and see what changes are important.”
Dennis says that a big part of getting to know the GNB Voc-Tech community consists of visiting classes and collecting feedback. In doing so, she said, one of the things she’s learned is that students want diversity in the school staff.
“One of the first tasks I want to do is increase my color teachers,” Dennis said. “Our students want to see themselves in the class, especially black males.” “So I’m working on reviewing our job descriptions and finding unique ways to do outreach and attract diverse applicants.”
Denise said her data analysis task list will soon look at GNB Voc-Tech numbers on disciplinary action to see if historically disadvantaged students such as students of color are being subjected to actions such as suspensions at disproportionate rates.
Voice for students
As a woman of color, Denise says her own experience at GNB Voc-Tech exemplifies the impact she can have on the school community when students have diversity among their adult resources. With part of her role working as an advocate on behalf of students who feel they have been discriminated against by the school itself, Denise says it’s great to see students benefit from the open door policy.
“One of the things I loved was that the students were comfortable looking into me for any incidents they felt were unfair or felt discriminatory in some way,” Dennis said. “I think it has been helpful, as a woman of color, for our students to feel that it is a natural way to come to me about things knowing I have that perspective.”
The sooner the better
Dennis, a New Bedford native and current resident of Fairhaven, came to GNB Voc-Tech 25 years ago in higher education – most recently as Head of Diversity at Massasoit Community College in Brockton; and a number of positions at UMass Dartmouth prior to this, including diversity and inclusion specialist. Part of what drew her to the high school level, she says, was her belief that the kind of direction that fair, diversity, and inclusion positions provide for students is essential before they graduate from high school.
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“I’ve been finding that once students get into college, they’re exposed to things like African-American studies, Section IX, which is the federal law that prohibits sexual misconduct,” Dennis said. “And I think kids shouldn’t just learn this when they get to a college level – that’s only those who end up going to college.”
Dennis says that another important area of conversation to be woven into the everyday high school experience is the news of the day. Keeping abreast of current events and providing teachers with accessible resources on how to approach certain topics – as she did with regard to the war in Ukraine – is another aspect of her role. “It’s important for someone in my position to always stay up to date with current events so that you can do something at any moment,” she said. “Of course our history teachers will probably talk about something like Russia and Ukraine, but there are ways to incorporate these things into other subjects, even on the store side. So another part of my job is to help make it easier for teachers to do that.”
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The Family Engagement Center is now open
The management of the school’s new Family Engagement Center – the first yet another GNB Voc-Tech center to be implemented this school year – also falls within Dennis’ purview. “It is a safe place for families to communicate openly with the school about any concerns that may arise, and it also gives us a way to bridge the gap between parents and the school,” she said. “The other part is connecting families with off-site resources to address things like food insecurity and counseling services.” Denise noted the recent appointments of two family engagement specialists who will report to her as they help facilitate activity at the center.
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While they are often seen in higher education, Denise — who sits on the board of New Bedford-based LifeStream and the Board of Trustees of Alma del Mar School in New Bedford Charter — says she sees a growing need for employees who serve in jobs like hers.
Denise, who said she looks forward to meeting more Diversity, Equality and Inclusion directors and other relevant roles as she hopes to create a network, said Denise. “I am trying to find my fellow colleagues because with the demand for this type of position increasing, I think it is important for us to be connected and give ideas for each other in best practices.
“And I’m here as a resource for other regions that want a position like this.”