Spring ‘Climate Survey’ Rattles Community

The development and fallout of the DEIB initiative

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Sadie Schoenberger, Head Arts Editor

A 62-paged ‘climate survey’ produced by former Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Dr. Omari Keeles was administered to all Middle School and Upper School students last spring during a DEIB block. This survey faced immediate backlash and all collected data was ultimately deleted. The survey’s content, especially the question which asked students, “What is your household yearly income?” left many in Poly’s community distressed and prompted some families’ concern about the survey’s intent. 

 

According to Head of School Audrius Barzdukas, the “original intent was born after the student walkout from the blackface video a number of years ago,” as part of the school’s DEIB programming. Even though the idea had been supported by administrators since 2019, many at the school, including Barzdukas, said they did not see the survey before it came out, and feedback from the US and MS deans (who saw the survey the day before it was given out) didn’t seem to be implemented. 

 

In the Polygon’s research into the creation and implementation of the climate survey, the Polygon spoke to the Head of the Parents’ Association, the Head of School, the Associate Head of School, MS and US Deans, and students and faculty involved in DEIB. The Polygon attempted to reach Keeles for comment via an email address and LinkedIn but did not receive a response in time for publication.

 

The Day Of The Climate Survey: Its Contents and the Reactions 

By 10:15 a.m. on May 16, 2022, every student on the Dyker Heights campus, ranging from 5th to 12th grade, sat down in their assigned classrooms during the first half of the DEIB block to take a ‘climate survey.’ The survey had dozens of pages of mostly multiple-choice questions that ranged from “How long is your trip to school each morning” to “How would you describe your political beliefs?” to “What is your household yearly income?” 

 

Most questions were on a sliding scale, where students were to answer given statements by clicking “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” including asking whether one was happy/proud to be a member of their racial/ethnic group, social class, and gender group, if one was “a different person at school than at home,” if one believed poor people and women have “fewer chances to get ahead,” if one experienced “discriminatory or unfair events at Poly,” and how likely one is “to recommend Poly Prep to friends or peers.”

 

In a matter of minutes after the survey was assigned on Google Classroom, its contents and purpose became a school- and family-wide discussion.

“I was a few pages in and decided just to stop taking it. I looked at the questions and then told my administrator I was done and left.””

— Ava Vitali

“I was a few pages in and decided just to stop taking it. I looked at the questions and then told my administrator I was done and left,” said sophomore Ava Vitali, noting that questions about donations and political beliefs stood out to her. “I texted my parents as soon as I opened the survey and they told me I shouldn’t take it either. My parents felt like the information I had to provide was private, or that I wasn’t supposed to be able to answer some of the questions.”

 

Vitali was one of many who conversed with their parents about the survey. Lucy Rorech, the Head of PTA, shared that her kids “came home that day and told me about some of the questions that they were either unable or uncomfortable [answering].” 

 

“I feel that parents felt betrayed that their kids as young as fifth grade were being asked to fill this [survey out without us really knowing],” Rorech explained.

 

On May 13, Poly’s weekly electronic newsletter, the Poly Pulse, introduced the climate survey  to families on the third page of the Upper School Bulletin.  The Bulletin wrote that a survey was to be administered the following Monday: “The survey will allow us to gather detailed information about students’ in-school experiences and identify links between their reported experiences, social identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, social class, etc.), academic achievement, and overall well-being. The climate survey is confidential and the results from this survey will be used to develop action items to foster a more equitable and inclusive environment for all students to thrive.” 

 

Based on how many parents were reaching out to her after the survey, Rorech said she contacted  Assistant Head of School, Strategic Initiatives Rebekah Sollitto to let her know “that parents were surprised and concerned, and suspicious about the data that was being gathered.”

 

“Because I am so close to the administration I knew that nobody was [asking these questions]…for any [reason] that could be malevolent or nefarious,” Rorech continued. “But I had to let [Poly] know that that’s what was on parents’ minds.”

 

“Once [the survey] hit the students, my phone was blowing up,” said Kyle Graham, associate head of school.

“Once [the survey] hit the students, my phone was blowing up.” ”

— Kyle Graham, Associate Head of School.

“I got a call from a Poly parent that I have a really good relationship with [who] basically said, ‘What the heck is going on?’ To which I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Graham said.“And I’m embarrassed by this because I feel like [Mr. Barzdukas], me, we knew a climate survey was being worked on. I’ll speak for myself — I had no idea that the questions we were asking were going to be on that survey.”

 

Barzdukas confirmed that he did not have an active role in creating and designing the survey, sharing that he didn’t see the survey before it was given out. “I believe it was shared with some of the Middle School Deans, but no, I was never shown it.” 

 

“The original intent was born of the student walkout from the blackface video a number of years ago,” Barzdukas said. “And the intent was for us to take a snapshot of our community’s attitudes toward matters of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

 

“Dr. Keeles, with his academic background, arrived with a particular kind of expertise to make the survey happen,” Barzdukas continued. 

 

“My job was to give [Dr. Keeles] the resources that he needed to do it and support him,” Barzdukas said. “We paid for consultants to come from the University of Michigan and Columbia to help construct the survey…but Dr. Keeles really led it. It was his project.”

 

Barzdukas acknowledged that some of the questions could have been “tricky,” especially for the younger students in particular. Regarding the question about income, he said, “In talking with Dr. Keeles about it, what they were interested in doing was correlating students’ perceptions of self and others with their perceptions of their families’ income level.”

 

“We, of course, want to better understand the climate of our school and understand what’s going on,” Graham reflected. “But is it appropriate to ask these questions of students or their families at any point in time, let alone with the kind of rollout we did? I don’t think we did the best job rolling it out, training our faculty, preparing the community for what we’re going to ask.”

 

The Development of the Survey

In March, before the survey was assigned to the student body, student leaders of various affinity and alliance groups on campus received an email from Keeles inviting them to meet with consultants.On Friday, April 8th, the consultants who are assisting me with the climate survey will be on campus to collect information about Poly. I would like them to speak with certain people/groups of people which includes student leaders,” Keeles wrote.

 

Senior Jennifer Lavanigno-Sisk, who leads the neurodiversity affinity group, attended one of these meetings.

 

“I didn’t develop the climate survey… my role was to come in and answer questions. Dr. Keeles sat in his chair listening while there were two [consultants] facilitating the questions,” said Lavanigno-Sisk, noting that the questions were about what her group did and how they felt about certain issues as well as how she felt about Poly and what the school could do better.

 

“[Dr. Keeles and his consultants]  were trying to before preparing a final version to see if there was any feedback that they could get from some of the student leaders to just make suggestions to continue drafting and editing,” said Dr. Angela Gittens, Upper School coordinator of DEIB, regarding Keeles’ process of creating and editing the survey.

 

“When it came to the survey, [Keeles] let myself and the other [DEIB] coordinator know what he was planning to do as a research specialist, but he also made it very clear that he was not trying to have us have to be a part of it because that was his specificity and his area of research,” Gittens explained. 

 

Final Edits

 

Emily Gardiner, chair of Upper School deans, confirmed that the deans were shown the survey the day before it was given out to discuss logistics.

 

André Del Valle, head of the Middle School, attended this meeting. “If I remember correctly, when we met with Dr. Keeles, we shared our thoughts about MS students being able to answer some of the questions asked in the survey,” he wrote in an email to the Polygon. “Students developmentally at MS have difficulty with certain types of questions that need more clarification, so we shared our thoughts. Dr. Keeles owned the study, so ultimately the contents were up to him.”

 

“We had feedback,” said Middle School Dean Alia Carponter-Walker. “But I think at that point, even though we had thoughts on a few of the questions it was too late to go back and make those changes.” 

 

Graham acknowledges this to be one of the moments where things went wrong. “I think when the feedback came in from deans, or other trusted adults in our community that maybe some of these questions weren’t best suited for kids. Why didn’t that stop the questions from moving forward?” he said. “[The idea that] ‘it was too late at that point’… to me that’s unacceptable. If there is an email scheduled to go out tomorrow or we’re scheduled to do something tomorrow and we find out today it’s inappropriate, we put a stop to it… How did that happen? That’s a question. So obviously we can’t ask Dr. Keeles that question [right now].”

 

Keeles has since left Poly Prep, as Barzdukas announced in an email over the summer. “He decided to move on,” said Barzdukas. 

 

“Dr. Keeles was great. He’s very smart, very compassionate, really even-tempered…a great thinker,” Barzdukas continued. “I just think that he felt it wasn’t a good fit for him.”

 

“I don’t want to read into his decision,” he said, “But [working in a secondary school environment is] different than working in the college environment.”

 

The Administration of Survey 

In the second of two emails sent to families to address the survey, Barzdukas wrote that “multiple issues made the survey’s data unreliable.” Those issues included final edits not being included in the version that was administered, and significant variability in how the survey was facilitated.

 

“The way it was administered was wildly inconsistent…sometimes kids were allowed to ask questions, [some kids were in contact with their parents], ” Barzdukas explained. “We didn’t do a great job of prepping the faculty in terms of the survey administration. So that led to the data being deemed unreliable.”

 

At 6:35pm on May 16, hours after the survey had taken place, Barzdukas wrote an email to families thanking them for their children’s participation and emphasized that the survey was anonymous. “I want to emphasize that the privacy of your children is important to us and critical to the success of the survey, student responses to the survey are completely anonymized and the school would not be able to identify an individual student’s responses,” he wrote.

 

Three days later, Barzdukas sent another email thanking families for their “valuable feedback” about the survey. It announced “all the data [has] been permanently deleted.” 

 

“I apologize for any confusion and discomfort this survey caused,” Barzdukas wrote. “Going forward, we will re-evaluate our needs and keep you informed should we embark upon methods to assess student perspectives.” In an interview with the Polygon, Graham added that Poly plans to “put the brakes on this” type of community polling until it’s possible to do something more “thoughtfully, carefully, [and] in collaboration with our community.”

 

“I think it was really significant that Mr. Barzdukas in his note to parents apologized,” Rorech reflected. “There was definitely an acknowledgment of the fact that they had missed the mark on this one. ”

 

Neither of these emails were sent to the student body. “I think I feel like students should have received [the emails]. That was a mistake,” Barzdukas said.

 

Along with emails that were sent out, conversations took place amongst members of the Poly community in the following weeks. 

 

Graham noted that the climate survey was brought up in the Board of Trustees’ meeting that June.

 

Rorech and a small group of parents met with Keeles shortly after the survey was administered. “He definitely defended the fact that the survey was not created just by him in a vacuum. That he had had student input and input from this consultancy company,” Rorech recalled. 

 

“We thanked him for his bravery in going in there and trying to address some of these topics and gather the data,” she noted.

 

“It’s complicated,” Graham said. “We all want to support kids, but how we go about doing it, we have to learn from our mistakes and learn from what happened last year and do a better job.”