Marina Kojic, who came to Grand Forks 24 years ago from Bosnia by way of Yugoslavia, started teaching in local schools in 2003, and she hopes her involvement in a new school district committee will make Grand Forks an even better community.

Kojic is one of about two dozen people who are serving on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, assembled this summer by Superintendent Terry Brenner, to come up with recommendations and an action plan to present to the Grand Forks School Board in October.

The committee was formed in the aftermath of an offensive, race-related message, posted on social media, which sparked a wave of outrage. The post, sent at the end of the last school year, indicated to many educators, and others, that more work needs to be done to ensure the safety, well-being and equitable treatment of all schoolchildren.

“I am pleased to see different parts of the community (represented) on the committee, such as people from the city (government), UND and various organizations. It helps to see different angles of looking at a problem," Kojic, who will soon begin her 17th year of teaching in the Head Start Program of Grand Forks Public Schools, said.

Committee members have met four times.

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“I strongly believe that cultural issues need to be taught,” said Kojic, who also serves as vice president of the Global Friends Coalition Board. “We are doing it, but bringing more tools to the toolbox would be definitely helpful for teachers.”

She brings the perspective of a Head Start teacher who, along with her colleagues, focuses “quite a bit on social skills and dealing with emotions,” Kojic said. “Those skills have to be taught.”

In addition to the Head Start program, she has taught summer school classes, in science camps and remedial reading courses.

When it comes to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, “it’s not only teaching students, but also families and the community,” she said. “It has to come from the parents. We have to all be on the same page to create better understanding.”

In the committee’s meetings, “many, many great ideas and suggestions” have been discussed and members are getting a “much more clear picture” of the task at hand, according to Kojic.

“It’s great the things that are happening in our committee. It’s a blessing for our community," she said.

Giving back

Another parent and committee member, Bella Hettich, has two sons who have graduated from Grand Forks schools, David and Daniel, and a fifth-grader, Simeon, 10. As students at Grand Forks Central, David was an outstanding runner and Daniel was a National Merit Finalist, she said.

“And Simeon loves his teachers and friends at Phoenix (Elementary School)," she said.

Hettich, who came to Grand Forks about 20 years ago, is director of diversity and inclusion at Mayville State University.

She joined the GFPS diversity committee “to give back to the Grand Forks community that has welcomed our family many years ago from our war-affected homeland,” she said. “Grand Forks has been really good to us.”

“I hope that, from both life and work experiences, I would be able to add to the committee’s purpose to ensure Grand Forks schools are a place where inclusion and equity work for the betterment of all students from our growing diverse community,” she said.

About the societal problems related to diversity, equity and inclusion, Hettich said it is important to acknowledge them before we move forward.

“There are lots of good people on the committee, good educators on the committee,” said Hettich. “We are of the same mind, (and) we acknowledge things that are not working well and focusing on what we can do better.”

Before joining Mayville State University’s administrative staff, she worked for 14 years in the English Language Learner program at UND, she said.

“So I always felt surrounded by people from all over the world," she said.

Diversity in schools

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Committee was formed at the end of the last school year and began meeting every other week starting July 9.

Members are Superintendent Brenner; Assistant Superintendent Catherine Gillach; Associate Superintendent Jody Thompson; the district’s chief academic officer, Amy Bartsch; GFPS teachers Marina Kojic and Karrie Bohan; Michelle Rydz, executive director of the High Plains Fair Housing Center; Katie Dachtler, Grand Forks City Council member; Robin David; Stacey Barboa-Peterson, UND director of diversity; Bella Hettich; Courtney Davis Souvannasacd; Tamba-Kuii Bailey; Thomas Mah; Gabe Dahl, high school associate principal; Brian Loe, middle school associate principal; David Saxberg, elementary school principal; Jeffrey Powell; Pete Haga; Maura Ferguson; Krishna Bhattarai, Niema Mahamud; and Geoff Gaukler, the school district’s mental health coordinator.

They have focused their efforts on defining the problem and its significance, understanding what has been done in terms of curriculum and instruction, planning and implementation and developing actionable steps.

The group is taking a look at a school culture that is predominantly white, but less so than years ago.

About two-thirds of the school district’s roughly 7,500 students are white; 8.1% are Hispanic or Latino; 6.5% are Black or African American; 4.0% are Asian; 4.0% are American Indian or Alaska Native; and 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; and 9.6% are multiracial.

Among the district’s 1,530 employees, 1,446 are white; 33 are Hispanic; 21 are American Indian or Alaska Native; 15 are Black or African American; 14 are Asian or Pacific Islander; and one did not provide ethnicity.

‘Get people thinking’

Another committee member Michelle Rydz said she was selected to serve because of her work as executive director with the High Plains Fair Housing Center to stop housing discrimination in North Dakota.

She is also the parent of a junior at Grand Forks Central High School and an eighth-grader at Valley Middle School.

The purpose of the committee in supporting diversity, equity and inclusivity “is especially important today when there is an increased awareness of systemic inequality in our communities,” Rydz said.

“There has always been, and will continue to be, a need for the district to work on building supportive and safe schools," Courtney Davis Souvannasacd, who was invited to serve on the committee member, said. "This committee was brought together to discuss the discrimination, bias and inequities that students experience within our schools.”

The mother of two students -- one entering first grade and the other going into seventh grade -- said the immediate work of the committee has focused on creating sustainable goals for the school district’s strategic plan.

The committee’s purpose is “to create, establish and sustain a Cultural Competence Action Plan for the Grand Forks and Grand Forks Air Force Base school districts,” said Souvannasacd, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and outreach coordinator for the National Resource Center on Native American Aging at UND’s Center for Rural Health.

In two recent meetings, Souvannasacd, along with Katie Dachtler and Tamba-Kuii Bailey, also committee members, have facilitated discussion on inherent bias, inequity and anti-isms.

“As a community member and parent, I have appreciated this opportunity,” Souvannasacd said, “and was pleased to hear that the district is currently offering professional development training through Teaching Tolerance (program) … (R)esources like this fundamentally serve to get people thinking.

“It is my hope that these diversity, equity and inclusivity goals are incorporated through the (district’s) strategic plan and professional development continues to be a priority, thus becoming everyday practice.”