Milan Naropanth ('23)
A beacon of change
Mr. Thompson was appointed by Lawrence Township Public Schools as the director of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” on June 30, 2021. Currently, LTPS students have completed almost half a school year without a formal introduction to Mr. Thompson. We decided to schedule a Zoom meeting to interview him and get to know him as our new director. It quickly became evident that Mr. Thompson is beyond passionate about his work, and he hopes to connect further with the students of LTPS. Here’s a closer look at our conversation, consisting of a question-and-answer interview. You can also view this video to watch the full interview!
As director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what specifically do you do?
Specifically, I want to make sure that there are spaces where students can feel safer and learn better. I do that by helping to further professional development for teachers, offering a different lens at certain meetings, and we are soon going to start a podcast about diversity and inclusion. I had a meeting today and we talked about putting a procedure in place in case someone challenges something.
What is specifically being contributed to the curriculum to increase equity in our school?
We looked at the ninth grade health curriculum, and we learned that it is pretty benign with mentioning any kind of identity. However, we were able to discover certain things we want to add to the curriculum. For example, we teach about heatstroke, and examples given are often about the beach. However, if you do not have the income or resources to go to the beach, you may shut off and miss essential information about how to treat heatstroke. We want to add extra scenarios, such as heatstroke at the park or in your backyard.
Every year, people come up with New Year's resolutions. As director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, do you have any resolutions? I don’t do New Year's resolutions, because as my mom said, if you want to improve, do it tomorrow. Start the plan now. But I still have a focus. I want to remember the “why” of what I’m doing, and help others understand as well. For example, we need to talk about why we need to talk about race, because race is still important to talk about. If we don’t recognize that, it becomes a problem. In terms of post-high school plans, not everyone’s parents go to college, and they still do well regardless. If all you hear at school is that you need to go to college, you might be confused about your parents who still have a good job despite not having a college degree. When you learn something in school, that brings about a happy feeling that has nothing to do with material good. If we can teach people how to learn, they feel better.
Will you work with student club officers, and how will you approach sports?
If you let me know, I will do my best to be at any meetings for you. Just reach out to me through email, and I’ll come out. I played sports in high school and college, I’m a member of a fraternity, and I believe in sports and clubs. If a group is good, it’ll help the community. And through sports, you learn how to accept other people and recognize that everyone can be talented, and that sometimes hard work trumps talent. You learn to deal with success and losses in honorable ways, and you grow up with a set of adult eyes and mentorship. If there’s a question you have about starting a club, I want to be an adult you can feel comfortable talking to. Let them know that they are welcome, and that their opinion is valued (such as for girls in the STEM Academy). That is how we increase our diversity in undiverse places.
Prior to coming to Lawrence, you were involved in New York City schools, and you worked with Creative Equity Solutions. How will this help you at Lawrence?
I majored in sociology in college, not education. When I took the Praxis, I received a high enough score to get certified. My first mentor was a great principal, and she taught me valuable things. And I realized that the students who liked me often put in more effort and got better grades. That’s why I wanted to make sure my students liked me at least a little more than zero. When students recognized that I cared, they liked me more. When I came to New Jersey and worked in Paterson, I had another very good principal. Of the teachers who I worked with under his supervision, 15 of us have become principals. I started asking questions on Facebook, asking what to do to engage students more. A childhood friend started Creed Strategies, a company that works with school districts. I learned to leave my adult stuff at the door, because my job is to make sure a student feels safe, warm, and welcome in the classroom. If a student isn’t doing well, we need to investigate why and rectify it. We just need to be reminded of the simple strategies that help students do better.
How will you use your equity grant to make LHS a more equitable school?
I don’t know the parameters of the grant yet, but the focus will be on providing curricular items for younger kids, like books. We want them to be able to see themselves in their curriculum. If the kid can’t relate to what they are learning, it will be difficult for them to be fully engaged.
Do you have any thoughts on our current English reading curriculum?
We have to talk about the issue of books lacking diverse characters, as well as acknowledge the time period that books were written in. If you can explain why I’m absent from the scene, I can accept it better. If I have to repeatedly read about stuff that doesn’t involve me, I will be less interested. I remember one class was reading Othello, and a character called a woman a “vile wretch.” The student recognized that the character was degrading women. I realized as an observer that the female student became more engaged as she related the language of Shakespeare to the language in music. We need to add the books that students actually read more in the English curriculum. We can have conversations based on old books based on relevant topics. I had an English teacher in ninth grade, and he had us read a poem about a man who had a bad day and had a headache. The teacher interpreted it very deeply, and I just thought that it was just about a man who had a headache. Since we disagreed, he seemed to dislike me from that day forward. We need to keep these books open to interpretation. I have to recognize that what a student thinks about a book might actually be right.
What are you doing to tackle the issue of casual discrimination in the school and local community?
If someone says something that may cause another person to think they are gay they say 'pause' immediately after the statement. I do not like or participate in the practice of doing this because the insinuation is that something is wrong with being a gay man. I dislike doing this because I shouldn’t have to change what I say and do just because someone thinks I have a certain identity. When I encountered a group of teenagers saying the n-word, I calmly asked them to stop, and they did. So when a teacher hears a student say something objectionable, it doesn’t have to be a write-up. It can just be telling them to stop. We want to make sure that a student knows that, even if I don’t love what they’re saying, I still value them. It’s about becoming respectfully aware of where you are at a given moment.
How will you encourage a gender balance in STEM classes at LHS?
We need to start STEM programs younger, and have teachers notify parents about their children’s academic abilities. We also want to attract women who are science educators to apply for open positions. When a girl walks down the hall and sees a woman with a lab coat on, she may be more likely to take her class. When President Obama first got elected, I was walking to my office, and there was a house with two young boys on the porch. They started yelling at me, “President Obama! We wanna be just like you!” since I was a black man wearing a suit. Just by having a certain person in a position who looks like a student, you can encourage a student more. Also, make your friends join your science classes with you!
How can students see what you are working on at any moment?
What we’re trying to do is put documents and other resources on the school website. You can also email me at email@example.com, or come to Central Office and stop in. You can invite me to any of your presentations, or if a teacher says something inappropriate, let me know and I can come watch your class.
A launch pad for Mr. Thompson and students
This interview has given the Lawrencian team insight into Mr. Thompson’s specific role at Lawrence Township Public Schools, and it is evident to see that he has a lot on his plate. We will keep in touch with Mr. Thompson, and we hope to see more student interaction with him as well. The future seems promising with Mr. Thompson’s passionate efforts, and we are excited to be a part of it.