Diversity and equity have been buzzwords in Burlington since the first high-school kids of color started attending Queen City schools. Since 2000, the number of “English Language Learners” in the school district has almost doubled, from 275 to 570.
Last summer, after a heated public dialogue on “socioeconomic integration,” school board reps voted to turn Lawrence Barnes and neighboring Old North End elementary H.O. Wheeler into “magnets” — theme schools designed to draw students from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds. This week, parents are signing their kids up for the new magnets, which are focused respectively on “integrated arts” and “sustainability.” The revamped schools are scheduled to open this fall.
Meanwhile, the teaching staff in Vermont’s most diverse public school district fails to reflect the varied ethnicities of its student body. District administrators have managed to hire only five minority teachers since 2000, despite attending minority recruitment fairs in New York City, tapping into informal networking lists, and placing advertisements in the magazine Teachers of Color.
Four years ago, the Burlington School District stepped up its commitment to the goal by creating a permanent position: director of diversity and equity. The second person to hold the job, replacing African American Leshawn Sells, is Daniello Balón, a mustachioed Filipino who takes pride in pushing the diversity envelope while respecting personal and institutional boundaries. In other words, he means business.
Can Balón overcome institutional inertia? Without criticizing Sells, Superintendent Jeanne Collins says 38-year-old Balón’s higher ed experience gives him a fresh perspective on Burlington: “He has a way of listening to the district conversation and filtering it through the eyes of ‘Are we being true to our own policy?’”
Marrisa Caldwell, who chairs the Burlington School Board’s Policy & Advocacy Committee, says Balón is doing a good job addressing the subtle racism and discrimination she thinks already exist in the Queen City.
“I’m a white person from rural Vermont who has done a lot to try to understand white privilege, institutional racism and bigotry, but I can’t ever understand what it’s like to be a person of color in Vermont,” says Caldwell, a Ward 3 city council candidate who isn’t seeking school board reelection. “I’m thankful for his ability to talk about these really touchy things … in a way that doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable.”
Balón got his first look at Burlington in 1992, on a graduate-school tour. After earning a degree at the University of California at Davis, the Bay Area native thought he might like the University of Vermont. But on his mud-season visit, he found the place’s populace a bit homogeneous. He decided instead on the University of Maryland, where he earned counseling and education degrees.
Balón had spoken out against discrimination on the UC Davis campus. He did the same thing at Maryland, using his activism to effect institutional change. For example, Balón helped create a culturally based leadership course at Maryland that he says is now a national model for other universities.
Balón gave up a “dream job,” teaching at Maryland’s Asian American Studies Program and directing the university’s Office of Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy. His wife, a South Hero native, wanted to return to Vermont.
His new windowless office, in a brick building on Colchester Avenue, is decorated with a basket of decorative bamboo shoots, a poster of a Philippines landscape and a Barack Obama calendar. Works by progressive historian Howard Zinn and ethnic studies professor Ronald Takaki can be found on his bookshelves. On his desk is a book by developmental psychologist Beverly Tatum titled Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria? Balón wears polished brown loafers, a tie and a red fleece vest. His short hair has been gently spiked, as if to accentuate his exuberant personality.
Cracking a can of soda, Balón says he does 80 percent of his work out of the office via sessions with parents, teachers and school district staffers. He’d like to do more multimedia outreach and acquire a support staff that could promote diversity from “satellite offices.” For now, though, he says, “I have to work really hard to let people know I’m here.”
“The diversity patterns here are going to continue,” Balón says of the whitest state in the union. “We need diversity because that will make us a stronger city and state in the future.”