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Dr. Grauer's Column - Who Do We Choose to Be?

The Grauer School is assessing our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies. DEI has to be done uniquely on our campus, to fit with our core values and evolve as necessary to be equitable. We're confident that "the Grauer edge" will guide this process to deepen the connections and sense of belonging in our community.

Who Do We Choose to Be?
Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belongingness at Grauer

I. Assessing Who We Are

Thirty-two years ago, in a sleepy little California surf town, The Grauer School was formed. This was solely about relationship-based teaching and learning, and surfing, not social change in particular. Until recently, we had not done all that much social activism. Our student and school community activism has focused more on the natural world than the human world and we make no bones about that. And yet, there is no doubt that our school itself is an act of social and educational activism.

Today, diversity, along with equity and inclusion (DEI), make up three critical and compelling areas bundled into something so vast and so important it can be hard to grasp it all. The bundle means something different to every single person we speak to. What is harder, and riskier, the bundle is a natural magnet for distracting and conflicting political agendas, which we have to avoid as a school. We are moved by universal values, not politics. Some of you readers are already formulating a riposte to some of the above. It’s fraught. So, what to do?

Grauer Senior Massin I. '22, ready to go surfing - April 26, 2022 - Photo by Stuart Grauer

 Here is our way: dive in.

Many schools have DEI steering committees, advisories, boards, or programs including diversity, equity, and inclusion, if not social justice (hence DEIJ), but the acronym will only grow longer. And the work will keep taking on renewed meanings as student populations grow increasingly diverse in every way—in relation to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, special needs, and more. 

A Grauer faculty advisory came together in spring of 2022 and set its sights on doing our charter work in the fall. Unlike most such boards we have heard of, and in concert with The Grauer Way, we started with no agenda other than to advance the school mission, and with as few presumptions as possible. 

And you blinked, it is now DEIBJ, the B standing for Belongingness, and good for that. This, belongingness is where The Grauer School has been working all along and, and our own true focus. Belongingness is the ultimate Grauer School edge to such a great extent that it has become a defining raison d’etre. We survey in the 99th percentiles nationwide in this area, an outcome of our focus on relationship-based, small school design features and programming. This focus on connection is our secret sauce. 

We start and stay with curiosity: Who are we?

Our first order of business, repeated in cycles over time: to assess. To learn what we know and what we do not know, to identify what we’ve not seen, to mark what is changing.

There is much to assess if we are to have and to cultivate a clear picture of DEI at Grauer as it is. For instance, in 2019, we added social justice as one of our 7 areas for concentration for our senior graduation defenses. How’s that going? We host bi-weekly, mentored core value portfolio (CVP) hours in CVP student groups, that exemplify our year-round dedicated focus on authentic, intimate campus relationships. So, how are CVP groups doing in addressing inclusion? Can they address connection and DEI? Our close, mentored relationships are the reason for CVP discussion topics, still another critical Grauer edge. 

Historically, DEI at Grauer has been more about connection with one another than about social change or politics. In fact, we assess key elements of this every year: sense of belongingness and general inclusion, sense of emotional safety, sense of community, sense of acceptance, etc. We also try to support all student social activism. 

What else are we doing already to promote inclusion and diversity of interaction on campus? We develop curricula, clubs, programs and assemblies, logos and imagery, faculty, training, board members, investments, enrollment management and demographics, financial assistance and tuition, surrounding community, school purposes and values and we can focus on each of these as we:

  • Assess diversity: What groups and backgrounds of people are represented on our campus, and why? 
  • Assess equity (not to be confused with equality): Are we free from bias or favoritism? 
  • Assess inclusion: Who gets access to our amazing programs, culture, and campus; are people being excluded unknowingly, and why?
  • Assess social justice on campus: Do some among us seem privileged or entitled; did they earn it?
  • Assess sense of belongingness: Are people and groups on campus feeling connected? And if we assess this deeply, does it cover all the others?

Assessing all this requires of any school sustained thought and collaboration from a dedicated team. We assess none of these factors in a vacuum or from a boilerplate. They look different from every great school in the world. We are not in an urban area or in the Swiss Alps, or Cairo. We are in Encinitas, and we chose this as our community. We know we cannot be all things to all people and that if we tried, we would fail. Therefore, our responsibility for DEI assessment is to identify and prioritize what our community needs. Based upon evidence our assessments turn up, we find ways every year to help more people in our community experience a feeling of belonging. A feeling of home.

Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance; belonging is wanting to keep dancing.

Grauer Senior Lourdes F. '22 performing a flamenco dance - May 6, 2022 - Photo by Stuart Grauer

II. Who Do We Not See?

Human perceptions are formed quickly and often irrationally. Humans operate on background assumptions, another nicer word for prejudices, that get baked into our daily thoughts and decisions. We are hardly aware of them, we take them for granted, and so they are hard to change. Like laws and relationships and curriculums, background assumptions must be identified, challenged, and re-booted from time to time. If not, we become entrenched or inflexible or insulated. We jump to judgement without thinking. 

For example, researchers have shown how even “thin-slice” encounters that last less than 15 seconds result in strong perceptions about character—how kind, trustworthy, etc. we believe others are . We may not consciously and intentionally judge, exclude, and divide those people we meet, but we sure do all that unconsciously—our subconscious mind makes a great many more decisions than our conscious mind. The human mind grows complacent and, suddenly, we can be leaving out or marginalizing people and ideas without even realizing it. [1]

Just like individuals, schools and other organizations can get complacent, start running on autopilot, and disregard their own background assumptions and unintentional judgements, though probably not in 15 seconds. A DEI board, being the school’s expression of the human conscience, must identify and challenge our assumptions. As a school, that means a DEI board would be identifying and assessing our prejudices and “automatic” unthinking ways before jumping to judgement or attempting to re-program us. To do all this work, we would need a DEI assessment board engaged in the process of discovery. 

We need a curious board. What is left out and disconnected in our community, however unintentionally? What are our blind spots? What is broken that we do not see?

Grauer teachers Paulina Davis-Fisher and Mimi Robinson during Spirit Week - November 2, 2021

III. Every Failed Student is a Messenger

Our development officer, Lindsay Zickler, asks, “Will students come to our school and see themselves in other students, teachers, staff? Will they feel included and a sense of belongingness?" We hope so, as we strive for a more compassionate campus. 
However, what is all too easy to forget in our zeal to identify and compassionately include people and groups is that no environment can solve all the issues that get through our Tolerance Gateway entrance every morning. Here’s our reality: every day, 160 adolescents pass through that gateway. They can bring in every imaginable hang-up, strength, insecurity, talent, or fear, daily or from time to time. This is tough, sensitive work.

Sometimes when a student feels marginalized, it is not the doing of their classmates or the school culture. Despite attribution, harsh self-perceptions of a student may have to do with their own adjustment and psychology. We often cannot know for sure when an individual’s sense of exclusion is fundamentally internal. We question our environment first, but then what? We can only try to ask the right questions.

In assessing a situation, a DEI team must ask: Is this a matter of individual adjustment that we can address (such as encouraging friendships, improving DEI-related programs, and assigning better mentoring), or is it one we ought not to address (such as a matter for professional therapy or issues grounded outside our DEI mission)? Are we assessing the internal self-awareness or external self-awareness of a student? Is this even a school/educational issue?

We say often: efforts to be all things to all people, to accommodate everyone, make us less. But there is a flip side about this that we never seem to talk about: almost every student we decide we can no longer accommodate feels like a punch in the gut to all of us, a shadow on our claims of compassion. Every failed student is a messenger.

Do we fit just who we can into the box, or do we fix the box?

IV. Who is The Grauer School Here for? 

Let’s talk about The Grauer School as it is. The Grauer School is designed to be a meritocracy. We will earn our privileges. Like every other social and political system, a true meritocracy is an unattainable ideal. (This is equally true if equality is your value rather than merit—both are ideals never achieved.) All the same, everyone at Grauer wants to do their part to always be refining our systems to get to a place of meritocracy. We simultaneously want to avoid becoming essentially a bureaucracy. 

Student grading is a prime example of meritocracy, and so is merit pay. The minute you step into those areas, you are forever at risk—there will be no end of people claiming you are not fair, as though standardized tests and standardized pay scales have ever been fairer ways to earn privilege. If we had standardized kids who were taught standardized curriculum by standardized teachers using standardized effort and creativity, we wouldn’t have such problems, right? 

Wrong. In fact, critical fact, those are the answers The Grauer School was founded to get away from. Grauer wants kids and teachers to distinguish themselves in unique, often incomparable ways. (Interestingly, some of us find grades to be a reductionist and often unhelpful way for diverse students to distinguish themselves.)

Ethan D. '23 and Brandon D. '25 performing at Grauerpalooza - May 20, 2022 - Photo by Stuart Grauer

Understandably, people unsupportive of meritocracy have been unhappy at Grauer. We keep entitlements to a minimum. If you don’t understand meritocracy, you won’t understand DEI at Grauer.

A tricky question is: what is merit? We sort of thought we knew or acted like we knew for a while there. We have worked long and hard to advance our core values above all else: Resourcefulness, Curiosity, Perseverance, Compassion, Self-Advocacy, and Accountability. We attempt to recognize, reward, and honor them. This devotion to core values (like compassion) gives us a head start in how to assess DEI on campus. Merit for every single person at Grauer is the assessed achievement of the core values. Once again, this clarity is a defining edge.

Sticking to our core values as the measure of merit is a great DEI challenge. That’s hard. As local and campus demographics change and as inclusivity widens, the concept of “merit” changes along with it, and some people might feel threatened with a transition like that. Call it a quantum shift, or a paradigm shift, but the transitions are always challenging to the status quo. Ready or not, our community will keep changing. Who does it consist of? Will they accept our values? Will they feel accepted? Will they insist that meritocracy is only a myth? Will our values hold up?

An area of psychology called system justification theory [2] explains how people believe political, educational, social, or other systems are fairest and best if they are the ones who have succeeded in them. [3] We all are used to seeing The Grauer School in that way, as fair and good, but can we see wider, deeper, farther? Sure, we liked things like they used to be. We’ve been an island of sanity for many, and we don’t want to lose that, and yet, as the playing field changes, things have to evolve. Is our playing field level, i.e., are our systems equitable?

How scary it is to ask all these disruptive questions. How easy it would be to just go surfing and assess the dress code again. How terrifying to invite unpredictable change, politics, opinions, and risk into our happy lives! We know, “A fundamental aspect of American education should be learning how to handle difficult conversations—even when they’re not conducted particularly well, ” as David French phrases it in The Atlantic. [4] This road we choose will have some wrong forks. We will say some things wrong—already have.

Thirty-two years ago, at our school, diversity and inclusion often meant admitting students who would not thrive as well or be accepted as well, or learn as well or joyfully in the standard educational bureaucracies—and did we ever get unique, diverse characters! Now, today, in this new world, can we again, through honest assessment of our own systems, broaden our own perspectives and widen our own, individual circles of compassion? Can we recalibrate our view of the community we propose to serve? Who are we here for?

If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.
- Dr. Seuss

V. Destination: Curiosity (A Grauer School Core Value)

We humans prefer to ignore or underestimate the need for real, intended, long-term change. Even those who “on paper” can and often do appear to support the need for change often choose comfort, avoidance, or security as an actual practice in their private lives.

Those of us who can break free just a little to fix social, political, educational, or other injustices, tend to fix just one part of them or another. Oftentimes we don’t evolve, we just disrupt, and oftentimes that’s some of what’s needed. But it’s not the whole of what’s needed and it’s not going to be sustainable in this emerging world. 

Grauer Seniors Roselene R. '22 and Jenna C. '22 enjoying the school's Prom - May 14, 2022 - Photo by Stuart Grauer

At Grauer, we may add a little mentoring for someone we want to be sure is not marginalized, and meanwhile there could be major gaps in our school investment policy that are not socially sound or in our curriculum that has left off critical areas of ethnic studies. Efforts to create parity in one area (such as gender) can easily set back efforts to achieve diversity in others (such as race or income). We chase our tail. We have to look wider and farther, somehow!

We’ve all seen how efforts to remove testing standards that tilt the scales for affluent kids who purchase massive tutoring result in those same kids spending the money on more sports, clubs, tutoring, community service, etc. As the New Yorker writer Katy Waldman noted, “Prejudice doesn’t disappear when people decide they will no longer tolerate it. It just looks for ways to avoid detection.”  

The standard and favorite way schools avoid detection of their own ongoing issues is: Let’s create a program. “You want to hear about diversity on our campus, go to the club meeting.” Or, “Just have a look at the microsite on our school website.” As though the website is the solution, as though the program write-up and a great photo and a little club are the end goals. The illusion of program creation as the solution is a real problem.

At Grauer, there can be no end goal. 

What I envision for our DEI microsite is a listing and explication of the things we are routinely assessing, as the findings thicken. What are we attempting to learn? Who is doing that assessing and evaluating? How is this year’s assessment different than the year before (longitudinal development)? It’s destination curiosity: When you think you have arrived, that’s how you know it’s time to start.

VI. Determining What to Assess

The job of a leader is to ask, What are my deficiencies? How do I fill them? How do I build a team around me? - Ashish Jha

We have an imperfect system beyond fixing and always will. Now we can go in two opposite ways: We can assume the system will not really change, or we can confront the system as it is and nudge away. The latter is the point of our DEI assessment board. We do the latter, and we do so in the hope of some realistic aspirations, starting with a multifaceted and wholistic assessment of where we are at. This could be a year-long project to grasp the issues, to set up some annual assessments, and to start getting the findings of those assessments into feedback loops. These findings will help us find progress and agency within an imperfect system, to stay vital and conscious. 

In addition to what we naturally want to look for as teachers, there will always be compliance issues, such as

  • sexual harassment under Title IX (not a part of Grauer’s mandate since we do not accept federal funding, but still important)
  • equal employment opportunity/equal access to programs and non-discrimination
  • harassment, real or perceived
  • administration of student conduct (for instance, as related to our Student Contract)

As Principal Dana Abplanalp-Diggs puts it, “I'm sure that we'll identify areas where we can all do better.”

Once we spend a semester or two assessing, finding the gaps we used to not see, making the recommendations and commendations, we can agree on some goals, guided by evidence. We set goals guided by evidence, and we measure the achievement of those goals by evidence. Then we refine all that with the next rounds of evidence. It’s like washing the windows of the Empire State Building—you just go round and round.

And we aren’t just assessing program deficiencies and strengths. We’re not just thinking about systems. At Grauer, it is crucial to ask: “Are we doing enough to look after vulnerable people?” Lifting them lifts us all, connects us all more deeply. It’s not about systems, it’s about human warmth. Connection is our thing. The Grauer edge.

So why do all this DEI work? The answer is the same as for so many programs we have created from whole cloth: we do them not because they are in demand, but because they add value. We do them because they need doing, and we are the right ones to be doing them. Every discovery we make about DEI will become an enriched and ultimately essential aspect of the connection we create so well on campus. The more we find, the more our people will love more of each letter in that growing acronym, and even demand it.

DEIJB assessments could turn up deficiencies and vulnerabilities that we didn’t even know we had.

Logos showing the diverse clubs and activities that take place at The Grauer School - June 2022

VII. Tailwinds

There will be headwinds holding us back, consisting of biases and entrenched ways of seeing things, plus the exhaustion we know will be there if Covid continues. There could be financial constraints, too.

For the record, our City of Encinitas is not a headwind for us to bear: from the surf breaks to the horse ranches, our characteristics are not weaknesses, and we embrace them. We are a small school in a beach town. 

We grow from where we are planted.

There are also tailwinds propelling our school forward which we are excited about and proud of: international student recruitment is coming back (diversity), financial aid endowment is growing (inclusion), student advocacy groups are growing (equity), our curriculum is enriched and evolving with the sensibilities of compassionate teachers (connection), our board cares, our donors care, our region is increasingly supportive, and others reading this will be aware of other tailwinds. That’s what assessment is all about. We have worked hard at DEI and now it is time to work smarter.

VIII. Down the Road

DEI has to be done uniquely on our campus from our own whole cloth. As mentioned in the introduction, there need be no blueprint except the one we draw from scratch. 

Let’s start drawing. We cannot live in this world without a commonly shared sense of what we value, what is real, and we’re not getting this from educational polemics, from the algorithms generated by Facebook feeds, or from chaotic national arguing that seem to be screaming into our lives. But we can make sense of the world inside our group, and Grauer is sized for optimal, shared, group trust. Again, our edge. We feel secure on this ground. Now is the time to optimize through diversifying, which will mean identifying the voices in our group (on our campus) and making sure we are including all we can.

Starting out in this town of little oaks (“Encinitas”) thirty-two years ago, you could find road bikers, lagoon joggers, downtown life, teachers, lawyers and book merchants, grocers, gardeners, surf kings and farmer kings, and the artistes were there too, along with the peasant workers, the artisans and the hippies. It felt diverse and inclusive. Our school has lent them all a hand, meanwhile many of the players have been swapped out for new players. We were never looking for high civilization in this town, but that’s okay if we have that now because all thriving communities and civilizations have the same essentials (as do all declining ones). 

Down this road we want to meet more people, new leaders, who can show us how to make this work matter more at our school, and who can help us overcome the drags and snags and entrenched assumptions that are holding us back or will if we don’t see emerging realities. 

At Grauer, through decades of shifting educational trends, political agendas, economic realities, and demographic shifts, we have chosen to be an unshakable place of belonging and connection, every time. That’s the work. Now it is time to ask the big question again. It’s time for the leaders of all great schools to ask:  

Who do we choose to be?  

The work is harder now than it was 32 years ago. Our students feel the same, relative high sense of inclusivity and belongingness that they always have, but we must probe for more. DEI at Grauer is neither a problem to be solved nor a constraint on our usual operations, but an ongoing development area to be engaged with. This will take energy, then synergy, then momentum, and it will need identification of new milestones wherever we can find them, and new celebrations and rewards created by those who lead the way. We are expanding the meritocracy of connection. 


[1] Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2), 256–274.

[2] Psychological Science Agenda. June 2017.  A theory of system justification: Is there a nonconscious tendency to defend, bolster and justify aspects of the societal status quo? By John T. Jost, PhD.

[3] For Better or Worse? System-Justifying Beliefs in Sixth-Grade Predict Trajectories of Self-Esteem and Behavior Across Early Adolescence, Erin B. Godfrey,Carlos E. Santos,Esther Burson. First published: 19 June 2017.

[4] David French, The Atlantic, "How Grassroots Censorship Threatens the American Experiment", June 20, 2022.

Additional References of Interest:

We found these two podcasts to be valuable in terms of laying the foundation for a relational, transformative approach and asking tough questions: 

AidAccess supports people with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy (up to 10 weeks).

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer Senior Massin I. '22, ready to go surfing - April 26, 2022

Grauer Senior Lourdes F. '22 performing a flamenco dance - May 6, 2022

Grauer teachers Paulina Davis-Fisher and Mimi Robinson during Spirit Week - November 2, 2021

Ethan D. '23 and Brandon D. '25 performing at Grauerpalooza - May 20, 2022

Grauer Seniors Roselene R. '22 and Jenna C. '22 enjoying the school's Prom - May 14, 2022

Logos showing the diverse clubs and activities that take place at The Grauer School - June 2022

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Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Wisdom of Acknowledgement

This week's column features guest columnist Trevor Olson, High School Dean at The Grauer School. Trevor shares the wisdom he learned from Jim, a 79-year-old father and grandfather, about the importance of acknowledgment and respect for others.

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The level of stress and anxiety that students feel has reached new heights, which impacts their happiness, purpose, focus, honesty, depression rates, and family dynamics. Where does their stress about academic pressure come from? The answer will surprise you.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Propinquity

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Dr. Grauer's Column - Bill Toone: "On the Wings of the Condor"

Conservationist Bill Toone's new memoir takes readers on wild rides through jungle treks, across canyon-spanning footbridges, and pole barges as he faced dangerous conditions and difficult politics of conservation. Dr. Grauer became friends with Bill Toone through The Grauer School's conservation work.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Artificial Intelligence And Our Future School

The rapidly expanding reach of AI has the potential to reshape many aspects of our lives, including how students create their academic work. Our teachers are grappling with how to know when students submit original work, an issue that will be magnified when AI bots become even more prevalent and their output becomes more difficult to detect.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Top Tier

High school seniors around the country are in the process of submitting college applications, leading to important decisions about which colleges should they apply to for admission. One of the deciding factors can be whether the school is rated in the "top tier". Does attending a top-rated school lead to happiness for every student?