Parents and community members from Eastern Carver County Schools raised difficult but important questions Monday night at a community meeting called in the wake of racist incidents that have rocked the district.

Chaska High officials pulled a page from school yearbooks last spring, after discovering a photo of a student wearing blackface. A group of parents circulated a petition calling for the removal of the Chaska High principal and voiced their frustration with the way the district has handled racist acts committed by students.

At the meeting, district leaders assured the community that their concerns were being heard and explored in an ongoing racial equity audit.

"The audit isn't about determining if we have issues," Superintendent Clint Christopher said. "We have issues."

The audit and other work being done is meant to identify the core issues and ensure that the district is headed in the right direction, he said.

Christopher acknowledged that the district "didn't meet the standard" when addressing racist incidents that have plagued it in the past. Many district administrators echoed that conversations like these are important steps to addressing those issues.

"There were some instances over the past school year that made headlines around the Twin Cities," said district communications director Celi Haga. "So some of this is in response to that. But most of it actually is work that's been ongoing."

As part of this process, the district recently hired its first equity and inclusion director, Keith Brooks, who began July 9.

Brooks said he enters his new role without assumptions about the district or school community.

"Together, we will recognize that there is a vast difference between saying 'all are welcome here,' versus demonstrating 'this space was created with you in mind,' " Brooks said.

The district acknowledged that educational achievement gaps exist in the state and within Eastern Carver County Schools.

While 63% of the district's students meet math standards, just 34% of free and reduced lunch recipients are meeting those same standards.

At the community meeting, parents wrote questions on notecards that asked about recruiting diverse teachers, interpreter services for families, and the trust gap that some have seen since the incidents last school year.

One parent asked if a student who is white will be encouraged to feel shame.

Another asked if the district will be pushing Islam on students, which Haga said is related to the faith of Muhammad Khalifa, the district's equity audit director from the University of Minnesota.

"The district believes in the work that he is doing, and certainly he's a well-respected professor," Haga said.

Parent Jenna Cruz has two children in the district and believes the district is moving toward the heart of the community's concerns. "I just hope that going back to this school year versus last year, that the students that are coming back feel welcomed, and that they know they have community members that are supporting every student," Cruz said.

Community members brainstormed ideas, including putting up welcoming posters in multiple languages.

"I hope we are all more self-aware of what it means to have authentic and genuine interactions with all of our students," Brooks said.

Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112