Meet Provo’s new principal who wants to champion diversity

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Wendy Dau said she’s not afraid of words like inclusion, equity and diversity — and she doesn’t want other educators to be afraid either.

“At the moment, in our political climate, we shy away from these words, this vocabulary,” said Dau.

But those conditions are at the heart of everything schools do when they’re at their best, said the new Provo City School District principal.

“I think everyone should be able to make a commitment to ensure that all students enjoy and love coming to school, that they feel very involved and safe, that they feel that they are seen and that their experiences are validated whatever they are,” she added.

This attitude first appealed to her at the schools in Provo. The district is one of the few in the state with a strong Equality and Inclusion Statement. And she hopes to build on that in the years to come.

Dau will officially begin her work as headmistress when school starts on August 16 and will spend the first day with the 13,000 students she will be supervising in this job.

“[Provo is] a smaller district,” said Dau. “So when you’re in a cabinet in a very large district, you find that your influence is rather minimal and that it’s very remote from the classroom. But in this county, where there are only two high schools and two middle schools, it’s much easier to feel that impact.”

She was appointed by the Provo School District School Board in May. Dau succeeds Keith Rittel, who had held the position since June 2012 before retiring.

Dau grew up in Bountiful and attended Brigham Young University, where she majored in history and English classes. She has two graduate degrees from the University of Utah.

She began her career at the Davis School District, where she taught for 17 years. In 2013, she became the assistant principal at Jordan High School in Sandy, on the southern end of Salt Lake County. Over the next eight years, she held various leadership positions in the Canyons School District before accepting her final position as director of federal and state programs for the district.

Dau said that in recent years, the Provo School District has seen an increase in its diversity, particularly in the number of students affected by homelessness and multilingual students. It may not be what the average person thinks about Utah County, which has historically been overwhelmingly wealthy and white.

“We’re seeing higher levels of poverty, greater housing challenges, and an increase in students who, while not inherently homeless, experience what we would call ‘homelessness’ when their housing is unstable,” Dau said.

As the daughter of immigrants from Denmark, Dau said she embraces diversity and different backgrounds. And she wants those identities to be celebrated.

“We have to pick up the students where they are,” she said. “Whether it’s because of their talent or because of their multilingualism, which I also see as a great advantage. I don’t want our students who speak more than one language ever to feel that this is a problem. That has to be taken as ‘that’s great’.”

Dau said she recognizes that schools have recently become a political battleground, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion. These include banning books on the minority experience, challenging any discussion of race in the classroom, or even having Utah’s elected officials claim that schools are “complicit in the manipulation of children for sex trafficking.” Dau said her priority is the students and she makes sure every child feels accepted and safe.

In the broadest sense, justice means to them. Regardless of a student’s experience, she said, they should be able to come to school who they are and have equal access to a quality education.

“All we have to do is sit in the same room often and have face-to-face conversations,” she said, to get individuals to work together towards a common goal.

Dau emphasized the relationship between parents and educators as one way to do this.

“We have to work with them [parents],” she said. “We shouldn’t force a kid to switch codes when they go home. … It should be a partnership where we’re working towards the same thing.”

Code switching for students often makes it seem like they speak a language at home and come to school feeling pressured to look or speak differently. She wants students to be able to feel who they are.

One key change she hopes parents and students will notice under her leadership is better communication, Dau said.

“I’m probably a more public figure than some superintendents,” she said.

She intends to be active on social media and to host a new podcast to highlight events in the district.

In addition to an intensive focus on science, Dau also wants to create a positive culture for students and employees, said Dau. This is where inclusion comes into play.

“I want to make sure that children enjoy coming to school,” she said. “But also our employees, I want them to enjoy coming to work.”

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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