By Jerry Duggan
As director of equity and inclusion at St. Louis University High School, Frank Kovarik acts as a bridge between many areas of the large Jesuit high school – students and administration; school and board of trustees; faculty and parents. In all these different contexts, Kovarik keeps his goal the same – making SLUH a more welcoming place for all.
His desire to get involved in this type of work stems from his upbringing.
“I grew up in a predominately white suburb of St. Louis, but always had a deeply held belief in the necessity of fairness,” Kovarik said.
During his time as a student at SLUH, he wrote for the school newspaper, the Prep News, and had several assignments that were particularly beneficial to his understanding of diversity at SLUH.
“I was assigned to write an article on a student affairs committee meeting and being there, listening to the genuine concerns and struggles African-American families at SLUH faced, was eye-opening,” he recalled.
While attending Saint Louis University, Kovarik majored in English and education and, living in the city’s urban core, got a firsthand experience of what systemic inequality looked like.
“St. Louis was, and still is, a very segregated city, and I got to see what that looked like as a student at SLU,” he said. “I wanted to do what I could to work toward solving these systemic problems.”
A year in the Alum Service Corps (ASC) program convinced Kovarik that secondary education was the right career path for him, and, although he remained interested in issues of social justice, his early years as a SLUH faculty member were focused primarily on being an English teacher.
His focus shifted when he was asked to teach a senior elective English class on African-American voices in literature.
“Preparing for and then teaching this class brought me back to some of the deeper questions about inequality that had been in my mind for some time,” he said. “I realized that merely being sympathetic about these issues in terms of how they impacted our African-American students was not enough.”
In addition to teaching the African-American Voices course (which he still does today), Kovarik got involved as faculty moderator of ACES (Association for Cultural Enrichment at SLUH). In this student-centered role, Kovarik fostered community among students of color, held discussion groups and hosted film screenings, among other initiatives.
In time, he was appointed to the role of director of equity and inclusion (DEI).
He is careful in how he defines these terms and seeks to apply them accurately throughout the SLUH community.
“Equity is not equality,” he said. “Equality means everyone gets the same thing, regardless of their individual needs, but equity ensures that everyone has what they need to thrive.”
To apply this principle, Kovarik meets with many different segments of the school population, trying to ensure that resources and opportunities are equitably distributed.
“Not all of our students come from the same background or upbringing, so making sure that we account for those differences in lived experience and meeting students where they are is key,” he said.
He also strives to make an attitude of inclusion pervasive in the SLUH community.
“It’s great to have more students of color, of course, but if these students don’t feel that they are a valued part of the SLUH community and free to be their authentic selves without judgment or need to conform, then we have missed the point,” he said. “Simply being part of a school community versus being included is like being invited to a party versus being asked to dance – we want all of our students to feel that they are welcomed and valued.”
Diversity and inclusion efforts have been promoted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Society of Jesus and Jesuit Schools Network (JSN).
“These institutions have all recently released documents that, in one way or another, give us a firm foundation for our work,” he said. “As a Jesuit institution, we are called to be anti-racist, open wide our hearts, care for God’s creation and give God glory through all that we do.”
Kovarik acknowledges that challenges remain in his work and concedes that he hardly has all the answers to such deeply ingrained, society-wide problems, but he remains hopeful that his work, and the work of many others, has SLUH pointed in a positive direction on these issues.
He has extended his equity and inclusion work into the classroom.
“When I go to grade my students, I take into account how much they have learned in my class, as opposed to how much they came in already knowing,” he said. “Additionally, I make it clear to students that I am there for them and want them to succeed.”
For Kovarik, small steps like these, put into practice over time, can make a world of difference.
“We want to make SLUH a place where all are welcome and can thrive.”