My daughter's school district, like many other institutions, sent a letter this month addressing the protests following the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, at the knees of Derek Chauvin, a White police officer. However, nothing in the letter from our district superintendent was reassuring, transformative, or prescriptive to the traumatized psyche of Black parents who have to explain to our children-yet again-why the people who are sworn to protect and serve our communities must be approached cautiously.
While I am somewhat consoled the district addressed the issue at all, when many other institutions have been silent, I can't help but chafe at the words that come across as though they were part of a form letter created by a PR agency: "Just insert the name of the next murdered Black person when this happens again."
I don't need to be told to "contact the district's student-support services" to deal with the "social and emotional needs that [my] child might be facing due to these events." I need the district to change its practices and policies to root out the inequities and racial biases that permeate schools and spill over into our communities.
I'm tired of the lip service toward racial injustice. I need my school district, and districts all over the country, to take the following actions if they are truly serious about combating racism and being a safe and supportive space for students of all races:
1. Examine policies, procedures, practices with an equity lens to root out biases that may be contributing to achievement gaps. I admit this recommendation is the toughest one, but districts should not shy away from doing the hard things when it comes to racial justice. The reality is that inequitable systems do not require deliberate discrimination. In most districts, inequities in student opportunities and performance result despite the best intentions of the school district community.
As posited in Amanda Lewis and John Diamond's 2015 book, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, the daily interaction of systemic structural inequalities in social (who has the connections), political (who has the authority), and economic (who has the buying power) capital can create disparities without any active malice. The unconscious biases and cultural ideologies of even well-meaning educators and staff can further exacerbate these inequities. When this happens, the goals of policies and practices-even those targeted to support historically marginalized populations-differ significantly from actual outcomes. This creates persistent gaps in opportunity and, ultimately, in achievement for historically marginalized student populations. Districts should conduct periodic equity audits to identify when their efforts and outcomes don't line up. These regular check-ins can prompt districts to examine the root causes of such gaps and allow schools and communities to design realistic and sustainable strategies to closing them.
2. Hire diverse professionals for schools and the central offices. My 4th grade daughter has never had a teacher of color, and I fear she never will. Even though our school district is in the top 20 of the most diverse districts in my home state of Massachusetts based on student demographics, White teachers make up 95 percent of the teaching staff. And the central-office staff is also disproportionately composed of White people.
Research shows that district staff, especially those who spend a majority of their time in front of students, need to reflect their communities as much as possible to set historically marginalized students up for success. The studies on the importance of representation in the teacher workforce are well known. When policies and practices are being developed, there should also be a diverse coalition in the central office to advocate the needs of those typically underrepresented.
3. Provide continuous training and support on becoming an anti-racist district. Conscious and unconscious biases of staff (educators, administrators, support staff, and operations) impact the implementation of district and school institutional practices (e.g., human resources, student programs, behavior policies) to create inequitable student opportunities. Continuous training and support for all district staff will help mitigate some of these biases and help create an environment where all staff feel responsible and empowered to act against racist behaviors and policies.
4. Create real partnerships with families and communities to help students succeed. Research going back to the 1970s demonstrates that when parents are involved in education, regardless of their race, ethnicity, language, or socioeconomic status, children succeed in school. Schools, families, and communities share the responsibility for student achievement. Equitable school and district leaders look beyond traditional definitions of parent involvement as a one-way street to a broader concept of parents as full decisionmaking partners in the education of their children.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing school closures have starkly exposed the need for strong school, family, and community partnerships that prioritize access and equity. In whatever form schools reopen in the fall, schools cannot go back to the surface-level engagement that characterized most family interactions.
5. Move beyond heroes and holiday curriculum to culturally relevant curriculum. Without looking at the calendar, I always know when it's February, May, and September by the reading assignments my elementary school daughter has. That is when the heroes of African American, Asian American, and Latino histories are trotted out to the annual showcase.
According to the Stages of Multicultural Curriculum Transformation released by the equity education teams Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange, districts should instead work toward "seamlessly" weaving in diverse perspectives and explicitly addressing social issues as part of the curriculum. Moving from heroes and holidays to deeper curricular reform requires a thoughtful approach that includes the voices of teachers, parents, students, and other community members.
Black parents and students want their school communities to be in true solidarity with them against racial injustice. Words of platitude do not comfort or suffice. True solidarity is demonstrated in actions that root out systemic inequities and replace them with new policies and practices.
Funmi Haastrup and her husband are parents to three Black children in a suburban Boston school district. She is also a co-founder of Equity Journey Partners, an organization that works with schools and their communities on cultural proficiency and equitable ecosystems.