The midsummer heat and humidity seep into the band storage room. Amid the bulky, black instrument cases, teachers sit in a hastily pulled together circle. Some cross their arms; others look tired. Everyone in the cramped room is white.
The group, dubbed the “white caucus,” is discussing and processing the past two days of a workshop designed to make them aware of the impact of white privilege and implicit bias on students of color.
Counselor Sara Moulder, who helps run the workshop for Missouri’s Parkway School District, asks the teachers to rate how they feel using green, yellow, or red. Most are at yellow. One worries that she’s inadvertently hurting students. Another isn’t sure why the subject of slavery was part of the workshop. A third is at red, saying she has a hard time with white privilege “because of the way I grew up.”
Varied reactions aside, the teachers are united on one front: They don’t see their students by the color of their skin. They love them all and don’t treat them differently.
Moulder nods and looks at every face around the circle. Calm and firm, she asks: If you all treat students the same way, why does the school have an achievement gap?
Achievement gap, discipline gap, opportunity gap: By nearly every indicator, African-American students are doing worse than their white counterparts. They are disciplined more often and more harshly. They do not take more rigorous coursework in high school. Fewer black students go to college.
In a number of school districts, teachers and administrators are being asked to look at whether adult attitudes and expectations play a role in perpetuating the gap. The belief is that if implicit racial bias — the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions —goes unacknowledged, other racial equity reforms have little chance of working.
“When we think about implicit bias, we tend to get defensive because it’s about ourselves. It goes against our framework,” says Kelly Capatosto, senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “In education, people are well intentioned and want to help children. How do we see so much disparity in a field with so many well-intentioned people?”
‘THE DATA TELLS US'
Implicit bias is having a moment now, with the high-profile racial incident at Starbucks, police shootings of unarmed black men, and copious numbers of whites calling police on African-Americans for, among other things, grilling in a public park, sleeping in a dorm common room, checking out of an Airbnb, and eating in a college cafeteria.
Implicit bias also is seen as a reason why black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students and twice as likely to be expelled. It is believed to be behind why black students are underrepresented in AP classes and overrepresented in special education. And those disparities start in preschool.
“Why do this? The data tells us that we have to,” says Barry O. Brinkley, executive director of equity in student achievement for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools, which has invested in implicit bias and equity training for more than a decade. “Our students of color are not achieving at the same level as their peers. Our poor white students are doing better than our well-off black students. Any way you break it down, there is a gap. We have to make it a priority. We can’t ignore it and talk past it.”
Districts have struggled with achievement gaps and desegregation issues for decades, and the greater St. Louis area has been at the forefront of that struggle. In the early 1980s, a federal desegregation lawsuit sent thousands of black students from St. Louis Public Schools to the surrounding suburban districts, including Parkway. Suburban students were allowed to attend magnet programs in the city. But the needle on the achievement gap did not move, no matter the system.
Racial tensions drew national attention in Ferguson, a town not far from Parkway, after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American. A U.S. Justice Department report concluded that Ferguson police practiced a “pattern of unconstitutional policing” that “exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.”
In 2017, a state law that made discrimination lawsuits filed by terminated employees more difficult to win prompted the NAACP to issue an advisory for African- Americans “to pay special attention and exercise extreme caution when traveling throughout the state given the series of questionable, race-based incidents.”
Charlotte Ijei, Parkway’s pupil personnel and diversity director, has seen substantive changes since the district started its Whole School Social Justice program in 2011. Now in her 23rd year with the district, Ijei grew up in the little Ozark Mountain town of Poplar Bluff and was the first in her family to attend college. She did her student teaching in Parkway in 1975. Two decades later, she was hired as the first black counselor at North High, the district’s most racially diverse high school.
“We had an integrated school with segregated classrooms,” she says of her first year at North. Black students were in lower level-classes such as concepts, foundations, and pre-algebra while whites were taking regular classes or honors courses. “That just made me wonder what was going on.”
Counseling colleagues told Ijei that African-American students didn’t have the background for regular and honors classes, so she suggested looking at their six-week grades to see how they were doing.
“We had African-American students in foundations classes getting As. And they were getting As in pre-algebra,” she says. “I started pushing to get them put into regular classes. And some who were in regular classes, I pushed for them to get into honors classes. And so that’s when my journey in Parkway started.”
In 1999, Ijei and some colleagues started a program called “Honoring All Voices” that evolved into Whole School Social Justice training with the help of Educational Equity Consultants, a nonprofit group. As part of the current program, teachers from the same school go through the training as a group, with follow-up throughout the year. All new administrators receive four-day overnight training as a condition of employment.
Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty says of Ijei, “I called her the conscience of Parkway because she was a lone voice at many times. Sometimes a very lonely voice. And she was courageous. She didn’t back off. She challenged people.”
Parkway’s Whole School Social Justice program includes a superintendent advisory council as well as parent and student groups, but at its heart is training for administrators and for teachers on systemic oppression and the idea of implicit bias. Since 2011, staff at 12 of the district’s 28 schools, as well as all administrators, have received the training.
The training, along with other equity initiatives in place, has led to improvements. The suspension rate of African-American students has decreased by more than 50 percent. Special education referrals among black students have decreased by 7 percent during that time, and out-of-class office referrals also have declined. Meanwhile, more African-American students are being tested for gifted education and receiving services. The number of black students in Advanced Placement and honors classes has increased as well.
Increased interest in implicit bias and diversity training has led to changes in other districts around the country. In Iowa City, Iowa, training has been offered to teachers since a group of students and parents asked for it at a 2016 school board meeting. The 14,000-student district, located in a city that is 88 percent white and a state that is 90 percent Caucasian, is on track to become a minority-majority district in the next decade.
“It was important that we talk about equity outcomes and students’ experience. White students experience school in Iowa City very differently than black students,” says Circe Stumbo, who founded the nonprofit West Wind, an organization that has worked with the board on a strategic plan to address the racial disproportionality in achievement, discipline, and climate. “This leadership of students became an important shift; the community was ready for it.”
Stumbo formed a partnership with the University of Iowa to deliver implicit bias turning to the entire staff, starting with the district’s 1,000 teachers, over three years. The most recent climate survey showed some improvements, but there is room for more.
J.P. Claussen, who worked as a special education teacher and was union president when the students and parents made their request, is now the school board president. He says the idea behind the training is to provide tools for improvement, not to alienate or shame anyone. “As a teacher, it is hard work to do, to reflect on your practice, and maybe you’ve been doing something not as helpful or potentially harmful.”
In North Carolina’s Guilford County, which has almost 72,000 students and more than 10,000 full- and part-time staff, every new teacher goes through the district’s implicit bias and equity training. Current teachers earn SEU credits as part of their ongoing professional development.
Guilford also has developed an equity leaders team of school-based staff who participated in an intensive equity boot camp with outside facilitators. The first group’s 71 staff are ready to engage in conversations and training at the school level and to be a resource for principals and staff.
Deena Hayes-Greene, Guilford’s school board president, founded the Racial Equality Institute after joining the board and becoming involved in the district’s social justice and diversity training. She says the training offers a “systemic way to deal with a systemic issue.”
“It’s a groundwater approach,” she says. “If you live near a lake and see one or two fish belly up, you’d wonder what was wrong with those fish. If you saw that half the fish were dead, you’d ask, ‘What’s going on with the water?’”
Some approaches to equity, she says, are like fixing fish, not the lake. “You can take every child at risk and cure them, but it will not solve our problem, because other kids will enter the system. Then we say, ‘This is bigger than a lake; actually, it’s a groundwater problem. The lake is connected to housing, child welfare, economic opportunities. It has to be a groundwater approach.’”
NO SHAME, NO BLAME
On the first day of the social justice workshop at Parkview’s Shenandoah Valley Elementary School, teachers trickle down the stairs of the high-ceilinged, sunny library. The clattering and muffled laughter of students in summer school classes and camps echo from the hallway as the library doors open and shut with each new arrival.
Ijei and four counselors, all of whom work as trainers, are preparing the room. Moulder is one of two white counselors; the others are African-American. Bagels, scones, pastries, water, juice, and coffee are set out on a table near the entrance. An order form for lunch is passed around. Boxes of cookies, candy, potato chips and other snacks are ready to be unpacked. Amid the bookcases and stacks is a large circle of chairs with books and materials on the seats.
Principal Greg Cicotte greets teachers as they butter bagels and grab juice bottles. He’s a reassuring presence to those who aren’t sure what to expect. A recent hire, Cicotte went through the administrator training. He then requested the training for his teachers and sat in on all three sessions during the summer.
“Basically, it’s owning our own hidden biases, discovering that good people have bias and see how that might come out in a classroom setting,” he says of the training.
Shenandoah Valley has 572 students — 51 percent white; 12.4 percent black; 27 percent Asian; and 4.7 percent Hispanic. Of the 48 staff, the school has one African-American teacher.
The workshops are designed to run with both white and black teachers, so Ijei asked African-American teachers from other schools to join the workshop. These teachers participate and serve as facilitators by offering their experiences and perspectives. They also will be called on during the school year for the follow-up sessions.
White privilege is the workshop’s focus, Ijei says. “It’s about getting to know who you are, your socialization, how you have marginalized or have been marginalized, how kids in your classroom have been marginalized, and looking at internalized racism and things that we learn during as far back as slavery.”
During their morning introduction, the trainers emphasize they will talk about difficult topics such as institutional oppression and racism, but their intent is to inform and not to blame. The idea is for teachers to become aware of things they didn’t realize, so they can better empathize with students of color and change classroom practices.
The workshop includes several activities to illustrate systemic racism and oppression that may not have been obvious to the white teachers. In one, the white teachers sit with chairs arranged in a circle in the center. The people of color—in this case black—participants are in a larger circle outside the smaller one. The teachers read aloud from cards with statements from Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
The statements illustrate truths for most in the center circle (the whites) but not for those on the outside (people of color). Among them:
- - “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
- - “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
- - “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
- - “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”
In another exercise, the inner circle includes the black workshop leaders and participants. White teachers sit in the larger outside circle. One by one, the people of color stick Post-it notes on a piece of poster paper displayed on an easel in the front of the room. The notes have names they were called by other people of color: Sellout, Oreo, high yellow.
Ijei walks up last: “I was told I was black but pretty; I only heard the black part,” she says. “For a long time, I didn’t like my skin tone at all.”
She then asks the teachers to stand up and put their arms in a circle, their different skin color on display. The white teachers in the outer ring witness something they may have never seen before, deepening their understanding of reality for some of their students.
AND IN THE END
Toward the end of the first day of training at Shenandoah, an African-American teacher from outside the building asks, “What’s up with these paintings?”
The library’s walls are adorned with murals depicting characters from Charlotte’s Web, Little House on the Prairie, Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales, and the Wizard of Oz—all beloved literary figures of the Western canon. None reflects the culture or the color of the minority students who attend the school.
Late in the day, in the crowded, sweltering band room, members of the “white caucus” confess that they never noticed or thought about the lack of diversity on the library wall murals. They had not considered how the murals may seem unwelcoming to some students. Many ask for tools and strategies for their classroom, which will come in the monthly follow-up training during the school year.
“Sitting down and actually listening to people who look different than me and have different life experiences and hearing firsthand what it feels like from them definitely changes things,” first-grade teacher Kara Baum says during a break. “You know, it’s not something you can just learn in school or hear about. You really have to listen to people and how it’s affecting them to be able to think about what you can do.”
For the workshop’s final activity, participants line up in two rows, each holding part of a string that’s woven among them. They promise to be allies and partners in the process that is now just starting, to bring equity to their students. Ijei’s assistant cuts the string so each participant has a piece to take with them.
As Ijei and her trainers pack up, their faces reflect the strain and exhaustion of the work.
“Social justice work is extremely hard. It tugs at your heart. It tugs at the fact that you see the wrong in society that’s happening, and you’re trying to right that wrong,” Ijei says. “That’s very hard for the facilitators. For me it’s hard because I thought after Jim Crow that everything was going to be better. And now I don’t see that it’s better.”
Kathleen Vail (email@example.com) is the editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal.