Race equity in schools - MetroFamily Magazine
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Race equity in schools

Multicultural

by Erin Page

Stephanie Price calls her career an act of resistance. A mixed race Black woman, she’s a minority in her field of speech-language pathology and in the education industry. Price grew up in Norman and has worked for Moore Public Schools for the past 11 years. Both as a student and an educator, she has regularly experienced racism, a situation not unique to these districts.

“I am an exception,” said Price of her presence in education as a Black woman. “Would you want to work for an institution that has caused you trauma?”

As a student who posed questions about concepts she didn’t understand, Price was often told she wasn’t trying hard enough. As an educator, she regularly deals with microaggressions and comments that indicate bias.

“Questions like why do Black people need to have their own history month?” explains Price. “Or [saying] the Civil Rights Movement happened so long ago, so Black people need to just get over it.”

But passionate about her work and determined to fight for equity, Price connected with Moore Public School’s Committee for Racial and Ethnic Minorities, which is seeking to improve equity for marginalized groups within the district.

“I was looking for a place where there were people who looked like me that could understand the experiences I was having,” said Price, who has served as committee chair. “I wanted to have some real discussions about how educators are harming each other and students and [to] address racism and bias in our schools.”

Price is proud of the committee’s work, from providing anti-bias and diversity training for educators to engaging administration in meaningful discussion about methods to improve equity, but acknowledges there’s still much to be done.

“I have seen the hiring of more diverse principals and change in the way we are creating marketing materials,” said Price. “I think the work that’s been done the past several years has opened the door for further conversation about antiracism and racial equity, and I hope the district starts to shift toward a more culturally-responsive mindset. We have a lot of students who are being harmed by the things their teachers are saying, not just Black and brown students, but our students who identify as queer or trans or non-binary, too.”

Other metro districts have recognized the need for equity committees and administration-level staff. In 2018, Oklahoma City Public Schools established the division of equity and accountability, and in 2019 Dr. Marsha Herron became executive director. Herron is now chief of equity and student support in a newly designed division.

One year after launching a Diversity Enrichment Council, Norman Public Schools hired the committee chair and long-time educator and principal Stephanie Williams as its first executive director of diversity and inclusion in July 2020. Deer Creek Public Schools will launch an inclusivity committee this fall, led by Dr. Kelly McCoy, federal programs director, and Kelly Forbes, English learner coordinator. The work can be lonely and laborious, but it is critical.

“Research shows white educators are more likely to associate Black, Latinx and Indigenous students with being violent, lazy, unclean, unintelligent,” said Price. “They view Black girls as being more adult and mature and less needing of love and support. The rates of suspension and expulsion are disproportionate. Access to AP and gifted classes is disproportionate. It’s a really big issue that we need to be actively fighting against.”

The case for race equity

Race equity means students’ racial identity has no influence on how they fare in school, and to achieve it requires examination of the systemic conditions, and racism, that hinder the educations of students of color.

“Education is the great equalizer,” said Herron, “but we also have to decide every kid is deserving of a high-quality education.”

According to the United Negro College Fund, Black students spend less time in the classroom due to disproportionate discipline. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2013 to 2014, a higher percentage of Black students than any other racial or ethnic group was suspended, and the propensity toward harsher discipline starts in preschool. Black students are 2.3 times more likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest as white students.

Fifty-seven percent of Black students receive access to a full range of college-preparatory math and sciences courses, compared to 81 percent of Asian and 71 percent of white students.

Though students of color will make up more than half the student population by 2024, 82 percent of teachers are white, according to the U.S. Department of Education, a statistic that remains virtually unchanged for the past 15 years. Local dad and educator Andre Daughty, who calls himself a unicorn because Black male teachers make up only 2 percent of the profession, has taught at the elementary, middle and college levels and is now a consultant and keynote speaker helping educators and organizations around the nation address equity.

“Students need to see that you can be really dope and be a teacher in your own style,” said Daughty. “That you can be that teacher who plays rap music but also can recite Langston Hughes or James Baldwin. No matter who you are, you bring your own culture, which models high expectations through excellence.”

Teachers of color are more likely to have higher expectations of students of color, confront issues of racism, serve as advocates and develop more trusting relationships with students, particularly when sharing a cultural background. Only 20 percent of public school principals are individuals of color. In the 2013-14 school year, less than 500 Black students were enrolled in teacher preparation programs in the state of Oklahoma.

Dr. KJ Stormer, department chair of education and professional programs for Langston University, says many of her students of color are empowered by their experiences with Black or brown educators, who motivate their own careers in education.

Looking inward

Before a school or district can take action toward race equity, it’s vital to first take a critical look at the structural challenges impeding positive change.

“You can have these multicultural equity boards, but if they are not effervescing in their actions, not engaging in critical self-reflection about whether they harbor biases, that’s where we have an issue,” said Stormer. “It’s hard to change your disposition or critically check yourself and say ‘I am wrong about this.’”

Examining biases, owning up to systemic racism and listening to those who have been marginalized is a vital first, and ongoing, step. As part of the launch of its new inclusivity committee, Deer Creek Public Schools sent a parent survey over the summer to provide an opportunity for families who have been marginalized to express those experiences and feelings.

“A lot of times people, and educators can be the worst, just want to jump in and fix something,” said McCoy. “But we need to take a step back and listen.”

The district’s new committee plans to review district and board policies and procedures and explore how the academic and extracurricular experiences, as well as curriculum, can be more equitable, among other initiatives.

Forbes, who is bilingual and openly gay, brings an international perspective in his first year in Deer Creek after teaching throughout the world for more than a decade, and his desire is to create safe spaces for families to speak their needs and then to incite action to meet those needs.

“We have to use our positions to empower those around us, students just as much as parents or teachers,” said Forbes. “This is personal for me.”

After a year of meeting monthly, learning together from speakers, listening to the varied perspectives of staff, parents and community members and pouring over data, Norman’s Diversity Enrichment Council developed a list of initial recommendations to improve equity. Williams began her new position with that roadmap in place, poised to take action based upon careful introspection.

“We can all sit down and have discussions about race and equity, but there has to be action beyond conversation,” said Williams.

The OKCPS equity committee and department were first inspired by Ruth Veales, the district’s longest serving board member, a nod to the importance of district administration and board investment to achieve true change.

OKCPS’s 80-person committee is made up of 10 subgroups, each representing a dimension of educational equity, such as Teaching Quality and Diversity. Each is co-chaired by a community member and OKCPS representative, and all new members receive training each January. Subgroups can request and evaluate district data to uncover inequities and develop procedures for change.

Professional development

As Daughty has taught the next generation of educators and administrators, he’s realized some white student teachers have never had students of color.

“For me to help prepare you to be the best administrator you can be, you have to be culturally aware,” said Daughty. “If you don’t understand the student’s culture or household, how can you properly teach the student?”

One of Williams’ top priorities is to equip NPS educators to be culturally responsive, starting with discussion about bias.

“An internal assessment of where you are on your journey is important for our staff,” said Williams. “We will help them navigate that piece so when in the classroom, they are better equipped to serve their students.”

Rather than a one-and-done approach, professional development on race equity should provide consistent opportunities to learn, discuss and practice antiracism skills. Prior to the start of the school year, Deer Creek Schools received training about recognizing their own biases, and McCoy and Forbes hope that kind of professional development becomes embedded throughout the school year.

“We first have to model how we are going to reflect on our own prejudice and biases,” said Forbes. “This has to be a lifelong learning situation.”

Herron presents professional development on race equity regularly, and it can be both invigorating and taxing.

“When I go home, I’m exhausted from carrying the burden, being the voice and talking about race all day long,” said Herron. “It’s lonely work. But it also feels great because of the feedback we get.”

Changing curriculum 

Listening to students of color and ensuring they’re represented in classwork is a key step toward race equity and teaching in a culturally-aware manner.

“Once you know who [your students] are and where they come from, that equips you as an educator to foster that in activities and assignments you give,” said Williams. “It’s important for me that my daughter is able to pick up books in the library or classroom with other little brown girls on them.”

Knowing students deeply invites more cultural proficiency among educators and an atmosphere where students can request to learn more about a culture, individual or topic.

“At some level, there’s no excuse to not educate yourself about what the needs are,” said Forbes, who adds that any requests by students can likely be satisfied through a Google search or collaboration with other teachers. “If students have input, it will be compelling. When we share our cultures, then leave the classroom and meet on the street, we get along in a much different way.”

Herron encourages parents to ask questions about what holidays schools choose to celebrate, and Price adds to find out whether the voices of marginalized communities are being amplified. If students are expected to celebrate Columbus Day or the Land Run, Herron says it’s important to ask “who is being harmed by this day?”

With questions about curriculum, Williams suggests parents start with the classroom teacher. Parents can request the standards being taught in a particular subject and it’s always appropriate to ask if there are opportunities for student voice and choice in a class or unit.

“Not only does this help you as a parent gather information, but it gets that teacher thinking, too, about how to present the lesson and what changes they could make,” said Williams.

Daughty credits his wife Danielle, a second grade teacher in Edmond Public Schools, with engaging in tough conversations in her classroom, and, with parent permission, teaching that Christopher Columbus was not a hero but a murderer. When Daughty was in the classroom, he shared that George Washington’s famous dentures were made from the teeth of his slaves. As a fourth grade teacher, Daughty invited students to bring their grandparents and parents to the classroom to talk about their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Integrating what is happening in the real world with curriculum brings a deeper connection to every student,” said Daughty. “Having people who understand history and culture and familiarizing that with personal experiences gives students empathy, understanding and much more knowledge.”

McCoy is exploring opportunities to partner with Indigenous parents and community members to encourage and support Native pride throughout her district, including the creation of hands-on materials to explore Native dress and customs and the launch of a Native American club. She’s intent on updating the reading lists for elementary and secondary students, which currently feature nearly all white, middle-class protagonists and authors.

“Our children need to see themselves reflected in literature,” said McCoy. “That’s a very tangible thing we can do to start to shift the mindset.”

Discipline and development

When it comes to inequities in discipline and achievement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister encourages parents to get involved in advocating for transparency and change.

“Families can advocate for their districts to review the Oklahoma School Report Card to see how site and district data can unmask achievement gaps that may be occurring due to systemic racism,” said Hofmeister. “In addition, parents can encourage districts to examine how the number of students of color identified as gifted and talented and accessing postsecondary opportunities reflect site and district demographics.”

For years, Black students have experienced higher frequencies of discipline in OKCPS. When Black students don’t fare well academically, it’s often related to discipline issues.

“We have to be more intentional about using data to really drive change,” said Herron. “It’s not enough to say we know as a Black student you’re 4.5 times more likely to be suspended than your counterparts. What are the contributing factors to why that is happening?”

Herron and her team are shifting the paradigm from looking at discipline to looking at students’ environments, asking educators to become self-reflective to consider if or how their actions could be impacting students.

Prior to COVID-19, Herron conducted equity visits throughout OKCPS, typically requested by principals to better understand how students experience the school. Herron asks students questions and encourages discussion and then debriefs with administration. Those in power often realize that, even with good intentions, they could neglect to consider who is being harmed by policies or how students experience the inaction of policies.

Students consistently feel empowered when their schools’ policies, climate and staff behaviors change based on their feedback.

“To hear something a kid says and then meet that need, that’s a powerful part of what this work looks like,” said Herron.

Power in representation  

For many of her students, Williams was their first teacher and principal of color. NPS is striving to ensure its educators better reflect the students they serve.

“For me, it’s always been about wanting kids to see themselves represented in positions they feel are successful,” said Williams. “I think we have to be careful because oftentimes we highlight the struggle of a certain race, and while it’s important to know history, we need to be highlighting the many positives and successes of those races, too.”

Herron regularly hears from former Langston students who are proud to see someone who looks like them in a chief position at OKCPS.

“I get emails that make me want to break down,” said Herron. “They say ‘I see myself now as capable and able to move up in an organization because you and Dr. Polk and Mr. Brown have broken those barriers.’”

According to Price, research shows Black and brown students have higher self-esteem, improved grades, take a higher course load and are more likely to graduate from high school if they have a Black teacher by the time they are in third or fourth grade.

“Imagine having a teacher who truly understands your experience as a human, how validating it would be as a child who hasn’t experienced that to be in a classroom [with a teacher] who gets them for the first time ever,” said Price.

When white students have teachers or leaders or color, it reinforces the development of a culturally-responsive mindset and that all people are deserving of love and respect.

Hofmeister says parents shouldn’t hesitate in asking administrators to recruit faculty of diverse backgrounds and to empower faculty members to focus on equity and diversity. At the same time, Hofmeister adds it’s important to consult the district’s strategic plan to ensure considerations are given to diversity and inclusion. While a focus on hiring more educators of color is noble, local experts agree it’s imperative first for a district to constructively consider its environment.

“Part of it is creating a culture for educators to feel welcome and accepted,” said Price. “We have to train people about bias and racism and how to have conversations so we can create a more accepting place to be.”

That includes creating an atmosphere where educators of color don’t have to change their disposition to fit in, a very real scenario Stormer and others have encountered in their careers.

“You can’t be too revolutionary or seen as a disruptor when entering certain educational environments,” said Stormer. “Black and brown teachers have to be discrete in their dispositions until there is buy-in. Educators of the dominant culture don’t necessarily have to do that.”

OKCPS is self-examining what their hiring spaces look like, if hiring practices are representative of the student body and whether teaching equity and diversity is positively affecting those decisions.

“Sometimes it’s not the race of the teacher that matters, it’s the relationship with a teacher who views students as human in the context of their struggle,” said Herron.

How to get engaged

At your child’s school:

  • Find out whether your child’s school has a council or committee dedicated to combatting bias and promoting inclusion. If there’s not one, start one. Hofmeister says an important first step is the movement toward race equity is creating a safe space for students and families to have candid and courageous conversations with teachers and administrators.
  • Ask your child’s teacher questions about presenting curriculum from a BIPOC perspective. Engage in discussions with school administrators and district curriculum coordinators.
  • Discuss concerns regarding a lack of hiring educators and administrators of color as well as discipline and achievement disparities for students of color with district leaders.
  • Purchase books written by authors of color and featuring protagonists of color to donate to your school’s library.

Beyond the school building, consider behaviors at home:

  • Read books that feature heroes of color, whether historical figures or fiction. Find a list for kids of all ages at metrofamilymagazine.com/talking-to-kids-about-racism.
  • Volunteer at a diverse school as a family.
  • Visit (or join) a diverse church or other place of worship.
  • Build relationships with families of varied races and ethnicities.
  • Engage in ongoing discussions with kids of all ages about the realities of racism. Find resources at metrofamilymagazine.com/racial-justice-okc.

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