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A Year After Ferguson, Schools Still Grapple With Equity and Racial Bias

As the St. Louis region marks the one-year anniversary since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., schools in the area continue to focus on some of the deeper issues that were exposed since the killing: racial bias, inequity, and other social justice concerns.

Brown, 18, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, during a confrontation with former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. (A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson in connection with the shooting, which prompted widespread protests in Ferguson.) 

Michael-Brown-memorial-Ferguson-blog.jpg

On Monday, one day after the anniversary of Brown's death, St. Louis Public School employees will sit for a session on educating children in poverty.

Two weeks ago, new teachers in the Normandy school district, where Brown received his high school diploma, took part in a three-day orientation session that included an emphasis on culturally responsive practices and building relationships with students. Students from 7th and 8th grade through high school will also be able to join formal student advisory groups when school reopens to get their voices and viewpoints across to school officials.

And in the Jennings school district, which borders Ferguson, 11th and 12th graders will have the option next spring to take a criminal justice class taught by a police officer. District officials hope this will be part of continuing efforts to improve police and community relations.

Confronting Race and Inequity in 'Post-Racial' America

Since Brown's death, more attention has been paid to the deaths of unarmed black civilians in police custody or during interactions with police. 

(My colleague, Sarah Sparks, has a related post on the number of youths aged 19 and younger, of all races, who have been killed by police since last August.)

"I think it raised the level of awareness that there are remaining, underlying problems that are connected to race in our country," said Charles Pearson, the superintendent in the state-run Normandy Schools Collaborative.

"These examples have shown that we are not 'post-racial' in any means," he said.

Normandy last year focused on addressing teacher perception of students—including students' language and responses—and facilitating discussions that explored the connections between the contemporary challenges that were being discussed in the news and historical events.

The district zeroed-in on teacher perception training, he said, because how teachers see children has a tremendous impact on whether those children are successful.

"The whole idea of education equity begins with how adults see the children and families they serve," he said.

One of the most critical roles educators play in these situations is to connect the learning to what's happening in the world outside, Pearson said. And so teachers facilitated discussions about the roles students play as citizens in changing laws, the civil rights movement, and civil disobedience.

"Getting them to see that what's happening now is related to other trends in history is really critical," Pearson said. "And that makes learning relevant for children. If the learning is not relevant, they don't connect."

Some of the districts had been attempting to address the inequities minority students face for some time. Before the Brown shooting, the St. Louis district was already examining the reasons behind the high suspension rates for minority students in the district, according to Patrick Wallace, a district spokesman. The districtwide focus on educating children in poverty is an extension of that work.

"We are an urban district," he said. "We have dealt with those issues all along."

Administrative Changes 

In the overwhelmingly black Ferguson-Florissant school system, changes are also noticeable at the top.

In February, the school board appointed Joseph Davis, a black Harvard-educated superintendent from North Carolina, to lead the district. In the April election, Courtney Graves, an African-American, was elected to the seven-member school board, bringing the number of black members on the board to two. 

But the district is still facing a lawsuit filed by the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued in December alleging that the at-large system of electing school board members violated the federal Voting Rights Act and made it harder for African Americans to be elected to the governing board.  

The City of Ferguson also made some changes, with the appointments of a new interim police chief and city manager, both of whom are black. 

(The previous police chief and city manager resigned after a scathing Department of Justice report revealed a shocking level of racial bias against African-American residents in the court and police departments.)

Gov. Jay Nixon has also called for better police training.

"We Are All Connected"

Part of the ongoing equity conversation involves an examination of the quality of education that poor and minority students in the St. Louis region receive. Two districts, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, are both unaccredited under the Missouri school rating system. Nearby Jennings and St. Louis are provisionally accredited. 

As part of improving education in the area, Gov. Nixon and about two-dozen school districts in the region formed a collaborative to help Normandy and Riverview Gardens gain accreditation by the 2017-2018 school year. The state education department is also focused on improving teacher quality statewide, with a particular emphasis on poor and rural schools. 

Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Jennings school district, said that before the laser-like focus on social justice and equity in the wake of the Brown shooting and protests, some of the higher-performing districts in the region operated as "islands of excellence." 

Now, she said, there appears to be a shift in the mindset and the realization that, "ultimately, we are all connected."

"You see a movement about people understanding the collective responsibility we have to improve our community and address the issue of inequity in meaningful ways," said Anderson, whose focus on social justice predated the shooting and protests. 

She said the national discussions following Brown's death have given school systems across the country the chance to examine policies that may have resulted in "fewer opportunities to learn" for African-American students, and to "explore how they will really teach social justice within their own school systems and understand the impact it has on academic achievement."

The discussions have also amplified the voices of young people, she said.

"The Ferguson unrest has prompted a movement that has given greater voice to youth, and has given voice to them in a meaningful way," she said. "And, as educators, we have to continue to embrace this movement in a way...that empowers them to create change."

 Photo credit: A makeshift memorial stands at the spot last summer where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. --Jeff Roberson/AP-File

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