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Race and Equity: Conversations We Can't Ignore

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By Christine Brandt

Educators across the country are catching on to the fact that we all need to be conscious of race and equity as we do our jobs. At Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Washington, where our student body is 57 percent students of color but our staff is predominately white, the need to talk about equity, race, and social justice to ensure we are meeting the social and emotional needs of all students - and to break down barriers and biases - is constantly on our minds.

My role as the principal has been one of listening, understanding, and empowering staff, students, and community members to talk about equity, race and social justice. It can be uncomfortable and messy at times, but the learning and growth we are seeing is worth it.

So how does one start this crucial conversation? For me, it was when an African American teacher leader approached me and asked if we could be more intentional during our staff meetings and other professional development in helping staff to understand the challenges students of color face in our society, starting specifically with identifying our implicit biases―the unconscious assumptions and stereotypes we make about people of other races and backgrounds. In partnership with teacher leaders we developed our first learning target: "Why it is important to understand racism is a system that has embedded itself in the culture of America and that impacts every institution, including our school and district."

We started the lesson with a scholarly reading (Dr. Robin DiAngelo's White America's racial illiteracy: Why our national conversation is poisoned from the start) using AVID®'s critical reading process and co-pilot Socratic Seminar method to allow staff to be comfortable engaging in this conversation using three essential questions:

  • What does it mean to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race?
  • What does it mean for our students to live in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race?
  • What does it mean for teaching and learning OR curriculum and instruction in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race?

Additionally, we have started to train our teachers using AVID's® Culturally Responsive Teaching curriculum, which includes a community walk around our feeder elementary schools to support staff in understanding our diverse community as well as continued reading and discussion.

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In 2017, in partnership with the National Center for Restorative Justice, our staff began the work of implementing restorative justice practices in our classrooms and in our approach to discipline. Teachers introduced periodic check-ins called with students to make sure they felt respected and heard, and behavioral issues were met with discussion, not arbitrary punishment.

Administration implemented restorative circles as part of our discipline practice with the intent of engaging in relationship building versus punitive punishments. Our commitment to this work is evident - it is a part of every professional development we do in our building.

With this work being done by staff, we knew our next step was to bring this same conversation to our students. We used advisory periods to start raising awareness and sparking conversations on equity, race, and social justice issues with students.

Our students took it from there. Our 8th grade AVID® students visited every advisory class in our school and collected data on "microaggressions" - the casual, everyday results of ingrained racial bias that occur in schools daily. Students were asked to first stand up if they had seen or heard the microaggressions and then stay standing if they have ever had the microaggressions directed at them. Results showed that racial (i.e., mocking accents or referring to racial stereotypes) and LGBTQ (i.e., "That's so gay" or "Stop acting like a girl") microaggressions were most reported. The students shared these results with students, parents, staff, and community at student-led conferences. Students reported back to staff that parents committed to changing language in their homes and encouraging their student to speak out if they hear a microaggression.

The exercise encouraged students to continue to educate and model how to interact without microaggressions. We empowered our students to look at how they can help make change in their school. The students were even invited by two other middle schools to come share their project with students and staff.

So how do we know we have made an impact? Since 2016 we have seen a decrease in referrals to the office for students of color, a decrease in suspension of students of color and suspension overall. And beyond the raw data, I can see a real change in the attitudes and self-awareness our students exhibit, across all races and backgrounds. I encourage all educators to start this crucial conversation about equity, race, and social justice and to empower their students to be an essential part of this conversation. 

Christine Brandt is the principal of Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash.

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