First Person

Why it's a mistake for Jeffco to let diversity be just a basic value

Editor’s note: During an April 3 discussion of what qualities the Jeffco Public Schools board of education wanted in a new superintendent, board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman requested that a bullet point about valuing diversity be included on a promotional flier recruiters would use to solicit applicants. Board President Ken Witt said he didn’t believe the flier needed to include that copy because cultural sensitivity should be expected of any candidate and it was important to keep the recruitment material focused.

 But First Person contributor Alonzo Rodriguez makes the argument that de-emphasizing diversity is a problem​. 

I am not only appalled but equally disappointed and angered by the comments made by Ken Witt at the April 3rd Board of Education Study Session. Witt is on record as saying during a presentation by Ray & Associates regarding the attributes of a new Superintendent that he, “Was not interested in diversity.” What?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this prejudiced statement because, during the community forums held prior to the November election, none of the new board members had a clue what diversity meant in our district. Williams’ answered centered on students with special needs because she said “she had such a child in school.” Special needs students are a subset of our student population but there are more who need help. Newkirk’s answer was that he “wants people to be ‘color-blind’ and he wants all people just to be Americans.”

Hear. Hear. A lofty and idealistic notion, but the truth is we do have some differences, and color and culture are among those. I wish our society was color-blind when it comes to equality and fairness – unfortunately, we’re not there yet. For those of us who don’t look like Mr. Newkirk, let me assure him, we are Americans. In fact, our ancestors lived in this part of the country for years before their land was taken away. Witt, your responses to the questions regarding diversity centered only on the 12 percent Gifted and Talented (GT) in our district. Again, they too are included in our district’s diversity but you seem to know nothing about the rest.

Like many others living in our diverse Jefferson County, we’re proud to be Americans. In fact, I spent over 20 years in the U.S. Army ensuring that all Americans continue to have equal access, opportunities and the fundamental freedoms we all enjoy. With the Board’s position regarding district diversity centered solely on GT – the three of them ignore our ethnic diversity (about 34 percent of our students), gender, special needs kids throughout the district and our Gay, Lesbian and Transgender students.

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when there was great tension in our schools, cities and nation because there was not equal protection and equality. There were signs outside some stores that said, “No dogs – No Mexicans,” schools were segregated, people of color were treated as inferior and called terrible disgusting names, there were the haves — students that looked like you (Witt, Newkirk and Williams) — and the have nots — the rest of us. In the 60’s, civil rights laws were passed and the Supreme Court acted. Since then, the playing field has improved – but not enough… because you’re not interested in diversity.

All students in Jeffco deserve better representation on the board; Board members are supposed to be unbiased. All students deserve the best teachers; and we have some of the very best. All are entitled to funding that supports the best learning environment to learn. Students deserve some teachers, administrators, and staff that look like them. They deserve – and we as parents, grandparents and taxpayers deserve – a BOE who makes decisions in the interests of all children, not special interests, because all our children are special. I simply cannot condone this Board’s conduct as elected officials to make decisions because they don’t care about diversity.

I’m confident that the vast majority of Jeffco residents – veterans, parents, grandparents, business owners, senior citizens, school personnel and community members of all races and diverse backgrounds – support equal opportunity for all Jeffco children. We simply cannot continue as stakeholders in our educational system to allow Witt, Newkirk, and Williams to disenfranchise our diverse student population. Do we want the reputation as a district to be viewed as racist and having no compassion for equality in education for all students? I think not.

I have more confidence in the citizens of Jefferson County to not to allow this to continue. There have been too many people in this district both past and present who have worked too hard to build the solid reputation we have. I urge you, if you believe that all students have value and should all have the same educational opportunities to be successful, to let the BOE hear from you.

Wake up, Witt, Newkirk, and Williams. We’re not living in the 50’s. All students matter.

This post has been updated to add context about the school board meeting that Rodriguez is responding to. 

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.