Bridging the Culture Gap

Teacher training programs strive to bridge culture, racial gaps in the classroom

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford lectured incoming Teach for America recruits in Nashville about how to address race and culture in their classrooms.

A week after nine black people were shot and killed during a Bible study inside their church in Charleston, S.C., Donna Ford stood in front of a packed lecture hall at Lipscomb University, talking to Teach for America’s Nashville corps members about how to address race in their classrooms.

“Let’s go to Charleston,” she said of the June 15 attack, in which a 21-year-old white man has been charged with the killings. “The world seems shocked that the families (of the victims) are forgiving so quickly.”

Ford, who is black, attributed part of the families’ spirit of forgiveness to a virtue that she considers a cornerstone of African-American culture: a strong sense of spirituality.

“So how is this going to play out in your classroom?” she asked her students.

Ford is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, where she specializes in cultural competency: the ability to collaborate with people across cultures. She also instructs incoming Teach for America of Greater Nashville recruits on the topic twice a week during their summer teacher training.

Teacher preparatory programs such as Teach for America, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, are focusing on cultural competency more than ever.

Last school year, for the first time, most U.S. public school students were non-white. That’s been true for much longer in districts such as Memphis-based Shelby County Schools, which is 80 percent non-white, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which is 55 percent non-white. Research shows that, even 50 years after de jure school desegregation, low expectations from teachers contribute to the racial achievement gap by hindering achievement for non-white students, especially black students.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College addresses classroom diversity in several programs, and almost all of its graduate students study the topic in at least one class.

Teacher training schools don’t have a choice but to address racial and cultural differences if they want to be successful, according to Ford.

“If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you,” she said.

Recruiting more teachers of color is important, she says, but it’s not enough. Teachers and students of all races and cultures must be equipped to have productive relationships. Ford talks with her students about the importance of being sensitive to differences in language, nationality and sexuality, but she especially highlights the treatment of black students.

“People are just so unaccustomed to talking about African-Americans and African-American culture,” she said.

During a recent TFA training in Nashville, Ford walked through some behaviors that teachers might misinterpret from black students. Black students, for example, might be more likely to talk when the teacher is talking, mimicking call-and-response, a common practice in traditionally African-American churches in which the congregation punctuates a minister’s remarks with verbal exclamations. However, some teachers would perceive such behavior as simply talking out of turn.

One white Teach for America recruit told Ford he was wary of stereotyping his students when he starts teaching on his own in the fall. Ford responded that being conscious of cultural differences doesn’t interfere with teaching students as individuals first. Everyone is different, she said. However, being educated about culture might help explain some student behaviors.

Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student studying cultural competency at Vanderbilt, says that even the most well-intentioned teachers can fall prey to unconscious biases. The key to thwarting them is looking introspectively before a teacher ever steps in the classroom, she said.

“There are certain things that are not totally going to click until you get out into the classroom,” she said. “But we need to move the bar in how far we get teachers, at least in their thinking, before they ever get there.”

Self, who is white, knows from experience. She went from teaching at a predominantly white school to a predominantly Hispanic and African-American school in Chicago. Now, she’s researching ways to prepare teachers for the realities of U.S. schools. Teachers-to-be improvise conversations with actors based on real-life classroom experiences, such as situations where a student might feel singled out because of race, or a conference with an immigrant parent.

“I know the damage that I did as someone who was unprepared on these issues, and so part of what I want to do is make sure that the teachers that I train go into the classroom better prepared to respond to these things than I was,” Self said.

"If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you."Donna Ford, Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education

Teachers and students often are reluctant to talk about race, or even angry about it, according to Ford.

“Many people believe they’re bias-free, or they can’t possibly be racist or classist or sexist,” Ford said. “To help teachers acknowledge that they have biases is the first step to letting them have some sense of relief.”

Ford also conducts professional development through school districts across the country. She would like to do more such trainings in Tennessee school districts — not after racial tension flares, but before it happens.

“We need to stop being reactive, but being proactive,” she said. “Diversity is here to stay. It is inevitable. We have to keep the conversation going.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.