First Person

From reducing suspensions to engaging families, 17 things superintendents can do to combat racism

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For school system leaders, the summer should be a time of reflection and planning for the upcoming school year. This summer, that reflection and planning must include strategizing about how to work against racism in our society.

I believe system leaders, especially superintendents, need to confront head on the violence being perpetrated on black Americans by public employees who are supposed to protect citizens, and increasing attacks against students and others who are Muslim, LGBT, immigrants, or just simply not white.

For 10 years I was a superintendent of two very diverse school systems: Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md. Superintendents lead public institutions and therefore have the responsibility to confront institutional racism if we are to move towards truly living up to our potential and ideals as Americans. Educators are the keepers of that potential, but today’s times call for new actions.

Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular priority order, about what superintendents must do. Full disclosure: I succeeded at doing some of these, failed at others, and never got to a few. This is an aspirational list, as well as what I hope can become a new conditional list of requirements for superintendents. People who are not prepared to take on these issues do not deserve to be educators.

The list is incomplete, and I hope others add to it.

1. Read. Go out of your comfort zone and then share what you’re reading with your internal and external communities. Use it as an opportunity for collective learning. Start with James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” and move on to Gloria Ladson Billings’ 2008 AERA speech on the “education debt“; Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Freire/Horton, We Make the Road by Walking; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me; anything by Jeff Duncan-Andrade or Pedro Noguera; recent blogs by Sabrina Joy Stevens, Jose Vilson, Jessie Hagopian and others in the #educolor movement.

2. Look at policies. Ensure your district has equity and curriculum policies that are clear about what students should know and be able to do and that all students must have access to an instructional environment that promotes that knowledge and skills and necessary supports if they need it. If such policies don’t exist, start working with your board to develop them.

3. Clarify your message. Be clear and relentless about your core values and those of your district. Be clear and relentless about what adults need to do in service of children. Be clear and relentless that all children deserve to feel valued, loved, and safe, and that as educators, we have a special responsibility to our kids of color.

4. Review content. Ask your curriculum and instruction team to review all content for cultural competence and take steps to ensure that curriculum and materials are respectful and inclusive of multiple cultures. Engage teachers and leaders of color in this initiative and be public about it. Crowdsource it, as there are more culturally proficient materials out there than some might imagine or are on the state-approved publisher contract lists (see American Reading Company materials for a good example).

5. Review employee turnover data and flag patterns where there’s disproportionality. Talk to educators of color about their experiences. Ensure there are exit interviews so that employees who leave (including non-certified staff such as para-educators) can give honest perspectives about the climate within the school. Make sure that your principal evaluation procedures can take into account climate and turnover issues; if it doesn’t, put that into your next negotiations.

6. Reduce suspensions of students. Now. Send a clear message to principals that sending students out of the building to fix themselves after they’ve committed a transgression will not help them change that behavior. Students don’t miraculously change behaviors by being pushed away; the opposite is true, they change behaviors when pulled in and held close. Coordinate the moral imperative of suspension reduction with a commensurate effort to train staff in restorative justice and similar programs. Be very attentive to the messages that are being sent to the public about the need to reduce suspensions and explain why we need to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

7. Analyze your budget to see if resources are allocated according to student need. Make sure your budget reflects your district’s values and policies and that the children who need the most are getting the most. Yes, politics are a factor here, as the most vocal parents are typically the most entitled, but be clear, consistent, comprehensive and fact-based in designing and communicating a budget that reflects students’ needs. Look at your Title I funds too, as you can be more creative than you might think.

8. Engage with community leaders and families, and not just the usual suspects. Summon your best active listening skills and reach out to faith-based leaders, community leaders (formal and informal), and key communicators. Don’t rely on the same structures that have always existed, although they need to be engaged as well, they don’t usually comprise the non-entitled. Model this for others.

9. Elevate student voice, listen to their stories, talk to them individually and in large and small groups. Be sure to really listen. Answer their questions respectfully and honestly. Model this for others and tell everyone what you’ve heard. Be sure to talk to students who might not be formal leaders, or who have been in trouble, or are just plain old average. Be sure to engage with English language learners and special education students too.

10. Engage teachers, support professionals and leaders, listen to their voices. Try to understand their underlying fears and concerns while also being non-negotiable about your expectations. It’s really hard to learn new approaches and many white educators especially don’t know how to confront their privilege. Teach them by being a partner in the learning process.

11. Negotiate equity, social-emotional learning, and cultural competency into formal evaluation systems. Work with your bargaining units to create appropriate language. Use National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers language as models, as both have taken stands on institutional racism.

12. Be absolutely unequivocal in the message that relationships matter and learning doesn’t happen without love. Yes, outcomes matter, yes, academics are important. But teaching is a social enterprise, and if children — especially children of color — don’t feel valued, respected, and loved in classrooms, they won’t meet our expectations.

13. Analyze your data to determine whether non-academic needs are getting in the way of student achievement. If students are hungry, feed them; if they need support beyond the school day, work with community agencies to get it for them. Develop or purchase an early-warning-indicator system to identify kids that are in danger of dropping out and use the results at the school, district, and community level to organize wrap-around supports for kids and families. Look at disproportionality in special education students and English language learners in identification and suspensions.

14. If students are being tracked, stop it. The public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society. This has done immeasurable harm to generations of children. Look at district policies and procedures for identifying gifted and talented students, academic levels, magnet/choice programs, etc. Review the data, make it public, convene the right people to start dismantling it, consult with lawyers if necessary and Just. Do. It.

15. Measure engagement, hope and well-being, mainly of students, but also of employees. People need to be happy and engaged in their work in order to produce their best. They need to know that hard work will lead to improvement; that’s the basis of hope.

16. Never forget that you’re learning too. The superintendency can be a brutal job, but a wonderful privilege. No one will ever fully understand what you go through and why you had to make the decisions you did, and everyone expects that you have the answer to everything. Don’t become too enamored of your own expertise and past success; learn from and with others about how to lead from a social justice stance.

17. Don’t be afraid to get fired for standing up for what you believe in.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too. 

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.