CONFRONTING RACISM: WHAT BEDFORD’S SCHOOLS DO WELL AND WHERE WE NEED TO GROW
Being an excellent school district means far more than MCAS scores, caring teachers, a deep and rich curriculum, extensive extra-curricular opportunities, or competitive college acceptances. It means as well that we successfully support our students’ socially and emotionally, and that we teach all students to think deeply, analytically and creatively, and that we prepare them to live in a highly diverse society. It also means that we ensure that all students matter, feel safe to take intellectual risks and realize their full potentials. In a society still riven by racism, this means removing the obstacles to achievement and belonging that unexamined practices and unintentional biases impose.
When the Bedford Public Schools volunteered in 1974 to become a METCO district, the community clearly expressed its sense of responsibility to provide equal opportunity to Boston students of color and exposure to diversity for resident white students. However, it is only in the past seven or eight years that we have made educational equity and closing achievement gaps key systemic priorities within the district. At the same time, our resident population has grown considerably more diverse so that our student population is over 33% students of color.
The work that we have been doing to close achievement gaps and to diminish the racial divide have made a real difference in many students’ experiences. The number of METCO alumni who have worked, or have shown an interest in working, in the schools is just one indicator of this impact. But unfortunately, many of our students still feel that they are viewed as “other” by both peers and adults. This reality challenges us to dig deeper to change mindsets and develop the skills required to bring about this deeper cultural change. This two-part message describes the steps we’ve been taking, and where we need to go from here.
Contractually Required Anti-racism Teacher Course
Beginning about 20 years ago, the district began to contractually require all newly hired teachers to take an anti-racism course, and about 10 years ago, the district also conducted an analysis of data that revealed equity gaps in MCAS results, representation in high honors and AP classes and participation in extra-curricular activities other than athletics.
Prioritizing, Embedding and Taking Action
The high school took steps about 15 years ago to organizationally imbed this work, for example, by:
- Creating a faculty and student Educational Equity Committee
- Holding annual student run assemblies celebrating Black History month, multi-cultural talent shows, and overnight retreats bringing Boston, Base and Bedford students together
- Holding an all school assembly featuring a local police office and a METCO student following an incident where the officer had physically subdued the student
- Showing a videotaped METCO alumni panel discussion to faculty
- Instituting our EXCEL program to academically support students moving into higher level academic classes for the first time, and
- Creating the inter-district Tenacity Challenge to give African American and Latino/a students an annual opportunity to compete in four areas: historical research, literary analysis, artistic expression and math and science learning. (6 minute video at )
District Prioritizes and Institutionalizes the Work Across All Four Schools
During the past seven years, the whole district has focused on closing the equity gaps that result from structural inequalities and that are perpetuated both by stereotypical thinking and implicit bias. Achieving equity has been one of our three or four annual strategic district goals, and a district-wide Equity and Diversity Committee comprised of teachers, counselors and administrators has generated:
- · Full-day professional development workshops in cultural proficiency and difficult conversations about race
- K-12 literature audits and lesson planning around new titles by authors who are racially diverse
- the establishment of our Interracial Parent Advisory Council, and
- an outreach campaign to teacher training graduate programs to recruit more educators of color.
This work has been accompanied by:
- a host of teacher generated initiatives inside and outside the classroom, for example:
o an overnight hiking trip for a group of METCO and resident student 5th graders, and an interracial lunch group at JGMS
o support for student initiatives like the Chain Reaction committee at JGMS, and
o teacher-led anti-racism workshops during our annual professional development EdCamps
- the addition of a middle school Tenacity Challenge
o over 120 faculty, staff, alumni and community members volunteer to support the high school and the middle school Challenges that impact about 250 African-American and Latino/a students annually,
- our Calculus Projects to prepare African-American and Latino/a students to take calculus,
- major changes to the middle school social studies curriculum (civics and Facing History and Ourselves Civil Rights) and beginning changes to the high school curriculum,
- including the Teaching Tolerance curriculum for morning circle at Davis with accompanying assemblies, and
- transparent communication around racist and anti-Semitic incidents.
Yet So Much Still To Do
Despite this work, equity gaps persist, and many of our students of color still feel that they are the “other” in our schools. Some of our white students express confusion over hearing some of their African-American students using the “N” word. Hurtful comments, sometimes offered in jest, tap into a history of such hurts. Well-intended “colorblind” perspectives held by some teachers prevent them from developing genuine cultural proficiency, or from truly getting to know their individual students of color. Examples of disproportionate responses persist.
In the next installment of this series on racism and the public schools, I will share the important understandings and action steps that this latest round of reflection and analysis, precipitated by recent incidents, have yielded. The next installment: The Way Forward.