Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson shares her perspective amid national unrest over police brutality and racial inequality.
LEVITTOWN, Pa. — T.R. Kannan is no stranger to racism.
The school board president in the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has seen it firsthand before immigrating to the U.S. from India, where discrimination on religion, caste and gender is widespread.
More than 20 years later, Kannan has grown accustomed to experiencing microaggressions, or unconscious biases that others may not be aware of.
“Sometimes there’s a feeling of unease that’s always there,” he said. “I’ve seen it myself, I’ve heard it from family, friends and everyone.”
To create an environment in schools where students hopefully will not feel these pressures, the administration has asked the school board to come up with a plan to make equity a key focus by creating a dedicated position to provide “leadership and oversight in equity and excellence,” officials said.
“You need to look at policies, you need to look at curriculum, you need to look at disciplinary practices, you need to look at simply educating everyone on what’s going on,” Kannan said. “You need to look at hiring. So I would say almost every aspect of what we need.”
Hiring someone to oversee equity in education is one of the many practices school districts in Bucks County and around the country are implementing to be more proactive in battling systemic racism. In Indianapolis, for instance, school commissioners recently adopted a new racial equity policy. Milwaukee school board members are calling for a regional plan to desegregate schools and reduce inequities among in the region.
‘This impacts your life forever’: How 1 school district addresses students’ racism charges
Some say it still isn’t enough. In Bucks County, past and present students in the Council Rock and New Hope-Solebury school districts have taken it upon themselves to push for change in their districts.
Council Rock High School South graduates Farah Contractor, a Muslim Asian-American, and Danielle Randall, who is white, wrote a letter to school officials listing 15 steps they feel would make the district more in tune and sensitive to issues like systemic racism and diversity.
They include changing the “Indian” nickname for athletic teams at Council Rock High School North, adding more Black and indigenous peoples’ history to the American history curriculum, adding more World and LGBTQ history to the curriculum, and making an active effort to hire and train a more diverse teaching staff.
Contractor and Randall, who also are both 2019 University of Pennsylvania graduates, have gathered about 1,700 signatures in support of the letter.
“Many of our former classmates and other members of the community took to social media in the last few weeks to share ignorant posts about the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement and about systemic racism,” the former students wrote in an email.
“Farah and her family have experienced micro and macroaggressions living in a conservative county as Muslim South Asians. We both have witnessed discrimination and racist behavior in the Council Rock community not limited to swastikas drawn on school property and racial profiling.
“We also reflected on the heavily Eurocentric education at CR and felt that CR adding a more diverse curriculum would help broaden the perspective of students to life outside of suburban Bucks County. We thought this letter would be well timed and prompt the administration to revise its curriculum and policies regarding systemic racism, as well as hold themselves accountable for these changes.”
Saying that he had not seen the petition, Robert Fraser, the Council Rock superintendent, did not specifically address points raised in the two graduates’ letter but emailed a general statement that read “I have been rocked to my core with the senseless killings of George Floyd and others, and I have urged our Council Rock community to come together as one to combat any hate crime, any hate speech, and all forms of racism.”
Council Rock School Board President Andy Block wrote in an email, “I am aware that a petition is circulating, but will reserve any comment specific to that letter until we have received it.”
The district already has taken steps following several racial incidents in recent years, like forming a diversity and inclusion council, sensitivity and other training for students and staff, curriculum additions and special assemblies around issues of tolerance and inclusion.
“This fight to end these oppressive systems is not an instantaneous one, and we believe one of the key steps in this process is to properly educate our youth in the true history of this nation,” Contractor and Randall wrote in their letter to Council Rock officials.
In New Hope-Solebury, 2017 graduate Drew Vogelsang was among a handful of former students who felt systemic racism wasn’t being addressed properly by the district.
To combat the issue, Vogelsang helped pen a letter and organize a petition asking administrators and school board members to form a detailed plan beyond its No Place for Hate designation. To date, the petition has received 558 signatures from alumni, parents, faculty, staff and community members.
Along with the petition, the district was sent 12 pages of personal comments and experiences from past and present students that school officials later described “heartbreaking.”
Vogelsang said the district provided a “safe and encouraging place for us to grow as students and World citizens,” but it all occurred in what many in the community refer to as the “New Hope bubble.”
Equity in education: Austin schools suspend Black students nearly 5 times as often as white students
In a district where the population is 92% white, “meaningful engagement with racial issues is rare while frequent microaggressions and more overt racist acts are not uncommon,” Vogelsang said.
The petition calls for the district to create a committee to oversee the “implementation of anti-racism into the district’s curriculum and culture.”
“There is a deficiency in our classrooms regarding education on issues of structural, institutional, individual and systemic racism,“ Vogelsang wrote in the letter. ”Thus, we are calling for action to be made in the existing curricula and culture, for this action to be overseen by a committee that is responsible and responsive to all stakeholders in the district, and a public statement released by the district committing to lasting change.“
In response, the school board on Tuesday approved the creation of an equity committee to examine procedures, programming, policies and curriculum in the district.
The district also pledged to schedule outreach programs, virtual town hall meetings and professional developments on social justice as well as other initiatives while school board members attend anti-racism seminars offered through the state.
“We ask your patience as we make mistakes along the way, but we know that is a necessary part of growth and we accept that responsibility as board members, teachers and administrators,” according to a statement from the district.
While not everything is intentional, perception is important, Pennsbury’s Kannan said.
‘A scary reality’: Students react to colleges’ reopening plans with mix of optimism, fear
During sessions with the school board, students have expressed frustration that faculty does not always reflect their makeup — whether it be race or religion — while others asked why some categories of kids receive more discipline than others and why test scores are lower at certain schools, Kannan said.
Meanwhile, some staff have expressed concerns about being the only person of color in their building, he added.
Kannan said everything from text books to new policies must be looked at through an “equity lens.“
“How do we get a regular focus on this so that we can make sure that everyone is not forgetting (these issues)?” he said. “Having someone think through this on top of their jobs is not enough, so that is why we have to find someone who can look at all these things.”
Despite the challenges, Kannan said the attention racial injustice has garnered in recent weeks has given him a renewed hope.
“I am happy to see the peaceful protests in our community, many times led by young people, and a series of actions taken by organizations, cities, states, and the federal government,” he said.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/07/07/black-lives-matter-more-school-districts-turn-focus-racial-equity/5385042002/