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The Importance of Listening

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"Take away the hate, the fights, the rumors, and racial discrimination, and this would be a great school.''

Schools are extremely busy places. The action is so intense that the year flies by, and the adults in charge frequently forget to ask students how they feel about school. If they had my job, they might have heard comments like the one above, comments by students that are both telling and prescriptive.

For 14 years, I have been a staff researcher for a large suburban school system. The students, I have always felt, are the real motive behind my work. Regardless of their age, grade, or the topic I am researching, students are eager to tell all. And when it comes to issues of race and racism, I'm always floored, yet appreciative, by how honest they are.

At times, it is difficult for school board members, superintendents, principals, and teachers to appreciate this honesty, and occasionally I'm accused of rocking the boat. But I believe there should always be time for students to reflect with adults on their experiences, and providing them with that opportunity is neither difficult, expensive, nor time-consuming. All it takes is the courage and commitment to make school buildings great schools.

Certainly, I'm not alone in insisting that we listen to students--or that we rock the boat when it needs it.

Take my friend Jan (not her real name), the principal of one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools I've ever set foot in. She not only listens to but acts on what students have to say. I've been to Jan's school on many occasions, but regardless of the nature of the visit, I always walk away from the school with the same impression--that it is a place of harmony and respect.

I know this sounds corny, but trust me, it's true. I've observed enough schools over the years to know winners. My job gets me into a lot of schools, but rarely do I leave feeling as good as I feel when I leave Jan's school. This is what schools should feel like, and it is possible for the races to get along.

Jan's school wasn't always so friendly, though. I know. Being responsible for a survey of graduating seniors (completed every three years just prior to graduation), I can remember a time when seniors at this school had many negative things to say about their high school experiences. Negative comments about race, like the ones below, were especially common.

"I hated this school. Besides it being racist, teachers assume the personality of an individual by group actions.''

"It wasn't a very good experience here at this school because of the lack of attention one received and the racial tension that was displayed.''

"I feel some of the teachers grade unfairly and treat the students unfairly. In my four years in this school I have heard dozens of racial comments not only by the students but also by many teachers.''

By contrast, survey results from the most recent senior survey (class of 1992) were nearly always positive. The following sample comments are now typical in Jan's school:

"I feel the racial diversity has helped me and improved my values. Teachers cared and took an interest in me. I really liked my school.''

"This school is very diverse. It's interesting; you feel safe, and it's fun.''

"One outstanding feature of the school is the humanness of the teachers and staff, the close relationship between the students and the teachers.''

"I feel our school is one of the most integrated. There is some, but not much, racial tension. We have been really fortunate. Everybody gets along really well.''

So, how does a school become such a friendly place? I put that question to Jan, and I think her answers offer those interested in talking about racial and ethnic differences--and in improving relations between various groups--some solid suggestions on how to do it. Except for the time invested, all the suggestions are cost-free.

First of all, Jan says, she's a serious consumer of information about her school. She could easily ignore the results from the senior survey, she explains, but why ignore information that could be used to the school's advantage? Over the years, Jan and her staff have read every student comment written on the senior survey. "We're always looking for ways to improve, and students play a role in that,'' she says. "We owe it to them.''

Before discussing with her staff what the students have written, Jan checks out the details. Are students telling the truth or just complaining for the sake of it? According to this principal, it's not too difficult to prove or disprove complaints. She offers the following two as examples:

"The school should be getting new black counselors who are going to help the minorities. I have hated this school since 9th grade. I did not feel welcome from students or staff. I encountered much racism from everyone, and the expectations for the black students were low. Counselors place black kids in remedial classes and don't give them a chance to show how smart they really are.''

"My education has been phenomenal. Unfortunately, I feel that the honors classes are far from racially balanced. I have had three black students in my honors classes for my four years here.''

It does little good to present statements such as these to staff members if they are plainly false, Jan says. But a principal who knows that the guidance staff is all-white, or knows after checking course enrollments that black students are disproportionately enrolled in the remedial courses, can act on the comments. These are things Jan and her staff have changed. "Over the years, we've responded to these types of complaints,'' she says. "We hired a black counselor when it was pointed out on a survey that we had none, and when several black students complained about unfair grading by a teacher, I checked that out, too. Those complaints were false.''

In addition to using this type of "outside'' information about her school, Jan has gotten into the business of creating her own information. She makes the point that schools can't sit around waiting for others to tell them how their students feel or what they're experiencing. "I encourage constant communication,'' she says. Here are some of the ways she accomplishes that.

At Jan's school, there's a monthly "town meeting'' where students meet with her to discuss in the open any issue they like. The meetings operate with a few basic rules. It's O.K. for a student to say, for example, that a teacher never calls on any of his black students, so long as the student does not name the teacher. The purpose of the meetings is not to blame teachers, Jan says, but to provide a structured opportunity for her to find out where she can make improvements.

Sensing that the student meetings have worked, Jan recently added a similar kind of open forum for teachers. Those meetings are voluntary, and not well attended, she says, but Jan likes them because teachers say things about race in this setting that rarely get said in faculty meetings.

In addition to the town meetings, Jan has started using monthly surveys to gather additional insights and comments from both students and staff members. While the meetings are voluntary, the surveys are not. Staff members and students are selected randomly.

It's difficult to get Jan, who's much too modest, to admit that what goes on in her school is unique, but it is. Schools either hesitate to discuss race or completely avoid the topic. From time to time, we educators will admit the presence of racism, but we usually don't really want honest discussions about it. I speak from experience.

Years ago, I was handed the research task of finding out why black students were suspended from school more often than their white counterparts. Publicly, school officials had said that they thought racism played a role in these outcomes. I agreed, and over a three-year period I asked students a lot of questions about the role racism played in the suspension process. In the end, I found, school officials had been right in their assumptions: Racism played a major role in who was suspended in disciplinary actions and who was not.

Once this suspicion was confirmed, however, people didn't want the message heard.

They feared that the system would be branded racist by the local news media. So, in the end, the study was quietly filed away, a decision that still troubles me.

My suspension study asked students some fairly direct questions about fighting in school. The response to one such question captured my attention and has stayed with me. When faced with a fight at school, I found, black males find it hard to back down. Yet white males find it easy to walk away.

Other researchers have documented similar survey outcomes. In her book Deadly Consequences, Deborah Prothrow-Stith reports that many teenagers simply don't have the skills to back down in confrontational situations. Her work with a successful anti-violence curriculum in the Boston schools, however, shows that it is possible to teach youngsters the skills to walk away from fights.

Perhaps my suspension study could have been the impetus for such a curriculum addition. But for that to have happened, the adults making the decisions at the time would have had to get past their fear of talking openly about race.

My point can and should apply to schools where the students are nearly all one racial or ethnic group. Students at all-white, all-black, or all-Hispanic schools need to discuss racism. Fletcher Blanchard, a professor of psychology at Smith College, suggests that most of us are more accepting of criticism from people of our own racial or ethnic group than we are of people from other groups. His experiments show that success in stopping specific behaviors like telling a racist joke depends more on the the expressed disapproval of whites than it does on any actions of the targeted racial group. Whites listen to other whites, blacks listen to other blacks, and so on.

Let us hope that, along the way, some of us start listening to the kids. On that point, I'll end where I began:

"I'd like to say this is a good school but I can't. The teachers aren't bad, but the atmosphere is. There is too much racial discrimination and a lot of hate. Because of this, I never wanted to go to school and had a hard time catching up when I did go. Take away the hate, the fights, the rumors, and racial discrimination and this would be a great school.''

Joseph A. Hawkins is an evaluation specialist for the Montgomery County, Md., public schools.

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