Equity & Diversity

Grassroots Momentum Builds for Anti-Racist K-12 Instruction

By Catherine Gewertz — June 24, 2020 5 min read
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A new parent group has organized to put pressure on school districts to embrace anti-racist curriculum and instruction. Its first action, which begins today, aims to inundate 10 school districts, from California to Connecticut, with emails demanding change.

Racial Equity Education is small: About 10 friends, all Black, white, Jewish or Asian parents of K-12 students, and connected through Facebook, put the group together earlier this month.

But it has big dreams. It wants students, parents, and community members to pile so many emails in the inboxes of key district leaders in 10 cities that they’ll have to sit up and take notice.

“If you’re hearing tens of thousands of folks singing the same song, in chorus, saying the time for change is now, it’s harder to ignore” than one petition that lands on a leader’s desk, said Gigi, who works in adult education in Seattle and is one of the group’s founders.

Gigi and the group’s other members insist that their last names be withheld for their safety. Where they live, in Milwaukee, Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., Seattle and other cities, they’ve already seen violence and verbal abuse toward demonstrators protesting police shootings. And they’ve had a couple of hateful comments posted in their Facebook group, Gigi said. (The group moderators have since deleted them.)

Getting the Message Out

In its first wave of activism, Racial Equity Education is targeting the Seattle, Highline, and Puyallup districts in Washington state; East Baton Rouge, La.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Frederick County, Md.; Newtown, Conn.; and three districts in California: Oakland Unified, Glendale, and Placentia-Yorba Linda.

Racial Equity Education chose those 10 districts because it knew there were already students or community members lobbying for anti-racist curriculum there, so they could build on those efforts, Gigi said. The group included East Baton Rouge, La., because of a video that went viral, showing activist Gary Chambers Jr., accusing a local school board member of shopping online while he made an impassioned plea for the board to rename a high school that’s named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The new group’s playbook is twofold: It will send demand letters to school board members, PTA presidents, and local teachers’ unions in 10 districts. But it’s also posted links to a letter template and sample emails that people can use to lobby these—or any other—school districts.

Their two-page letter demands that schools include “Black experience, voices and history” in their curricula. It argues for a well-rounded K-12 ethnic studies curriculum, citing a 2011 paper by the National Education Association that argues that students of all races and ethnic backgrounds benefit from such study. And it asks board members and other leaders to engage in discussions about anti-bias training for teachers, ways to hire more Black and brown teachers, and other changes related to racial equity.

In many of the 10 districts that are the focus of Racial Equity’s new campaign, students are already circulating petitions demanding that their districts do a better job of building a curriculum that includes examination of systemic racism.

Students Demanding Change

Laura Durante is one of those students. A brand-new graduate of Middletown High School South, in Middletown, N.J., the 18-year-old and a friend started an online petition to ask their district to commit to expand the lens through which it teaches history to include more study of Black, indigenous and LGBTQ people.

“To continue to teach in a manner that blatantly ignores the histories and cultures of both Black and Indigenous people and their oppression is doing the next generation of leaders a grand disservice,” the letter says.

It’s gathered more than 800 signatures since it was posted on June 13, Durante said. Five days later, District Superintendent William O. George III responded with a public letter of his own, offering further conversation. “We must ask ourselves if we can do better,” he wrote.

Durante said she started the petition drive because she feels she missed important learning in her predominantly white school system.

“We get this starry, white-washed, colonialist version of history,” she said. “Both world and European history are taught through the eyes of white settlers, and that’s a very narrow view of how things are.”

Seeing the pileup of signatures, and the district’s response, makes Durante feel hopeful. “I haven’t usually felt I’ve had a voice [in school decisions], but this letter showed me that maybe this is something we can change.”

Signs of Momentum Nationwide

Activists who work with school districts on instruction about civics and race report that they’re seeing an uptick of interest in anti-bias training and anti-racist teaching.

Jill Bass, the chief education officer at the Mikva Challenge, a national organization that helps teachers learn to plan “action civics” projects that engage students in the community, said she’s “getting a lot of calls” from teachers and district administrators about how those projects dovetail with anti-racist curriculum.

She’s also seeing administrators feeling readier than they were last year to take the risk to jump into controversial subject matter, Bass said. “If the desire was there before, now there’s a huge fan on that fire, giving it oxygen,” she said.

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Trudy Delhey sees that change from her post as the K-12 social studies supervisor for the Cobb County school district in Georgia. Teachers are increasingly asking for help with culturally responsive teaching, she said. And her district is moving full-force into training on an updated Mikva Challenge curriculum that dives deeply into how power and privilege shape social identity, she said.

“We’re maxing out with it, and we weren’t ready for that before,” Delhey said. “COVID and [concerns about] policing have exposed the inequities people experience. There’s this instant understanding that’s translated into teachers being more reflective about what they have to do to better serve students.”

Gigi homeschools her two children because, as an Afro-Latina, she found the “Eurocentric curriculum” in the local schools unacceptable, and “harmful to the self-esteem of Black and brown children,” she said. (Seattle, where she lives, is working on a K-12 ethnic studies curriculum.)

She hand-picked a short list of resources for teachers that highlight the historic and cultural contributions of Black people. Her group recommends that districts work with consultants to build out a full curriculum.

Photo: Kayla Shannon, a recent graduate of Grand Blanc High School in Michigan, speaks at a peaceful protest against police violence and racial injustice on June 5. Protests across the United States were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. —Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.