Public schools can be a beautiful reflection of the communities they serve. We’ve been privileged with the education that Chapel Hill, N.C., perhaps the state’s most respected school district, has provided us. As co-founders of our high school’s Black and Brown Student Coalition, we’ve also been pleased to watch our social-justice-oriented town rally around its people of color, exemplified by “Black Lives Matter” yard signs and Instagram reposts of black squares.
So if Chapel Hill is so progressive, then why does our district have the second largest achievement gap nationally for Black students and the fifth largest for Latinx students, when compared with white students, as recently described by Stanford University researcher Sean F. Reardon and his colleagues. In fact, according to the study, 3 of the 4 largest gaps between Black and white students occur in progressive towns with prestigious universities, including Chapel Hill and Berkeley, Calif. That should be cause for reflection.
Barriers like the achievement gap are rooted in slavery, then segregation, and then mismanaged integration. In Reardon’s research, parents’ income, their education, and the degree of segregation in the neighborhoods they live in predict a large part of their children’s test scores. These barriers are unknowingly upheld by the people who thrive in the system that perpetuates them.
White, progressive community members often play this role. Seeing their publicly held views echoed on yard signs, social media, and murals, they have the privilege of believing that all is well. These people have the most influence on and success in the system; how would they feel the impact of the barriers keeping back students of color, and why would they desire change? They wouldn’t. It’s easy to hit the retweet button or say B(lack) L(ives) M(atter), but when push comes to shove, privileged parents will often use their money, influence, and understanding of the system to put their kid ahead, even when it means leaving students of color behind.
Much like the community, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school district has been using racial and social equity as a centerpiece but has failed to make the decisions that mattered. When it came time to fill an open seat on the district’s school board, the sitting board members switched to a coin flip to determine the winner after three votes tied 3-3. As a result, the opening was filled by a qualified white candidate rather than an equally qualified, equity-driven Latina candidate. The board remains without Latinx representation, though Latinx students are the largest minority group in our district. It is at least partially because of this lack of representation that Latinx students have been disconnected from quality support at all levels.
The district has failed to follow through even with small commitments to equity, for example, when the district’s inaugural “Equity Summit” for Carrboro High School students was interrupted by a fire drill. Our student body never returned for a second meeting or even to finish the first. Not that the summit—hours of smoke and mirrors punctuated by icebreakers—would have had profound effects. More powerful would be changes like enrolling native Spanish speakers in Advanced Placement Spanish classes, scrapping AP classes and gifted testing altogether, or offering free ACT and SAT tutoring. Our group, the Black and Brown Student Coalition, was able to accomplish the last of those with a student tutoring group at the University of North Carolina. We need genuine changes to be moving closer to and not further from what renowned equity-in-education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings advocates: dismantling the entire system in a “hard reset.”
If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that action builds culture.
Student groups can easily fall into the district’s pattern of complacency. Discussion groups can be powerful places for students to share their experiences but often lack solution-based thinking. White adults tend to turn these spaces into places for sympathizing with students of color and their experiences, affirming the adults’ identity as anti-racists without their taking any action.
Just recently, in a gifted education planning meeting, a participant cried in response to our presentation because she was moved by our work. Admiration and sympathy are good first steps to showing students of color that you care, but we were there for solutions. It was wildly unproductive for us to spend time being the center of someone’s self-gratifying moment of sensitivity. In that moment, we could feel ourselves slipping toward the empty gestures that we as students struggle to fight.
That fight requires action. Our coalition has focused on just that: adding an “equity lead” position to student government, creating schoolwide curricula in response to national events, actively working to put more students of color in Advanced Placement and honors courses, producing a podcast called “Student Voices of the Pandemic” to give students of color a platform to address the district’s faculty directly, and more. It’s crucial to provide spaces that allow students of color to feel safe enough to voice both their struggles and their solutions.
Our action this year has reminded us that the system is not a lost cause. Teachers, students, and even our principal have been eager to help us on our journey. Playing our podcasts in staff meetings has changed the way our teachers view their role in supporting students of color. A freshman felt inspired to send a mass email to our faculty, criticizing the school’s Black History Month curriculum. Students at other Chapel Hill high schools have formed similar groups.
If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that action builds culture. So as you process the verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, remember that you can always do more than hope justice is served in America’s next landmark trial. Consider the following advice:
Teachers: You have platforms (faculty meetings, your classroom, etc.) and resources. Give student leaders access. Don’t set restrictions on the way that groups can express themselves. Encourage your students to ask for assistance but never for permission. If you do not make yourself an official adviser to the group, you do not have to answer for their “good trouble.” Let the students be the untouchable instigators you wish you could be.
Parents and community stakeholders: Think about the ways that you advocate for your own child. Do all students have access to that? In what ways do you hoard opportunities and contribute to inequity?
Students: Be mindful of how you sustain and benefit from inequities in your school. To make change there, you might have to change the way people think at home. After all, public schools can be a beautiful reflection of the communities they serve.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Racial Justice Demands More Than a Lawn Sign