Equity & Diversity

These Districts Will Risk Breaking State Law to Continue Anti-Racism Work

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 06, 2021 7 min read
Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks during a Tulsa Public Schools board meeting in Tulsa, Okla. on March 5, 2018.
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At least three Oklahoma districts that serve mostly students of color say they don’t plan on changing the way they talk about racism in the classroom and are willing to face the consequences of a new state law restricting those practices and conversations.

Individual and systemic acts of racism shape the everyday reality of their students’ lives, and it would be unethical and academically destructive to deny that it exists, as the law effectively asks them to do, administrators said. School leaders in Hanna, Millwood, and Tulsa said they have no plans to end their anti-bias training, change any part of their curriculum, or shutter the wealth of in-school and after-school activities that celebrate students’ cultural identities. Refusal to do so could be interpreted by state administrators as running afoul of the law.

They are willing to face the consequences, which include administrators and teachers losing their licenses and certificates and the district losing its accreditation, making the diplomas principals hand out invalid.

“We shouldn’t have to not celebrate children for being different for the sake of not hurting someone’s feelings because everything generally is based on white people’s holidays and their rituals,” said Cecilia Robinson-Woods, superintendent of the majority Black Millwood district outside Oklahoma City. “I’m not worried about showing up in court. I’m not worried about having to go to the state board and plead my case.”

Much of this year’s raucous debate over whether teachers should talk to students about America’s racist past and how administrators should address longstanding disparities between white students and students of color has focused on the feelings of white students and the attitudes of their parents.

But students of color today make up the majority of America’s student body, and their parents in recent decades have pushed administrators to more aggressively address explicit and implicit ways school districts have denied their children the best academic opportunities. Similarly, their elected school board members have demanded that teachers tell a more complete version of America’s history that includes stories of how their children’s ancestors suffered from and fought against white supremacy.

Some administrators warn Oklahoma’s ban will upend most of that work and will be costly, time-intensive, and disruptive during an already chaotic year when many students have failed to show up to class and have slipped academically.

The state’s law is vague in some areas and specific in others. Whether or not districts comply with the law will be left up to interpretation by members of the public, administrators, and officials at the state’s department of education.

Under the law, administrators, among other things, will be “prohibited from adopting diversity, equity, or inclusion plans” or “mandating diversity training.” They also are barred from “executing contracts or agreements with internal or external entities, persons, companies or businesses to provide services, training, professional development, or any other assistance that includes, incorporates or is based on discriminatory practices.”

Discriminatory practices are defined as the eight concepts that most states that have passed similar laws have banned, including teaching that someone “is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress,” or “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past” because of their race or sex.

Lauren Partain, the spokeswoman for Tulsa Public schools, said in a statement that school districts had no indication of the scope and breadth of the law that goes into effect this fall until the department’s rules were posted online on July 12, just a month before students returned to school.

The second-largest district in the state said that equity is intentionally one of its core values, that it supports culturally responsive teaching and “works urgently to identify and dismantle the systemic practices and structures that have sustained racism for far too long.”

“We are teaching our children an accurate—and at times painful, difficult, and uncomfortable—history about our shared human experience,” Partain said.

“We cannot and will not teach those histories and experiences that reflect only the dominant white culture, just as we cannot and will not provide an education that deprives children of a true and accurate understanding of the world in which they live.”

Failing to acknowledge Oklahoma’s racist past would be ‘disingenuous’

Oklahoma’s public school system today is more than 8 percent Black, 19 percent Latino and 12 percent Native American.

Throughout the state’s history, thousands of Native American students were sent to boarding schools in order to erase their cultural identity. And until the federal government intervened in the 1960s and 1970s, the state would not allow most students of color to attend school with white students.

A groundbreaking study conducted by the state’s department of education in 2019 showed that white students outperformed Black, Latino, and Native American students even when socioeconomic, disability, and linguistic barriers are removed. Those disparities have only worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Millwood Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods was an elementary student, she never attended one elementary school for two consecutive years. Robinson-Woods and her siblings were bused to different elementary schools each year, as were other Black students in her neighborhood. But a fellow teacher, who is white, told her that she walked to the elementary school around the corner as a child, Robinson-Woods said.

Now, Oklahoma state department rules might prevent teachers from telling that story for fear of “stereotyping” based on race and sex, she said. But it would be disingenous for her as a teacher not to share it, Robinson-Woods said.

“I’m not saying anything that I haven’t lived, that I haven’t experienced, that I don’t have to protect my kids and my community from. And I’m speaking about my individual experiences within the system,” she said. “And if speaking about that is wrong, I guess I don’t want to be right.”

More than 96 percent of Millwood’s students and 80 percent of its teachers are Black. Teachers regularly discuss current events with students, for example the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests for racial equity, and the local Black Lives Matter movement, something which directly impact students’ lives.

“When you are a culturally responsive educator, you try to make connections to kids so that they can hold on to information and knowledge,” she said. “As a teacher, I wouldn’t limit that connection for a kid, just because I thought it was gonna violate the law.”

Millwood teachers also provide students lessons on inclusion, which the district plans to expand this year into its professional development program, and has worked to purchase more literature that feature people of color.

A superintendent pledges to be a ‘martyr’

In the 80-student district of Hanna, 62 percent of students are members of the Muskogee Nation, a Native American tribe. When Chad Hull became superintendent two years ago, he introduced a day where the entire district celebrates Native American culture. This year, he plans to invite council leaders and performers from the Muskogee Nation, even if it draws objections.

Students will spend the day learning about Native American history in Oklahoma, the school will serve indigenous cuisine in the cafeteria, and the day will feature traditional dances performed by people from the Muskogee Nation. The district also offers a class in Native American studies that discusses historical injustices such as the Trail of Tears. The students also learn about ways Black Oklahomans overcame systemic racism during a designated African American Week.

Hull said he plans to keep all of this in place despite the new law.

In the small, rural school district, parents are already heavily involved in school operations, and all students are taught to appreciate diversity, Hull said. He doesn’t anticipate parents wanting the school to do anything differently next year because of the law.

“If we have any complaints come in, we’ll address them, but we exclude nobody and we’re keeping that,” he said. “I’ll be a martyr for that. I’ll fight that until the end. They need to see what Native Americans and African Americans have been through in Oklahoma.”


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