Special Report
School & District Management

To Root Out Racism in Schools, Start With Who You Hire

By Denisa R. Superville — October 13, 2020 11 min read
Dawn Brooks-DeCosta is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in New York City. The school has a strong social justice mission, rigorous curriculum, and commitment to celebrating Black excellence
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Principal Marcia Carmichael-Murphy and her leadership team put teacher-candidates in the hot seat when they interview them for a position at Coleridge-Taylor Montessori Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. The school is in the historically Black Russell neighborhood in the city’s West End.

The school leaders ask about cultural bias, community wealth, and how prospective teachers will build positive relationships with students. They pay attention to whether candidates are comfortable even saying the word Black. They drill down on how the candidates’ worldviews will impact their teaching styles and how they’d help students feel like they belong at the school.

“If someone says, ‘I don’t see color,’ that’s the wrong answer,” said Carmichael-Murphy, who is mixed race.

But if the answer is, “ ‘I didn’t go to a school like this,’ ... and ‘I understand my experience is privileged and I have a lot to learn’—I can work with that,” Carmichael-Murphy added.

Those questions play a major role in helping Carmichael-Murphy, Assistant Principal LaRhonda Mathies, and Erica E. Young, the restorative discipline coach, determine whether teachers have the right mindset to work at Coleridge-Taylor, where Carmichael-Murphy has spent the last two years creating a learning environment with anti-bias and anti-racism at the core.

African Americans make up 71 percent of the enrollment, while 20 percent of students are white. Five percent are two or more races.

When Carmichael-Murphy arrived at the school in 2018, it was on the verge of being labeled a “comprehensive support and improvement” school, a designation for schools that are among the lowest performing in the state.

Hiring, Carmichael-Murphy said, is one of the most important levers of control that principals have to transform schools into anti-racist institutions.

“If I can’t pick the right people for the building and maintain the right people—then I might as well just go ahead and walk out,” she said.

Momentum for Change?

Over the last decade or so, schools have verbally championed efforts to promote equity and stamp out bias—even as data to support those claims have lagged. But the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent killings of Black people this year—including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia—have brought more urgency to confront racist practices.

Many school leaders are now stepping up efforts to create schools that are committed to actively rooting out bias and racism. Some were already doing this piecemeal: ensuring textbooks and curricula reflected student demographics, working to reduce disparities in suspensions and other disciplinary actions, and expanding culturally relevant teaching practices.

But experts say school leaders need a more cohesive thread to knit these disparate initiatives together to transform the educational experiences and outcomes for Black and brown students. School leaders need to be explicit that they plan to eliminate biases and create more opportunities for students of color to grow and thrive.


“Anti-racist leadership, on the one hand, disrupts racialized patterns,” said Decoteau J. Irby, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who works with schools to transform culture and practices.

“In particular, it disrupts patterns that position white norms, white culture, whiteness as superior to students of color, Latinx students, Black students and so on. …It’s leadership that creates more expansive opportunities and access for students of color.”

Those efforts must include hiring the right people, creating a culture where students feel they belong and can advocate for change, creating trusting environments for teachers, parents, and students, and ensuring students have access to rigorous and engaging curriculum. But it also means digging into data and changing policies and practices that steer Black and brown students to low-level classes, suspend them at disproportionate rates, and hold them back from reaching academic performance levels on par with their white peers.

Doing so is hard work—even when the staff is committed to the end goal and social justice is part of the school’s mission.

School leaders must first understand the problem in their buildings, Irby said. Most accomplish that through a race-specific inquiry of the school, such as an equity audit of policies and the outcomes. But there also must be a shared commitment from the staff and the leadership team about the goals of the efforts, Irby said.

Surprisingly, he said, before digging into data, most schools are unaware of their racialized patterns.

Irby spends time trying to excavate the root of why people do what they do and then works with them to change those practices. That, he believes, will lead to change in the culture and belief systems.

For example, he gets teachers to change one small practice during six-week cycles. It may be something as small as a teacher taking time to say something positive daily to a student with whom he or she may have a rocky relationship. Over time, that daily affirmation can grow into a connection with the student and seeing the student in a new light. The same applies to changing practices in classrooms. Irby believes that by starting small and changing the practice, others will follow. Teachers are more likely to change their practice when they see successful examples from other teachers, he said.

Dawn Brooks-DeCosta, who is African-American, applied to teach at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in Harlem because of the school’s social justice mission and its commitment to celebrating Black excellence. The school’s students and staff are predominantly Black.

Stories of the Harlem Renaissance and key figures in Harlem’s history—like Langston Hughes and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—are regular features of the curriculum. Black history is celebrated year-round, not just in February.

Showing Vulnerability

Brooks-DeCosta’s doctoral leadership program at Teachers College focused on anti-racist leadership, and part of it required her to write a racial autobiography identifying the first time she became racially aware or the first time she became aware of her race, who she is, and how she identified.

It was such a “powerful” experience that Brooks-DeCosta did the same with her staff to show her vulnerability and as a trust-building exercise.

Brooks-DeCosta also documented what the school was already doing that was anti-bias, anti-racist work and additional steps they could take to be more explicitly anti-racist.


A big focus was ensuring that rigorous teaching was taking place even as textbooks changed to be more reflective of the predominantly Black student enrollment.

“You can have textbooks with characters of color, but low-level teaching,” she said. “It was also about how we were teaching [students] and how to hold them to high expectations.”

To ensure that those two were not incompatible, Brooks-DeCosta and her leadership team worked with Gholdy Muhammad, the author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

Muhammad believes high-quality, culturally relevant teaching must include students’ identity and history, train them to think critically and prepare them to engage with the concepts of power and oppression. Brooks-DeCosta assigned a teacher to work with Muhammad and then to model those teaching techniques for other teachers. The school also held a book study on culturally relevant teaching, not just for teachers, but also for parents, so they knew what to expect.

Danica Goyens-Ward, the school’s 4th-grade data coach and peer collaborative teacher, trained with Muhammad for more than three years and set up a model classroom at the school. Teachers would visit during 90-minute blocks and observe Goyens-Ward, ask questions, chat with students about how much they were learning, review the writing pieces students produced, and then try out what they saw in their own classrooms. Teachers gave Goyens-Ward feedback on what they saw. Goyens-Ward visited their classrooms and did the same.

“The hardest part was getting teachers to see that when you get to know our children and our history, the grades will get better,” said Goyens-Ward, who is Black.


Giving Voice to Students

Student voice is an essential part of anti-racist schools. Although Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School was founded on social justice and students had participated in marches on gun violence and Black Lives Matter, Brooks-DeCosta wanted them to be more engaged in becoming change makers—seeing themselves as part of the solution to pressing social problems.

It can be close-to-home issues like writing to the department of education to let the top brass know that they did not like the changes to the school lunches when healthier meals debuted.

In Louisville, Carmichael-Murphy noticed there were few activities for students to participate in besides athletics. She interviewed students to ask about other activities they’d like, and surveys probed their connectedness to the school. In talking to them, she found that students of color did not have a strong sense of belonging in the school. On the flip side, neither did white students, particularly white boys.

She got rid of the student council and replaced it with a student voice team.

“I wanted kids to be able to have some hand in school leadership,” she said.

Anti-Racist ‘Party of One’

The school leaders said schools cannot successfully be anti-racist without a strong social-emotional program in place for both staff and students. School leaders need to create safe space for both students and adults to feel they would be listened to and be able to share, they said.

Getting buy-in from staff can be a difficult. But Anjalé Welton, a professor in the educational leadership and policy analysis department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said principals should be firm about their vision

“Let the staff know this is not a debate,” Welton said. “You want to support staff learning—that they are still questioning and examining their racial attitudes. But at the same time, you don’t want that to delay the work. That kind of blunt approach is what Carmichael-Murphy employed when she started at Coleridge-Taylor. She was the first Black principal in years, and the school had one Black teacher, who was hired shortly before she arrived, she said.

While the district had done a lot of work around racial equity, Coleridge-Taylor had not, she said. Teachers had a “missionary” approach toward teaching. They’d come to school, teach, then leave, she said. There was very little effort to understand the school’s neighborhood or to encourage Black parents to play active roles. She said there was negative response when she initially tried to do the anti-bias, anti-racist work and some teachers exerted negative peer pressure to keep others from doing it.

“I was an anti-racist, anti-bias party of one,” she recalled of her arrival. “It took a lot of standing toe to toe.”

Of the 19 teachers who were at the school when she started, only 10 remain. The staff is now more reflective of the student body and they are asked to spend time in the community.

When faced with pushback, she pointed to the data showing disparities in discipline and academics–the school was deemed needing improvement shortly after she arrived–to show that the then-current methods were not working.

They held book studies, group discussions and workshops on equity, trust and transparency, and discussions on teachers’ racial identities.


“For me, you need to know who you are in relation to your students, and who your students are in relation to you,” Carmichael-Murphy said. “It’s also about understanding the historical and social and political [aspects] of being Black in this community of learners. How are you lifting them up, or empowering them or furthering them?”

That mindset also extends to discipline and helping teachers build relationships with students and find ways to work with them before an issue becomes a disciplinary infraction. That remains a difficult nut to crack. Young was hired recently to tackle that problem, which was to be a core focus this year before the pandemic disrupted schools across the country.

Carmichael-Murphy expects her work to be more impactful now that she has two other like-minded leaders on the leadership team.

Mathies refers to the three as a “United Nations” of school leaders working on social justice. Mathies is Black, Carmichael-Murphy is mixed-race with Black and white parents, and Young is mixed-race with Chinese and white parents.

Carmichael-Murphy points to feedback from students and parents showing an increased sense of belonging, improved climate, and an increase in the number of black students enrolled in higher-level courses as evidence of progress.

A state review of the school earlier year showed the school had a lot of work and improvement to do to be removed from the comprehensive support list, especially in creating more equitable learning opportunities for students, and a learning culture that promotes “creativity, innovation, and collaborative problem-solving.”

The work is ongoing, Carmichael-Murphy said.

The goal is to ensure that the school meets state and district standards and increases the number of students of color who are deemed proficient or distinguished.

Through her work she hopes to alleviate suffering, lift up the community, and “prepare a setting for kids to learn and grow and go on to the next level and make sure I am not churning out people who are racists or biased,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2020 edition of Education Week as To Root Out Racism in Schools, Start With Who You Hire


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