Equity & Diversity

Why Two Superintendents of Mostly White Districts Are Actively Fighting Anti-Black Racism

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 07, 2021 5 min read
Outdoor education teacher Mark Savage challenges his students with a game in class at Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine on April 30, 2021.
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This year, Jenny Risner, the superintendent of Ames, Iowa schools, started receiving emails from white alumni who said, while they were proud of the education they’d received, they wished that they had learned more about American racism.

“Those letters were really powerful to me in knowing that our white students are not getting what they need,” said Risner, who oversees the 4,300-student district where about 65 percent of students are white. “They’re not gaining the understanding of valuing diversity and differences. And it’s simply because we haven’t exposed them to it.”

Ames is one of a growing number of majority white districts across the country that, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a policeman, have started investing in anti-bias training for teachers, forming diversity and equity committees to examine structural racism, and changing curricula to be more inclusive of the perspectives of people of color.

That’s despite fierce political pushback they have received from parents, school board members, and politicians who have accused school districts of being unpatriotic and teaching students that all white people are racist.

District leaders of majority white school districts said their anti-racism efforts are set up to ensure that all their students have a sense of belonging in schools, and to help all students realize the ways American racism impacts both white students and students of color. They also said they have a responsibility as educators to teach their students how to live in a multiracial society.

“Equity work has never been more important than it is right now, because we see what’s happening in our nation,” said Risner.

A years-long effort culminates in a Black Lives Matter Week and a legislative hearing

Ames’ efforts began five years ago after a series of board meetings when district leaders started questioning how they could create a more inclusive environment for a growing number of students of color in the district. Over the next several years, the district hired a chief equity officer and overhauled its curriculum.
This February, the district introduced 13 principles listed on the Black Lives Matter at School website to each age group through learning activities.

Every day for a week, students learned one or two principles on affirming queer and transgender identities, restorative justice, and the history of Black families and Black women. But when some parents found out about the district’s plan, they complained about the Black Lives Matter curriculum to state lawmakers, saying that the curriculum was “morally objectionable or politically one-sided.”

In March, Republican legislators brought Ames administrators to the statehouse to defend the “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”

They charged that the district’s choice to teach the curriculum was an “abuse of power” and that parts of the curriculum were factually incorrect. Iowa is one of several states now considering banning the discussion of structural racism in the classroom.

“People have really strong feelings around these topics but we have to still continue on with work as a community school district,” Risner said.

After George Floyd’s death, a Maine superintendent pledges to ‘ask the difficult questions and search for the truths’

A month after George Floyd was murdered in May of last year, sparking nationwide protests, Superintendent Gregg Palmer of the Brewer, Maine school district sent a letter to the families of its 1,660 students, making a promise to work on diversity and equity within the district where 90 percent of the students are white. The letter came three days after five Black high school students spoke about their experiences with racism in the neighboring school district of Bangor with the local newspaper.

“The tragic death of George Floyd, the peaceful protests that have followed, the rioting, are all part of a nation hemorrhaging pain and crying out for healing that cannot be ignored,” Palmer said in the letter. “Our Brewer students stand as innocents at this frightening crossroads, and they look to us to stand watch on their behalf and to help them find truth and salve and to ask the difficult questions and search for the truths they need in order to begin to heal. Which is exactly what we will do.”

In Eastern Maine, younger grades are twice as diverse as the upper grades, Palmer said. While only 9 percent of high school students are not white, it’s closer to 15 or 16 percent in younger grades, he said.

“We owe it to our kids, ultimately, to accurately discuss a diverse society and how we got here,” he said. “Race is a socially constructed idea, and it wasn’t constructed for positive reasons. Everybody needs to have that discussion.”

In addition to forming a diversity and equity committee, the district hired a local Black-led equity and justice organization to conduct teacher training on diversity and equity and lead virtual discussions on race and gender identities and discrimination with students during Black History Month.

Art teacher Marion MacEwen helps ninth grader Ava Zawadzki in studio foundations at Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine, on April 30, 2021.

The committee is currently working on redesigning its curriculum to more explicitly address racism, although some teachers already have been talking about racism in classrooms, Palmer said.

“The issue is, how do we as a primarily white school district with a white superintendent and white staff, have this discussion in a real way that is inclusive?” he said.

“I think that we need to do it carefully, and I think we need to do it with some outside help.”

While Brewer has not faced significant backlash, a school committee candidate made posts against Black Lives Matter last year and said he could not commit to supporting potential curriculum changes to better represent the perspectives of people of color at a local candidates’ forum.

“Every community, every school district, every organization that tries to have the discussion will experience backlash,” Palmer said. “But when people say, ‘Where is this coming from?’ everyone can say from the superintendent. I’m not going to allow myself to duck that responsibility, and our school committee hasn’t wanted to duck it either.”

Students walk single file down hallways between classes at Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine on April 30, 2021.

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why Two Superintendents of Mostly White Districts Are Fighting Anti-Black Racism

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