Friday, April 20, 2012

Diversity Plan Spotlights Race Debate

As most students went to classes at Burlington High School on Thursday morning about 40 students, most of them English language learners (ELL) from Somalia, gathered at the school's entrance for a surprise protest.

     Angered after seeing a newspaper article posted on a school bulletin board that described them as “statistical outliers” who lagged behind, they overcame embarrassment and delivered their message with youthful energy and creativity. They feel unfairly judged by outdated tests and object to statistical analysis that correlates poverty with poor academic performance.
     They also made it loud and clear that, despite any progress or the promises of change ahead, racism remains a real and persistent problem in local schools.
     Their goal, chanted while marching around school property, was to “end racism at BHS.”

     When the findings of the Diversity and Equity Task Force established by the Burlington School District were released last October Vince Brennan was almost as optimistic.
     As Task Force Chairperson and a Progressive member of the City Council he saw in the year-long effort the “noble ideal of building a better future.” Six months later what he sees instead is “fear and a loss of hope for change.
     Last Monday, during the city council’s first working session with the new Weinberger administration, he had some strong words for BSD Superintendent Jeanne Collins after a report was delivered by school officials on the new strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion.
     In a commentary submitted to the Burlington Free Press in late March – but not published – Brennan questioned whether Collins was “really being true to her words about free speech or is picking and choosing who to silence.”
Councilor Vince Brennan
     The school system needs “new leadership,” Brennan concluded. He was calling for the superintendent’s replacement because she had declined to intervene after Math teacher David Rome issued a pointed refutation of the report’s findings.
     Brennan’s commentary was written in response to a Burlington Free Press op-ed that said he was wrong to criticize Collins for not speaking out about Rome’s rebuttal. The teacher’s questioning of statistics and conclusions cited as the basis for the school system’s strategic plan undermined the report’s initial public reception and has raised fresh questions about racism in the schools.
     Brennan insists he does not want to silence Rome, despite suggestions in the press that it is a free speech issue. But he does think that “not participating with the Task Force while it was assembled and then condemning the whole process after it was accepted is exercising what researchers call ‘privilege’ based on race.” 

Disparities and disagreements

Schools in Burlington are considerably more diverse than most in Vermont.  Students of color—Asian, Black, Latino, Native American and Multiracial—make up 27 percent of student body, according to school district figures. About 15 percent are English language learners from other countries. Over 60 languages and dialects are spoken by their families. Statewide, the ELL population has more than doubled in the last ten years.
     Minorities will be more than 50 percent of the US population by 2042. Although the white community may be able to maintain the status quo, the report argues, doing so will create “an inhospitable climate for students and families of color and will severely limit the potential of all our students to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.”
     With these and other trends in mind the Task Force attempts to make the case for rapid change with a portrait comprised of “statistically measured facts” about the local system.  The report states, for example, that the dropout rate for African American students is measurably higher, that “students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch” are 25 percent less likely to graduate, and that “there is nearly a one in five chance that an otherwise qualified student of color did not take the SAT or ACT exam.”
     It also notes that minority students “are extremely over-represented (60%) in being punished through out-of-school suspensions,” and although students of color make up 27 percent of the student body, they represent only 13 percent of those passing Algebra 1.
     The strategic plan that has emerged from this analysis involves top-to-bottom change in educational policies. That includes ongoing training and professional development for all employees, hiring more people of color along with “culturally competent” staff, leadership and accountability by the school board and administration, increased transparency, and incorporation of a “multicultural mindset” into curriculum, hiring and other policies that “values cultural pluralism and affirms students from all backgrounds.”
     In a section on what needs to be done during the next year to change the local climate, the primary objective is to “infuse the district with the message that the social and educational climate in our schools requires urgent attention to erase many negative stereotypes, subtle and overt behaviors, assumptions, and decisions that favor conventional, white upper middle class Judeo-Christian values and beliefs.”
     Rome’s response focuses mainly on statistics he has found inaccurate, but he also calls the report’s references to Judeo-Christian culture inflammatory and divisive. “The use of this phrase is truly an insult to the professionals who work with individuals at BHS to make the school as inclusive and welcoming to as many students as possible,” he writes. At least one other teacher has publicly agreed with him.
     Rome’s central argument is that factual errors in the report have produced “false conclusions leading to a reaction by the Board and community members that the school system is badly flawed and in need of drastic repair when, in fact, it is doing a remarkably fair and equitable job.”
     The Task Force cites a 5 percent dropout gap between African American and White students, but Rome notes that only one African American dropped out of the senior class last year. He adds that it is unfair to expect newcomers to the country to graduate within four years. On math performance he argues the figures actually indicate improved course completion for students of color. He also disputes suspension statistics cited in the report.
     Sara Martinez De Osaba, director of the Vermont Multicultural Alliance for Democracy, sees such criticisms as an attempt to “negate that there are disparities.” Like Brennan she describes Rome’s critique as an example of “white privilege.”

Developing the new roadmap

The process that led to the new plan began in 2008 with an attempt by the board to define diversity. “We are a community of many cultures, faiths, abilities, family constellations and incomes, birthplaces and aspirations,” said the resulting statement. “The depth and richness of this diversity is our strength when we work toward a common goal.”
     The Task Force on Equity and Diversity was created two years later, and initially grappled with the hiring of a new principal for the Integrated Arts Academy. Since the district “faced extensive needs in recruitment and hiring of teachers and staff of color,” it focused in the early months on human resource questions. A Town Hall meeting and three other community input events helped to inform the work.
     After the report was completed and accepted by the school board last fall a town hall-style gathering was staged in February to present the findings and strategy. About 120 people attended. By then Rome had released his rebuttal and the local mood gradually turned less hopeful.
     According to the Task Force “troubling educational disparities exist in Burlington along race and socioeconomic status. They represent an ‘opportunity gap’ as well as a shortfall in the overall number of high school graduates and potential college grads.” The situation produces “inequalities of all kinds which in turn have multiple long-term effects.”
     BSD’s plan describes broad-ranging changes in leadership, human resources, climate and curriculum. Within the next year, for example, one objective is system-wide staff training aimed at creating an “anti-racist and culturally responsive curriculum to support all students.” The idea is to have teachers “consistently reference the multicultural nature of their teaching tools, noting the contributions and accomplishments of distinguished individuals from a variety of cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. “
      One example in the plan discusses teaching about westward US expansion. Rather than focusing on the perspective of hunters, pioneers, the beginning of the industrial age and the harnessing of natural resources, the report suggests that curriculum should look at the impacts on different groups and cultures, as well as the role of various institutions “in achieving specific outcomes.”
     Curriculum activities during the first year are expected to include an online resource guide for teachers; workshops and use of diversity coaches; advisory groups at each school; an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Guidebook that presents “the rationale for using an anti-racist, culturally responsive and socially just method of inquiry;” and development of working definitions for key terms like “anti-racist,” “culturally responsive,” and “social justice.”
     To jump-start that process the report includes a six-page glossary of terms. Defining “anti-racist education” it notes that racism is not only manifested in individual acts of bigotry but also in policies like “failure to hire people of color at all levels and the omission of anti-racist regulations in faculty and student handbooks.”
     Cultural competence involves “being aware of one’s own assumptions” and “understanding the worldview of culturally diverse and marginalized populations,” the report explains.
     Two key concepts are “institutionalized racism” and “privilege,” both of which came up during the city council’s review of the plan.
     The glossary explains that “institutionalized racism” is seen in “processes, attitudes and behavior which totals up to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantages people from ethnic minorities.”
     “Do you believe while privilege exists?” Brennan asked Collins during an extended question period during the council meeting. Absolutely yes, she answered. Ward 1 Democrat Ed Adrian agreed.
     But Ward 7 Republican Paul Decelles was troubled by the question and asked, “Could you explain what you mean by that comment you just made.” He didn’t get a direct response but the report includes a definition.
     White privilege, it says, “helps explain how white people – relative to people of color and who do not present as part of the white racial group – and despite their intentions, are ‘advantaged’ to access and opportunities over people of color and those who do not appear to be in the white racial group.”

Voicing frustration and dissent  

Faulty research and conclusions by the task force are pointing Burlington in the wrong direction to address the real problems, Rome argues. “Hiring teachers of color has little, if any, correlation to student performance, but hiring competent teachers, regardless of color, does."
     He also suggests that the district should focus on “improving the economic situation of lower socio-economic families and educating them about the link between academic success and their future.”
     Beyond questioning the statistics used as a rationale Rome also finds fault with the report for failing to mention areas of local success, a list on which he includes a higher rate of students of all colors going to college than the state average, a knowledgeable staff with  “a great amount of diversity and cultural experiences,” student resources like the Homework Center and Shades of Ebony, and “the conscious choice that most staff members make to work at BHS precisely because of the diverse student population and the high level of professionalism of the staff.”
     Rome also claims that both teachers and students were excluded from the task force report committee. “At no time were teachers interviewed or questioned for their expertise about the veracity of the comments made at the meetings or discussions in an effort to get their input for further discussion,” he charges. As a result the report’s release was “a blow to morale” that he claims has upset many teachers.
     As evidenced by the Thursday protest many ELL students at the high school are also frustrated and upset.  According to De Osaba, who put out a call to local activists to show up in support, students are offended by the suggestion that they are “statistical outliers.”  The term does not appear in Rome’s report, but she says that he has used the term in a hand out. Others claim that he has brought up the dispute in class.
     Like teachers who feel their efforts have been undervalued, students attending the protest were angry and disappointed by the sense they are being blamed for the school’s problems. The ELL curriculum used at the high school is outdated, they charge, and they don’t want to be judged on the basis of unfair testing.
     “BSD has been beleaguered with racism issues since the '80's,” De Osaba contends. She adds that tensions are increasing because many steps identified years ago by the school system have not been taken. “None of this is the fault of the African ELL students. They are not running the schools. 
     UVM faculty member Denise Dunbar, who also attended the protest, points to the emotional toll of social isolation and humiliation faced by students attempting to learn English and adjust to a new society. Some statistics in the plan may be off, she acknowledges, but the problems should not be minimized and cannot always be measured.
     Collins sees things similarly. There is room for debate about the math, she admits. But despite some suggestions that the report should be rescinded she continues to think the conclusions and strategies are on target.
     That position hasn’t been sufficient for Brennan or others who believe that failing to respond to criticism by Rome has undermined what the district is trying to accomplish and should be grounds for administrative change. De Osaba goes farther, charging that the administration condones the Rome’s report by not taking steps to refute or stop him.
     Collins insists that a greater concern is “silencing any voice in this important conversation.”
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