Record Observer - - Opinion - By MARY WIL­SON LEVENTHAL

Con­ver­sa­tions about race be­gan in earnest in Queen Anne’s County with the gath­er­ing of about 60 county cit­i­zens over sup­per at the Kramer Cen­ter in late June. Groups of six or eight di­verse peo­ple spoke so­cia­bly at each ta­ble about their lived ex­pe­ri­ences with race. Vi­o­lence across our na­tion trig­gered a will­ing­ness to talk about a topic of­ten left un­touched.

As this first step in coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions be­gan, many re­al­ized that more talk among neigh­bors and col­leagues who are dif­fer­ent from one an­other would strengthen our com­mu­nity. Oth­ers re­marked on the vi­tal­ity of pur­pose of­fered when the knowl­edge we share is ev­i­dence-based.

One such strand of knowl­edge is the “school-to-prison pipe­line,” a phe­nom­e­non ev­i­dent across Amer­ica. Here is where the work of our teach­ers and po­lice­men in­ter­sect as com­mu­nity lead­ers who seek to build a strong, in­te­grated so­ci­ety.

When sta­tis­tics showed that the num­ber of stu­dents who failed to mas­ter read­ing and had be­hav­ior prob­lems in grade 3 cor­re­lated with the num­ber of those who would be im­pris­oned as young adults, ed­u­ca­tors and po­lice­men took spe­cial note. More at­ten­tion grew as the body of ev­i­dence fur­ther connected how sus­pen­sion from school for mis­be­hav­ior was the num­ber-one pre­dic­tor of chil­dren who drop out of school and have a greater like­li­hood of un­em­ploy­ment and im­pris­on­ment.

Sen­a­tor Richard Durbin, D-Ill., held the first fed­eral hear­ing on the school-to-prison pipe­line in 2013 to ad­dress poli­cies that fa­vored in­car­cer­a­tion over ed­u­ca­tion. Zero tol­er­ance poli­cies for stu­dent mis­be­hav­ior were not work­ing. Data showed sus­pen­sions had dou­bled from the level of the 1970s and sus­pen­sions were not help­ing stu­dents. In 2010, more than 3 mil­lion stu­dents were sus­pended from school. Mis­be­hav­ior was re­warded with time off from school.

The hear­ing also brought at­ten­tion to the fact that Black stu­dents are sus­pended and ex­pelled at a rate three times greater than Cau­casian stu­dents. At the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion’s Black Cau­cus, cau­cus chair­man Jac­qui Gread­ing­ton ad­vised that bias starts early. “Black chil­dren rep­re­sent 18 per­cent of pre-school chil­dren, but ac­count for 48 per­cent of pre-school sus­pen­sions — yes, we’re talk­ing about 4-year-olds.”

In fact, nearly one in three Black men will spend time in U.S. pris­ons. By 2014, the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice or­dered school dis­tricts to re­spond to mis­be­hav­ior with non-dis­crim­i­na­tion and fair­ness. Ed­u­ca­tors de­voted more en­ergy to im­ple­ment­ing cul­tur­ally re­spon­sive teach­ing prac­tices that com­bat “cul­tural deficit think­ing.” Teach­ers were asked to re­new their com­mit­ment to greater self-aware­ness of their own so­cio­cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions, be­liefs, and val­ues that in­flu­ence stu­dent achieve­ment.

At the same time, “restora­tive prac­tices,” de­rived from ef­fec­tive ways to re­ha­bil­i­tate pris­on­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in schools. The Restora­tive Jus­tice pro­gram in schools moves away from pun­ish­ment. The fo­cus is on restoring a sense of well-be­ing for the stu­dent and teacher who have been af­fected by a hurt­ful act. It is a way for teach­ers to work through the root of dis­ci­plinary is­sues by build­ing strong, pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ships with all stu­dents of all so­cio­cul­tural back­grounds.

This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant given that about 80 per­cent of all U.S. pub­lic school teach­ers are Cau­casian, un­like the di­ver­sity of to­day’s stu­dent body. When teach­ers pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the feel­ings of stu­dents, they em­brace the op­por­tu­nity to gain in­sight on how stu­dents feel per­son­ally about events that in­flu­ence learn­ing.

In Queen Anne’s County, when lead­er­ship of the Mul­ti­cul­tural Pro­fi­ciency Com­mit­tee has worked to bring cit­i­zens to­gether to talk about race, they are ask­ing for more than an emo­tional ex­change of ex­pe­ri­ences. Mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions about race en­cour­age per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion and com­mu­nity build­ing. Coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions help to build pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships that go on to build a brighter fu­ture for all of the chil­dren in our county.


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