BCPS stu­dents and staff ad­dress racial is­sues within school sys­tem

The Dundalk Eagle - - NEWS - By KAITLIN KULICH kkulich@ches­pub.com

The en­tire coun­try is re-ex­am­in­ing racial is­sues and Bal­ti­more County Pub­lic Schools is no ex­cep­tion.

The school sys­tem in­vited the pub­lic to “A Con­ver­sa­tion on Race and Racism in Amer­ica and Bal­ti­more County Pub­lic Schools.” The first-of-its-kind vir­tual event that was held on Wed­nes­day, July 8, from 4 to 6 p.m., and was aired over sev­eral plat­forms in­clud­ing BCPSTV and Face­book Live.

A watch party also took place on In­sta­gram Live (@ team­bcps) and was hosted by Student Mem­ber of the Board Josh Muhu­muza, a ris­ing se­nior at Dun­dalk High School and Omer Reshid, for­mer Student Mem­ber of The Board and a re­cent grad­u­ate of Pikesville High.

“This was in­spired by stu­dents. Our stu­dents have been hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions ab­sent of adults and we cer­tainly felt like we needed to pro­vide a space with adults for them to have these con­ver­sa­tions,” My­chael Dick­er­son, Chief of Staff for Team BCPS said dur­ing the panel con­ver­sa­tion.

Muhu­muza played a big role in push­ing for the school sys­tem to have this con­ver­sa­tion. He thanked the panel for lis­ten­ing to stu­dents and or­ga­niz­ing the event so that stu­dents could not only hear what their aca­demic lead­ers have to say about race in­equal­ity but re­lay their own thoughts about how BCPS can do a bet­ter job when it comes to de­con­struct­ing in­sti­tu­tional, and many times un­in­ten­tional, racism within the school sys­tem.

“As a student, get­ting to see our school sys­tem take this ini­tia­tive is re­ally great. This is re­ally im­por­tant,” Muhu­muza said.

Muhu­muza then brought up a main is­sue many stu­dents were dis­cussing on In­sta­gram Live which was the lack of di­ver­sity among staff at BCPS.

“The di­ver­sity of teach­ers is very im­por­tant es­pe­cially for an African Amer­i­can student and if we don’t have peo­ple who look like us, it might af­fect how we per­form in school—es­pe­cially low­in­come school stu­dents.”

Ac­cord­ing to BCPS, 39.5% per­cent of its stu­dents are black and 35.9% are white

Many of the pan­elists ad­dressed the fact that ma­jor­ity of BCPS stu­dents are mi­nori­ties and shared their own ex­pe­ri­ences when they no­ticed the lack of di­ver­sity in their work­places.

“I was one of three African Amer­i­can teach­ers and one left the fol­low­ing year so there were two of us out of a staff of about 75 teach­ers,” Yas­min Stokes, an ed­u­ca­tor for BCPS said.

Stokes started her ca­reer as a spe­cial needs teacher in Bal­ti­more City Schools and said when she started teach­ing for BCPS in 1886, she no­ticed a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the de­mo­graph­ics of stu­dents and staff.

“The first thing I no­ticed was that I was hyper-vis­i­ble in the build­ing. I was of­ten stopped in the hall and asked if I was a par­ent if I was lost, I was even asked at one point if I was in the right build­ing.

The sec­ond thing I no­ticed was the avail­abil­ity of the abun­dance of re­sources, at least in my per­cep­tion. I heard so many complaints about what they didn’t have so quickly I picked up on that sense of en­ti­tle­ment.

The third and the most dis­com­fort­ing thing I no­ticed in 1986 was how race played out to­wards the few stu­dents of color, specif­i­cally black and brown boys,” Stokes said.

Stokes went on to ex­plain a par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent where a white student of hers told a bi-racial student that he was like Martin Luther King Jr. be­cause he was black.

“The lit­tle boy be­came up­set and said, ‘no I’m not,’ and he asked me if I thought he was black and I said ‘that’s a con­ver­sa­tion that you need to have with your mom.’ Later, I con­tacted the mom and shared the in­ci­dent but later I ap­proached a first-grade teacher who was a white fe­male and I told her the in­ci­dent. She said, ‘oh yeah, it hap­pened with me last year and I told him you’re ei­ther black or you’re dirty.’’’

Stokes then shared a sec­ond in­ci­dent when a white co-worker gave her a Lit­tle Black Sambo puz­zle for her stu­dents to use. Lit­tle Black Sambo is a story book char­ac­ter that was cre­ated in the late 1800s that de­picts a lit­tle black boy as what many see today as a “pick­aninny.” In Racial In­no­cence: Per­form­ing Amer­i­can Child­hood from Slav­ery to Civil Right, Robin Bern­stein writes, “The pick­aninny was an imag­ined, sub­hu­man black ju­ve­nile who was typ­i­cally de­picted out­doors, mer­rily ac­cept­ing (or even invit­ing) vi­o­lence.”

Stokes said she did con­front the teach­ers and prin­ci­pals about these two in­ci­dents but said BCPS still needs to do a bet­ter job of hir­ing more peo­ple of color in or­der to not only en­sure un­in­tended bi­ases leak into the class­rooms but so that kids see peo­ple who look like them and who have sim­i­lar back­grounds as them work in lead­er­ship roles.

“We are lack­ing in the hir­ing of black teach­ers but I am equally con­cerned about what is hap­pen­ing to our black ad­min­is­tra­tors. One of the things in terms of re­cruit­ment, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, was that I had to be re­spon­si­ble for re­cruit­ing black teach­ers or teach­ers of color,” Stokes said.

Kelly O’Con­nell, Prin­ci­pal at Mars Es­tates El­e­men­tary School in Es­sex, said she also sees the im­por­tance of hir­ing more black teach­ers and ad­mit­ted her school has fallen short of that.

“Our staff is pre­dom­i­nantly white fe­male. We are work­ing to in­crease or black teacher pop­u­la­tion but un­for­tu­nately we have not had that much suc­cess,” O’Con­nell said.

An­other is­sue O’Con­nell said her school faces is an achieve­ment gap be­tween black and white stu­dents.

“As a white woman lead­ing a school that is pre­dom­i­nantly made up of 60% black stu­dents, we have this achieve­ment gap year af­ter year where my black stu­dents are not achiev­ing at the same rate as my white stu­dents.

We keep putting in this work year af­ter year and we keep see­ing the same re­sults. We haven’t re­ally done a lot of work where we, as white ed­u­ca­tors, re­ally look at the im­plicit bias that we have be­cause we have been brought up in this sys­tem of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism. We will be de­con­struct­ing our­selves, de­con­struct­ing the de­ci­sions that we make, and the be­hav­iors that we par­tic­i­pate in.”

O’Con­nell said de­spite the school’s fail­ures of hir­ing a more di­verse staff, there has been some suc­cess over the years in get­ting more black stu­dents into ad­vanced classes.

“One thing we no­ticed a cou­ple of years ago when we vis­ited the mid­dle school, was that I could walk into a class and see white stu­dents with maybe one or two black stu­dents and with­out any­one telling me I knew that was the ad­vanced class.

That was a prob­lem. So here, at Mars Es­tates, we re­ally pushed on each other to pro­vide more access and op­por­tu­ni­ties for our stu­dents in 5th grade to be in the ad­vanced math class. At first we only had seven stu­dents to­tal and now it’s our largest class. We have 25 stu­dents in the class and ma­jor­ity are black or brown and they are thriv­ing. It’s be­cause we gave them this op­por­tu­nity and we be­lieved the teacher can do the work and the kids can do the work,” O’Con­nell said.

Dr. Dar­ryl Wil­liams, Su­per­in­ten­dent of BCPS, also brought up the achieve­ment gap that is present across all schools.

“Our aca­demic performanc­e data demon­strates clear trends—our gaps in performanc­e have been per­sis­tent over many years and are pri­mar­ily based on race. The dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact of Covid-19 on the health and wealth of black and Lat­inx com­mu­nity mem­bers is just the lat­est ex­am­ple on how race and racism harms all of us,” Wil­liams said.

“We are ex­tremely di­verse as a county. Two-thirds of our stu­dents are stu­dents of color. Our schools wel­come fam­i­lies from 100 coun­tries. To honor the bril­liance of ever y student we need to ac­knowl­edge the ef­fect of race on our schools and make de­ci­sions, that I’ve said many times, raise the aca­demic bar, close the gaps and pre­pare our young peo­ple for vi­brant fu­tures.”

Erin DicCello, Prin­ci­pal at Cole­gate El­e­men­tary in Dun­dalk, also spoke about how her staff doesn’t match the racial di­ver­sity of its stu­dents and how that plays a part in how stu­dents act and feel at school.

“Our school is 57% his­panic and nine per­cent black. When we look at the Bal­ti­more County Stake­holder sur­vey in the cat­e­gory of be­long­ing, our black stu­dents as a school sys­tem have a larger dis­agree­ment that they are sup­ported in our schools and that shows up in Col­gate’s data,” DiCello said.

“If that feel­ing of safety and sup­port isn’t there then the achieve­ment isn’t go­ing to fol­low. We have to ask ques­tions as to why that is hap­pen­ing. What are the bi­ases that teach­ers may hold, that adults in­ter­act­ing with our stu­dents have when we are plan­ning in­struc­tion, when we are se­lect­ing cur­ricu­lum ma­te­ri­als and what we choose to present for our kids.”

Abeer Shin­nawi, a re­source teacher from BCPS’s Of­fice of So­cial Stud­ies, ad­dressed what O’Con­nell and DiCello brought up about stu­dents not feel­ing like they be­long at school due to a lack of di­ver­sity in staff. Shin­nawi said many stu­dents of color or stu­dents who come from dif­fer­ent coun­tries need to have their own com­mu­nity within the school sys­tem to feel com­fort­able at school.

“Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion striped away the com­mu­nity that our black and brown kids come from. Our black and brown kids are now part of a sys­tem that do not re­flect their own com­mu­ni­ties. It’s not just about putting kids in ad­vanced classes and mak­ing them feel com­fort­able, but we also need to have prac­tices that re­flect where these kids come from,” Shin­nawi said. “There is noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a strong iden­tity. Giv­ing kids the op­por­tu­nity to grav­i­tate to peo­ple who look like them and act like them is very power ful.”

Shin­nawi went on to say the school sys­tem needs to re-eval­u­ate what it chooses to teach stu­dents when it comes to U.S. his­tory and how it pro­vides sup­port stu­dents from war torn coun­tries need in or­der to thrive aca­dem­i­cally, so­cially, and emo­tion­ally.

“Ev­ery facet of this coun­try was built by the black com­mu­nity and to have that stripped away and have our kids from kinder­garten un­til they grad­u­ate not see that re­flected is dam­ag­ing.

We also need to speak up for the kids who come from other coun­tries. We do not meet the so­cial and emo­tional needs of our kids who come from war torn coun­tries. What are the per­spec­tives that teach­ers have who come in with im­plicit bias and with their own po­lit­i­cal agen­das that spill into the class­room? How are we speak­ing up for them?”

The con­ver­sa­tion then tran­si­tioned into a student panel in or­der for stu­dents from schools across the county to pro­vide their in­put and per­spec­tive on the is­sues sur­round­ing race in­equal­ity in BCPS.

One of those stu­dents was Carmelli Leal, a ris­ing se­nior at Eastern Tech­ni­cal High School and the Pres­i­dent of the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Student Coun­cils.

“Some­thing that is re­ally im­por­tant is un­der­stand­ing the in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity of race and racism. This facet of iden­tity im­pacts ev­ery sin­gle part of our school sys­tem. So, if we are re­ally talk­ing about prov­ing a word class ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port­ing our stu­dents this is one thing es­pe­cially that can’t be ig­nored,” Leal told the panel.

Reshid also spoke up dur­ing the student panel dis­cus­sion and re­layed more of what other stu­dents were dis­cussing on In­sta­gram Live.

“A huge topic stu­dents talked about on In­sta­gram live was our his­tory and what we learn at school. A lot of us this year learned about June 19 and what June­teenth is. Hon­estly, I didn’t know what that was un­til last year when I did my own re­search,” Reshid said.

“We talked about change in the cur­ricu­lum and how we teach his­tory, es­pe­cially African Amer­i­can his­tory. A lot of stu­dents talked about hav­ing an African Amer­i­can his­tory class just ded­i­cated to that be­cause it is a huge topic.”

Once the event started to come to a close, Muhu­muza spoke to the panel and asked them a series of ques­tions, one of them was if they all be­lieved that black lives mat­ter. The re­sponse was a re­sound­ing yes from the panel.

“The youth is go­ing to hold you guys ac­count­able be­cause we can’t have this his­tory to con­tinue. It has been preva­lent in our so­ci­ety for over 400 years. We need change to oc­cur now.”

The full two hour con­ver­sa­tion can still be watched on BCPS’s face­book page and a so­cial me­dia cam­paign us­ing the hash­tag #BCPSrace has been started to al­low peo­ple to share their ex­pe­ri­ences and ideas about mak­ing BCPS a more eq­ui­table learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

BCPS has also cre­ated a list of sug­gested ar­ti­cles, books, doc­u­men­taries, films, and more about race and racism. The list, which will be up­dated pe­ri­od­i­cally, in­cludes ma­te­ri­als suit­able for all ages and can be found at www.team­bcps.ex­po­sure.co/read­ings-and-re­sources-about-race.

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