BCPS students and staff address racial issues within school system
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.