Cultivating an Anti-Racist School District
By Robert Low
How can school districts provide more equitable outcomes for their full range of students, while also implementing anti-racist policies and procedures?
The hard work and “authentic journey” required to achieve these sorts of outcomes were discussed during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network. The presentation featured Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent of the Ithaca City School District (NY), Lily Talcott, Deputy Superintendent of the district, and Deborah Ptak, Principal of the district’s Lehman Alternative Community School.
Dr. Brown explained doing this work successfully requires going beyond making statements, changing holiday names, and forming book clubs so that effective changes in policies and procedures can occur and have a positive impact on students’ achievement, treatment, and representation in their schools.
The Anti-Racist Transition
Dr. Brown believes anti-racist schools should become laboratories for social change, with students’ experiences “engineered to help them solve real-world problems that are relevant to their local communities.” This includes the use of case studies, starting at the elementary level, which are standards-based, transdisciplinary, and give young people “voice and choice” in what and how they are learning.
This process also includes a recognition that activities often considered extracurricular, such as athletics, acting in a school play, or playing an instrument in a band, can have a significant impact on academic engagement and social-emotional learning. These activities therefore also need to be reconsidered in order to make sure diverse students have equal access to them and are not prevented from benefiting from them.
To provide a conceptual framework for anti-racist policies and procedures, Dr. Brown uses a four-part approach that includes validating home languages and cultures, reversing negative stereotypes, building connections between the home and school cultures, and giving students the skills needed to navigate academia. There also needs to be an ongoing focus on inclusion and equity, with all students being fully able to “flex their cognitive muscles.”
Dr. Brown’s approach includes the use of culturally responsive teaching strategies, such as recognizing the importance of attention signals and movement activities and establishing protocols for discussions and situational appropriateness. Culturally responsive supplemental texts, in which students can see themselves and their personal situations represented, are also important.
A thorough examination of a school district’s policies and culture should include consideration of issues around racism, sexism, classism, and power and oppression. There should also be consideration of characteristics such as perfectionism, either/or thinking, and quantity over quality in regard to teaching and learning. Before policy changes are made, there should be a process of self-reflection followed by honest discussions about practices and what needs to shift.
The goal is to achieve what Dr. Brown calls “a culture of love,” which he defines as one that is patient, supportive, and restorative, and which shows encouragement and enthusiasm. Participants need to be trusting, honest, committed, and selfless, so that in this and other ways the school culture can serve as an antidote to the systemic racism and unfair practices of the past.
As to how this process can look in a classroom, Talcott described an “aha moment” when a middle school math teacher realized almost all the students in her algebra class were White or Asian, while students in the same grade taking a more basic math class were mostly Black or Brown-skinned males. This resulted in a series of conversations and review of the data, which showed the early tracking of the latter group led to gaps in their knowledge as well as lower representation in advanced classes.
The result of the review was a decision to de-track the middle school’s math classes, and instead develop one single math track using a “low floor and high ceiling” approach, in which additional resources and instructional support could open up opportunities and provide every student with appropriate access and support. Talcott noted this decision remains controversial, and ongoing data is being collected and analyzed to determine its impact.
Another example cited by Ptak was the decision to implement a “Black Lives Matter at School” week, which evolved from a surface-level discussion to the creation of great resources and deeper experiences for students so they could hear and see Black and Brown students authentically and listen to their experiences. Initial pushback and questioning of the project by faculty led to a two-day sit-in by students, with the principal providing a safe space for the students to voice their views.
The school is also supporting the creation of affinity groups for Black, Brown, Asian, White, and multi-racial students to provide spaces where the students can feel safe and develop deeper understandings of their personal identities. And, student committees are now exploring social justice and environmental issues, as well as ways to be of service to fellow students and other members of their community.
This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.
About the Presenters
Dr. Luvelle Brown
Dr. Luvelle Brown has served as the superintendent of the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) in Ithaca, New York since January 2011. He has received various awards and recognitions including the 2017 New York State Superintendent of the Year and has been listed by various publications as one of the nation’s top educators and thought leaders. Dr. Brown has been recognized by the National School Boards Association as a “20-to-Watch” and “Difference Maker,” received the Center for Digital Education Top 30 Award, and received the eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award.
Dr. Brown is a highly regarded speaker and workshop facilitator addressing a range of topics for local, regional, and national audiences. He has published numerous articles and is the author of Culture of Love: Cultivating a Positive and Transformational Organizational Culture. In addition, Dr. Brown has taught undergraduate and graduate classes at the university level and has served on numerous advisory boards including the Ithaca College Board of Trustees.
Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott helps oversee principals, instructional technology, mathematics curricula/instruction, APPR teacher evaluation, professional development, and human resources. Lily, an Ithaca native, served as Principal of Northeast Elementary School from 2015 to 2018. She previously served as a district-wide teacher on special assignment with a focus on preK-5 mathematics and then as a master educator supporting preK-12 professional development, curricula, and assessments. Lily began her teaching career in 2004 in the Bronx, New York before coming to the ICSD, where she served as a long-term substitute teacher and teacher aide before teaching first grade at Enfield Elementary School.
Deborah Ptak is the principal of the Ithaca City School District’s Lehman Alternative Community School, a member of the New York State consortium of alternative schools implementing a non-graded portfolio process of student mastery with a focus on democracy and civic engagement. Deborah has been serving public school communities for the last 30 years as a school social worker, administrator and lecturer at both Towson University in Maryland and Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has encompassed initiatives including RTI and full inclusion for students with mental health struggles, AVID, the Harvard Institute Data Wise Project toward school improvement, the Project ACHIEVE approach to social-emotional learning, responsive school protocols and the development of protocols for confronting systems of oppression within the schoolhouse walls. Deborah has presented at the Council of Chief State School Officers annual conference on high-poverty schools and was appointed to the Dane County Task Force on Mental Health issues. She was awarded the Baltimore City Schools Area Social Worker of the Year for her work with gang-involved youth and was featured by Madison Magazine as an administrator for equity and excellence.
About the Host
Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.
Join the Community
Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.
The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.
Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with edWeb.net to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.