Getting to the Root of Systemic Racism to Support Equity in Education
When addressing education inequity, it isn’t enough for superintendents and administrators to look at grades and attendance. They need to examine the social, legal, and economic factors that have supported systemic racism. But more important, said Dr. Mark T. Bedell, Superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools (MO), in an edWebinar hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, school leaders need to make noise and keep fighting for policies that will support change in their communities and schools.
First, to address educational inequity in Kansas City, Dr. Bedell said he and the district leaders, including the board, needed to understand how historical policies and practices impact the classroom. Missouri, for instance, was created as a slave state, and even after emancipation, the legislators passed laws segregating education. In addition, housing policies restricted the movement of African Americans into more affluent areas, preventing economic growth, even as these same policies resulted in higher eviction rates and kids switching schools within the district frequently. Finally, corporate tax breaks mean even when businesses come to the redlined areas of the city, the businesses aren’t contributing to the tax base.
Next, Dr. Bedell said they needed to educate legislators and the community about these policies and their impact. This included supporting and appearing at rallies for tenants’ rights. And in the summer of 2020, the district issued a statement to elected officials about how the current economic development policies continue to suck resources away from the schools, which is a part of systemic racism. The district also issued statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and denouncing Anti-Asian and Anti-Muslim bullying and rhetoric. The goal is to continually put out statements that let the community know it’s loved and valued while educating policymakers about how they can help—or hurt—the district.
Internally, district leaders are also taking action. One key step involved creating required courses on Black and Latinx heritage. As the curriculum did not exist, they had to engage experts to help them draft the classes. Students appreciate that it exposes them to their own culture and how to fight against the system, said Dr. Bedell. Moreover, by having the district offer the course, it shows students the leaders care about them.
In addition, every educator and staff member undergoes implicit bias training upon hiring, and the school has continuing conversations with all about equity. These include monthly administrator workshops, Lunch and Learns, and community Town Halls. While Dr. Bedell acknowledges these discussions might not end racism, they help community members understand the context and help disable structures that contribute to racism.
Finally, two of the most important actions were the overhaul of the student code of conduct and the retraining of the school resource officers. The code of conduct had embraced the racist and bias legacy, so it needed to be completely rewritten from the point of view of valuing all students and helping them all achieve their potential. Regarding the resource officers, their jobs were moved under student support services where the goal is to stop them from helping with regular discipline and get them into the role of student mentors, as well as helping with major incidents. Now, the students truly see them as someone who’s there to help rather than just to punish.
As the district moves forward, Dr. Bedell and his team are doing frequent equity audits to measure their progress. And they continue to write editorials, participate in activism, and call attention to injustice. It’s their responsibility, he said, if they want to advocate for all students to succeed.
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 Presenter
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark T. Bedell, Ed.D. is a talented, caring teacher and administrator and one of the top urban public-school leaders in the United States. As the child of a working-class family in upstate New York, he overcame significant challenges and was inspired to take his education seriously by teachers and other caring adults who pushed him to achieve his dreams.
His educational experience and leadership made Dr. Bedell a natural choice for the superintendent’s post at KCPS in 2016. With guidance from students, parents, staff and partners, Dr. Bedell crafted and enacted first a post-entry plan and later a five-year strategic plan which placed student achievement at the center of the school system’s work, made the central office more effective and efficient, improved School Board governance, and increased staff skills and morale. In partnership with Metropolitan Community College and the Full Employment Council of Greater Kansas City, he led the effort to launch a Middle College Program to give 17- to 24-year-olds who never finished school an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and enter college.
In June 2018, Dr. Bedell and the KCPS School Board created an innovative equity policy to direct the school system’s resources and programs so that every student has the opportunity to reach his or her greatest potential. Dr. Bedell has received many recognitions, including being named a “Superintendent to Watch” by the National School Public Relations Association and a “New Superintendent of the Year” by the Missouri Association of School Administrators. He is one of only 51 people selected to participate in the “Missouri Influencer Series” by The Kansas City Star. He was selected by the Kansas City Business Journal for its “Kansas City’s Power 100 of 2019” list. He has also been named to 435 Magazine’s Top 50 Power List as one of the most powerful people to shape the Kansas City region. Dr. Bedell was a featured guest on the June 23, 2020, episode of PBS NewsHour, when he spoke about how distance learning was increasing inequity. He has been a regular panelist for Discovery Education’s virtual “Equity Talks.” State education officials also recruited Dr. Bedell to be part of the Commissioner’s Roundtable.
For Dr. Bedell, one of his most important honors came in the spring of 2018 when students from Southeast High School gave him an award of appreciation for his efforts on their behalf and for the positive impact he will have on future students.
About the Moderator
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.
The summary of this presentation was written by Stacey Pusey.
Stacey Pusey is an education communications consultant and writer. She assists education organizations with content strategy and teaches writing at the college level. Stacey has worked in the preK-12 education world for 20 years, spending time on school management and working for education associations including the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group. Stacey is working with edWeb.net as a marketing communications advisor and writer.