February offers equity leaders learning for all

The following artciel was written by ACSA Diversity and Equal Access Executive Nicole Anderson and former Johnstonville ESD Superintendent Melanie Spears to recognize Black History Month

Black History Month brings about many thoughts and feelings each year in February. It reminds us of the importance of acknowledging the great accomplishments of African Americans within the history of the United States. Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” which was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator and publisher. It became a month-long celebration in 1976. The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

We often find ourselves participating in cultural celebrations, classroom lessons, school assemblies, and other activities that honor those who achieved extraordinary feats and overcame obstacles in their quest for equality for African Americans as well as all people of color. This can include “African American firsts” in the area of inventions, science, sports, music, education, politics, and many other arenas. Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, John Lewis, Jessie Jackson, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Jesse M. Bethel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Marcus Garvey, Carter G. Woodson, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Hattie McDaniel, Hiram Rhodes Revels, and the list goes on.

Black History month also sparks moments of unity amongst the African American community as well as teachable moments for students and adults alike. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote that Black History is a time to restore historical records of the names and achievements of significant men and women long forgotten: among them Onesimus, the slave who taught Cotton Mather to inoculate the Massachusetts colony against smallpox; the pre-Civil War, wildly popular, Black ventriloquist and magician Richard Potter; Stagecoach Mary, a post-Civil War driver for Wells Fargo; and the famous cowboy Deadwood Dick.

It also brings about a focus on the harsh reality that history in the United States includes some negative effects for African Americans that stem from past oppression and ongoing micro-aggressions. It even reminds us of the ongoing difficult context of how this beautiful group of people were and still are portrayed as a result of ugly hatred and misunderstanding that has been fundamentally rooted into the fabric of our society.

As history unfolded, mistruths of African Americans have been passed down from generation to generation, and most specifically, within the school system. Within history books and classroom lessons across the nation for centuries, lessons on African American history have neglected to include the rich culture and traditions that began long before the forced immigration of West Africans for the express purpose of labor exploitation. The travesty of this fact is that African American students have never had a legacy of learning about their own native culture from home nor in schools.

Black History Month is an opportunity to give all students and particularly African American students hope for a brighter tomorrow as they learn about little known facts, events across historical periods and categories, and significant men and women. African American history is American history and a focus on it will give students a new perspective about their fellow classmates and how they fit in the learning environment and deepen their understanding of themselves as they stand under new facts and historical learnings becoming inspired and motivated to achieve more.

Recommendations

  • Create staff development training that addresses the relationship between race and achievement. Use the tools in Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. by Glen Singleton to: Review subgroup achievement gap data and launch change initiatives around the findings and unpack staff racial biographies.
  • Review President Obama’s eight years in office through student debates, writing contests and more to unpack his accomplishments, legacy and failures.
  • Research the Black female mathematicians and engineers that worked at NASA and helped orbit John Glenn to the moon. Start a STEM Girls Group: some suggested learning opportunities are speakers, researching STEM careers, field trips, and watching “Hidden Figures,” a movie about the three women that worked at NASA as it relates to John Glen’s trip to the moon.
  • Research the diversity of federal lawmakers in the 115th United States Congress, particularly the number of Black members, and hold class discussions about the findings: ethnic makeup, number of women and men, religious affiliation and the possible impact on federal laws.
  • Chart Black History Facts at your school and post information on the school/district website, use social media to engage students by sharing their Black History learnings through posts/pictures/comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Students in our schools are sometimes culturally disconnected and underperform academically and show social and behavioral dynamics that require restorative practices to heal. Black History is a time that all students, particularly African American students, can explore their natural talents and reconnects to the learning environment and navigates their path into college, career and the civil life.

Call to action

Adopt one or more of the recommendations and post, comment, and upload pictures of your Black History Events involving administrators, teachers, students, and parents as your school or district Relaunches Equity Work in February under #ACSABlackHistoryCelebrations2017.

It is crucial that our leaders and educators become aware of the reality that we operate in a system that was simply not designed to serve all students of diverse backgrounds. In 1779, one of our respected forefathers, Thomas Jefferson, proposed a two-track educational system, with different tracks for (in his words) “the laboring and the learned.” Scholarships would allow a select few of the laboring class to advance by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”

While we must believe that there were some positive intentions behind this idea, we must also realize that there were some detrimental consequences that also came out of it. We can identify some current educational tracks that exist that represent this two-track thinking; college or career pathways, special education or general education, and many more that lead to disproportionate numbers of African American students being suspended, dropping out, as well as going to prison.

This unfortunate system of inequity and inequality has lead us to the reality of educational gaps throughout our state and nation. These include achievement, access, opportunity, service, and even acknowledgement gaps. And with all of the educational initiatives that have supported the advancement of opportunities for African Americans throughout the course of history, it is still very apparent that even our African American babies come into the world with predicable hardships based on their ethnicity alone. We must remind ourselves of this ugly truth in order to build and infuse compassion and empathy within our current educational communities and society alike.

With this being said, we must remember that knowledge is truly powerful. As educators, we all have some level of cultural power that we can responsibly use to become advocates for African American students who constantly are underserved by an educational system that wasn’t designed to serve them in the first place. When looking through a historical lens, we know that African American students have been targets of oppression which has manifested itself to this very day. As educators, who are products of this system, we often are agents of oppression where we perpetuate inequities daily when we often don’t fundamentally agree.

When we recognize our own agentry, we can become advocates who can empower African American students to self-actualize and experience high quality educational outcomes. We have great examples within our own ranks who have been champions for African American students within the public education system. We have leaders such as superintendents, principals, school boards, and even parents who have advocated and ensured that African American students be served equitably. Shine the light on living African American heroes and sheros and celebrate Black History.

Within the current educational initiative in California, the Local Control Funding Formula spirit and intention is to provide equitable outcomes for students, specifically English Learners, foster youth, and student living in poverty. And while African American students are not specifically named, districts have the opportunity to utilize their Local Control Accountability Plan to fundamentally change the outcomes for African American students. It will require educational leaders to address their belief systems and look at their journey as culturally proficient leaders in order to act with an equity lens. Leaders can use the current leadership standard in California Professional Standards for Education Leaders #5 to focus on support through professional development as well as evaluation for optimal equity leadership.

During Black History Month, let’s empower ourselves to become advocates for African American students through learning more about their culture and empowering them to be agents of change for themselves and others. As educational leaders, we can close the educational gaps that exist in our schools, but we must first close the ones in our minds first.

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