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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

A Time for Intentional Inclusivity in Our Public Schools

Our public schools are a microcosm of the larger society around us. The societal norms and trends seep into and are reflected in their discourse and culture.

So it is no wonder that over the last few months, in the Boston area alone, we have had a number of deeply troubling announcements and incidents in several districts. In late July in Wellesley, a wealthy, largely white suburb, a Facebook chat group of Wellesley High School students went viral, revealing hate speech toward African Americans, including the “n” word and talk of lynching. In September in Newton, another well-off suburb, a car full of white students drove through directly outside of Newton North High School with an unfurled Confederate flag. Also in September, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts—responding to a civil rights complaint filed by civil rights and community organizations—released a report finding that administrators at Boston Latin School, Boston’s elite exam school, had violated the Civil Rights Act by not properly investigating and following through on student- and parent-reported racial harassment incidents. 

These incidents are most likely emblematic of an even greater number of unreported incidents of racial hate speech and harassment that are occurring in our schools today. And why does it seem that these incidents are happening with increasing frequency? It may not be an increased frequency; rather, we now have greater opportunity to see them. Today, technology and social media have shone a bright light on race in that it is now so much easier to capture and disseminate (including live stream) incidents that used to happen in the shadows. Look around us. The sheer number and continuing pattern of police shootings of African American men is mind-numbing. Threats and harassment of Muslims are a daily occurrence. As well, we have a presidential candidate who has given license to people to voice and act upon their latent prejudices. Donald Trump wants to deport all immigrants, build physical walls to prevent more immigrants, particularly those with darker skin who speak a first language other than English, from coming into the country, and who denigrates African American and Latino communities, cultures, and people with the claim that they are in “absolutely the worst shape ever.” It is no wonder that “white nationalist” and former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke has trumpeted his candidacy.

Too often, we as educators try to fend off the outside chatter and focus on the academic work at hand. The problem with this approach is that, as we have seen from the examples above, it doesn’t work. School walls are enormously permeable; adults and students bring their experiences, cultures, and prior knowledge into school every day.

We as educators need to create a counter-narrative to what many of our students are experiencing every day in the world around them, as well as a safe space for them to talk about and make sense of these experiences. Cultural competency needs to be at the forefront –students’ diverse languages, cultures, and experiences are understood and valued; prejudicial and hate language are not “swept under the rug,” rather, the individual actions are addressed swiftly while ensuring there is broad public discourse about their impact; restorative justice programs are in place to ensure productive ends come out of unproductive actions and words; examining individual and institutional racism (and all the other –isms) takes its rightful place as a focus within the curriculum—these are just some of the actions that help foster a school culture that appreciates and protects each of its members, while taking a public stand about the community’s beliefs.

As one example, my daughter’s Boston Public high school works hard to create these counter-narratives. Fenway High School opened up this school year with a community day; the main speaker was Peterson Toscano, a gay comedian whose talk was titled, “Everything is Connected-Stories, Most Weird, Many True,” speaking about the interconnectedness of identities. The opening assignment in English was on students’ names and their origins; in an age of increasing diversity, correct pronunciation of names, which can carry significant meaning, signals an embracing of culture. After the first presidential debate, students discussed and dissected the beliefs behind each candidate’s remarks and how these views affected their lives. Taken together, along with many other efforts of affirming identity and one’s place in the larger world, the school has built a culture that empowers students to be self-reflective and take action on societal and world issues that impact them.

When we open up the doors to discourse about students’ lives and experiences, and the connections to the larger world around them, we create safe and trusting spaces for students to thrive. We embrace students’ identities. We open up the doors to learning. And we create community.

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