Truly discussing issues of race and equity in this society is difficult. We have a lot of issues that have not been addressed. We will only be able to address these issues by having these kinds of conversations,” said School District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon at a joint board meeting with District 65, reporting on the progress of the Courageous Conversations and Systemic Equity Transformation initiative that began at Evanston Township High School in the spring of 2008.
The effort was spearheaded by then- ETHS Teachers’ Council President David Futransky, who suggested at a Board meeting that the school begin a conversation about race and privilege and their effect on student achievement. The recommendation came in the context of the discussion about changes to the Freshman Humanities program, which emphasized an expansion of mixed-level classes to provide more opportunity for minority students to do honors-level work.
Mr. Futransky, history teacher and equity coordinator, told the joint Board meeting on Jan. 11, “ETHS has been multiple schools in one building. Black and brown children … have had a different educational experience than white children.”
The District hired the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), a consulting firm with offices in San Francisco and Minneapolis, to conduct a needs assessment last year and to continue with staff and board development efforts. Since June, 2009, 40 ETHS employees from every functional area and the entire School Board have participated in workshops on a nearly monthly basis. The initial, two-day session was titled “Beyond Diversity.” Subsequent sessions have covered topics such as critical race theory and schooling, advancing racial equity via technology, courageous conversations, and leadership governance and culturally relevant schools and classrooms. Future sessions will focus on empowering families and engaging communities of color and developing a plan for sustaining District-wide equity transformation. Mr. Futransky said that so far, the training has cost $37,500.
The program will be expanded to the rest of the school beginning this June, when a total of 160 staff and faculty members will participate in the “Beyond Diversity” workshop. Training of groups of employees will continue until everyone in the building has been through the workshop, Mr. Futransky said.
PEG’s program also calls for the identification of community members “who will learn with and develop alongside the District leadership teams as partners.” The last phase, according to Mr. Futransky, is student-leadership development, which will “address the issues surrounding race, identity, and academic achievement through meaningful and ongoing conversations among students and adults.”
Several ETHS Board and staff members commented about their experience with the program so far. Board member Mary Wilkerson said that she was initially resistant to participating in the discussion about race. “I was afraid it would get in the way of getting along with my fellow Board members. When you start reaching that deep and pulling out stuff, you say some things that might hurt feelings,” she said.
But Ms. Wilkerson said she changed her mind, because “it’s incumbent upon us to open up, speak the truth, and say ‘This is how it’s affecting me; this is how it’s affecting my children; and this is how it’s affecting my grandchildren.’ Hopefully it will help.”
“I came to this process with a great deal of suspicion,” said Board member Deborah Graham. However, she said that she has come to feel more positive about it because “it’s not a process that indicts individuals on the basis of race. It really looks at the way in which racism is institutionalized. It enables people to better understand the racial dimensions of their experience and their behavior.”
Regina Armour, District 202 literacy coordinator, praised the process because “it doesn’t focus on people of color as victims but rather [on] the fact that we are all substantially stunted and dysfunctional because of racism. “It has deepened conversations that I was already having in the building with my professional colleagues as well as in my personal relationships,” Ms. Armour continued.
“It’s helped to guide me in thinking about my curriculum and whether it’s culturally relevant to all the students in my classroom,” said William Farmer, biology teacher and Teachers’ Council president.
“When race-related issues would emerge in my classroom prior to this training,” Mr. Farmer continued, “I never really felt well-equipped enough to help moderate these amongst my students.” He said he now is better prepared to help students “flesh out these conversations and take it to the next level.”
ETHS social worker Anthony King reported that the training had helped participants move beyond the discomfort of talking about race. “That’s where the conversation [under other circumstances] usually stops,” he said. With the training, “we actually have a chance at getting to equity and excellence,” he concluded.
“The conversations are great,” said District 65 Board president Keith Terry, “but now what?” Both Mr. Terry and District 65 Board member Bonnie Lockhart expressed great concern about whether or not there would be substantive changes to curriculum and treatment of minority students as an outcome of the process.
Ms. Lockhart requested that next year’s joint Board meeting agenda include an update of changes that have taken place.
“The fabric of teaching and learning in the building is changing,” said Ms. Armour. “. . . the way people talk about lessons. Race is on the table in every conversation that I’ve been in” including discussions about planning, pacing, assessment and rating. She said the work makes one “walk away a different person, and you come to school the next day thinking differently.”
“We are going to be very overt about … breaking down barriers, bringing down structures that perpetuate racism,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “Because of the in-depth work that all of our faculty and staff will be doing, you will see changes in adult-student interactions. You will see changes in our curriculum … a more culturally relevant curriculum [so that we can] make our school a place where all students can function at the high end academically.”