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The School District 202 Equity Report given at the joint meeting of the School Boards on Feb. 13 focused on the accomplishments of SOAR – Students Organized Against Racism. Four members of the groups’ Student Leadership Board along with one of the adult sponsors presented an update on their current activities and programs planned for the future.
SOAR was started in 2012 by staff and administrators who wanted to create a space to talk about race and racism and give students the tools to thoughtfully do so. The group’s Student Leadership Board facilitates all of the student-led initiatives with the help of several adult sponsors.
Dr. Marcus Campbell, ETHS Principal, introduced Mr. Corey Winchester, an ETHS history/science teacher and sponsor of SOAR, to tell the Boards about how SOAR “have been helping the adults with equity at ETHS” since it started in 2012.
Mr. Winchester along with Liana Wallace, sophomore; Hugo Flores, senior; Sinobia Aiden, junior; and Chirasree Mandal, junior, gave an update on what SOAR has been doing to “understanding race and racism; decentering whiteness, exploring white supremacy, and really deconstructing all of that,” said Mr. Winchester.
Ms. Wallace began by speaking on the goal of SOAR: to develop leadership and collaborative skills, encourage self-advocacy and confidence in dealing with issues of race in various learning environments, encourage interracial dialogue and racial consciousness and provide a safe space for conversations about race.
She described the SOAR conferences, which are structured around several tools – the “Compass,” the “Four Agreements,” and the “Six Conditions” developed by the Pacific Education Group – to help students examine racial topics including concepts like micro-aggressions, intersectionality, and social privilege. A Fall Conference is open to all ETHS students and usually includes about 100 participants. A two-day Winter Conference draws about 150 representatives from surrounding school districts including District 65.
Ms. Mandal talked about the Minority Student Achievement Network (“MSAN”) and the new “Agency Program.” Student delegates are sent to the national MSAN conference each year to explore topics such as educational equity, the school-to-prison pipeline, and measuring success for students of color, and also to develop an action plan for the year ahead. This year’s plan is The Agency Program, which seeks to increase the agency of students of color. Three component programs will help carry out the goals. A “Mentoring Program” for students of color by students of color attempts to help students get the most out of high school.
Mr. Flores spoke about the “Kingian Nonviolence Training” that will help bring more restorative justice practices to the school. This past December, the very first group of ETHS students participated in the two-day Kingian Nonviolence Leadership Workshop dedicated to teach the Six Principles of Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence.
Project SHAPE is a high school readiness program where students of color go into middle schools to help with the transition to high school.
“The earlier we get to have these conversations, the more natural they become,” said Ms. Wallace.
Ms. Aiden described “Equity Zones” in the school, which provide students with safe spaces and staff advocates on matters of equity and identity. These include, but are not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and physical/intellectual abilities. “Students nominate a teacher or staff member who they feel can handle conversations about these topics and provide a safe space to unpack a lot of the things that come with being a high school student. This is something we are really excited about.”
Mr. Flores also spoke on The Alliance, a program that is in the works to “enhance communication or cooperation that facilitates a close working relationship between students and teachers at ETHS.”
“Mix It Up Day,” said Ms. Wallace, is intended to get kids to start talking to different people in the cafeteria.
“SOAR members,” said Mr. Winchester, “are seen as a resource in the community and in the school. They participate in events and conferences and rallies. Students are leading these initiatives.”
New District 65 School Board member Sergio Hernandez Jr., asked the students what three things Board members should know to “help do our jobs better.” Ms. Wallace said there’s “no one thing” or “quick fix.” She mentioned her experience talking to a teacher who was struggling to reach students of color. “Having that conversation, and self-reflection” helps, she said.
Ms. Mandal said there needs to be a re-evaluation of what success is, particularly for students of color. “Some places in school foster a one-size fits all approach” to post-secondary planning, she said, adding that “stratification starts earlier in middle schools,” and conversations about race need to happen earlier.
District 65 Board Member Anya Tanyavutti asked the students how they might have been affected if they had had conversations on race before reaching high school.
Ms. Aiden said talking to kids earlier is incredibly important. “Kids have no fear. They will ask a question if they are confused. When you learn this stuff earlier and it sticks with you, you aren’t going to have the culture shock, the guilt, conversations will flow easier when talking to educated minds.”
Mr. Flores said that if he had had conversations about race earlier, he “would not have hated myself as I did, be so negative about my race. If it wasn’t for the wonderful people I work with, I wouldn’t have been able to stick up for the Hugo in 6th grade who was shaming himself about what was going on in the world.”
Ms. Tanyavutti thanked the students for their willingness “to be vulnerable” and said she looks forward to making a similar space in D65.
District 202 Board Member Jonathan Baum asked about the equity zones where teachers who are nominated by students for providing equitable spaces designate these spaces with a sticker. He asked if anyone was concerned about implying teachers without stickers are not providing equitable spaces. Is the goal that everyone has a sticker? Ms. Wallace said, “Yes, that is the goal, but the truth of the matter is that’s a small pool. Not every teacher has had courageous conversations or has done enough self-reflection for students to feel they can come and talk to them about anything. To have a designated space to unpack what students are dealing with is essential. That’s the idea of the sticker, that not every place is that place yet.”
Aside from SOAR, the report noted that ETHS has other equity groups as well including Dreamers Club, LatinxQUEST, Black Student Union, South Asian Middle Eastern (SAME) Student Alliance, Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), Women in STEM (WiSTEM) and GirlUP.