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A report on equity initiatives was given at the joint meeting of the District 65 and District 202 School Boards held May 21 at Evanston Township High School. Representatives from each District described their collaboration in organizing the Martin Luther King Racial Equity Summit, at which middle school students met with high school students to learn how to have conversations about race.
Haley Curtis, the school psychologist at King Arts, and Corey Winchester, an ETHS history/science teacher and sponsor of SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism), told the Boards about their efforts to organize the half-day event held March 7 at King Arts.
“Students aren’t prepared to have conversations about race but they want to,” said Ms. Curtis. She said she is a “proud alumna” of Districts 65 and 202. When she interned at ETHS, she was exposed to the high school’s various equity summits, which she drew from in organizing the event for King Art’s 7th and 8th grade students.
The goal of the MLK Summit, as stated in a letter to parents, was to help, “foster a school climate that promotes the emotional safety of students and staff by facilitating conversations about race” and “to provide age-appropriate information, activities and tools to help students effectively discuss race.”
During the Summit, 107 students learned techniques for constructively expressing their thoughts on race. They were informed about the “Compass,” the “Four Agreements,” and the “Six Conditions” developed by the Pacific Education Group to help students structure discussions on racial topics. Students were also divided into small groups to meet with high school leaders in SOAR where they could talk more specifically about topics on their mind like micro-aggressions and identity.
Several SOAR students spoke at the Board meeting. Sinobia Aiden said that many younger students seem to think they can’t talk about race at school. They have not had the space before, she said.
“Students will have the conversations regardless of the space,” said Quinn Hughes, “so some are forced to do so on social media which is not monitored” and can use hostile language. Students need a “baseline understanding” of how to have conversations on race.
The Summit received positive reviews from the participants. Forty-three percent of the middle school students said it was the first time they had ever talked about race at school. Most – 83% – found the Summit educational.
D202 Board Member Monique Parsons asked if there were plans to expand the program to other schools. “We’re thinking about it; we now have a template,” said Ms. Curtis. Since King Arts is a magnet school, it was a smaller place to start. “As long as SOAR is interested, there is lots of opportunity.”
“This work is not easy,” said District 65 Board Member Sergio Hernandez. He said he appreciated the idea of starting conversations on race earlier. He thanked the SOAR students for their efforts and for “setting a foundation” for the middle school kids.
During the report, the SOAR students spoke of other accomplishments from the year. Aside from the King Arts program, the students participated in several conferences. The students also created a Freshman “Cheat Sheet” to help guide incoming students to school services. They have continued to work on creating “Equity Zones” in the school by recognizing teachers who are viewed as staff “advocates” designated by a sticker on their classroom door. “The Alliance” program helps eliminate a power struggle between teachers and students when communication becomes racially charge. The initiative helps “extend communication and cooperation”.
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. The goal of SOAR is 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.