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PPS Inside: PPS confronts racial attitudes that hamper student success

March 17, 2011

A year into Portland Public Schools’ intensive effort to confront how educators' attitudes about race affect students, “a-ha” moments have become almost daily experiences for teachers, principals and employees across the district.

On a recent morning at César Chávez K-8 School, the staff viewed the video “The Danger of a Single Story,” and explored how curriculum limited to a white, Eurocentric perspective can disempower students of color and short-change white students by excluding multiple perspectives.

Suzanne Germaneri, a middle-grade writing and social studies teacher, said that at times, she had struggled to analyze her own part in racism. “Today,” she said, “it really came home to me.”

She realized, she explained, that she had always thought of her students as individuals yet hadn’t always considered their cultural context — even though many of them are Latino and some are African immigrants.

“It’s my responsibility to see what material is out there, so I can connect what they know and are learning from their families about their culture with what they’re learning in the classroom,” Germaneri said.

Closing the achievement gap

PPS began rolling out equity training districtwide in January 2010 in partnership with the San Francisco-based Pacific Educational Group, which helps educators confront institutional racism so that all students can achieve at the highest levels.

Superintendent Carole Smith considers the training essential to closing the achievement gap between white students and African-American, Native American and Latino students, raising graduation rates, and preparing all students for success in college, their careers and a multicultural society.

“As educators, most of whom are white, we have so much to understand about our own attitudes about race and how those attitudes affect the way we teach, the policies we set and the systems we perpetuate,” Smith said. “Our equity training gets us to that uncomfortable place of seeing the wrongs and then learning to make changes that serve all of our students.”

The training, which spans five years, ultimately will touch all employee groups: custodians and bus drivers, teachers and counselors, administrators and the superintendent.

Pacific Educational Group, which is working in school districts across the country, provides materials, training and coaching to raise racial awareness and teach strategies for creating culturally responsive work, school and classroom environments. The training also focuses on integrating cultural competency into all that the district does — from teaching to hiring.

The $480,000-per-year contract is paid with general fund, Title I and federal stimulus dollars. Individual schools and PPS departments further the training during staff meetings and other in-house professional development.

Nine “beacon schools” are leading the work in the schools: César Chávez, Boise-Eliot PK-8, Irvington K-8, Vestal K-8, Jackson Middle, Franklin High, Jefferson High, Open Meadow and the DART Schools.   

Equity teams have formed in a second group of schools and will begin deeper work this fall, when a third group of 76 schools launches their teams.

The work is often difficult, and employees acknowledge that they struggle. One teacher said the trainings sometimes feel like exercises in political correctness. Others question how something as ingrained as racism can ever be changed.

But many beacon school teachers describe how the training is bringing positive change.

Training inspires change

Several teachers said they realized they are quicker to call out or discipline their black students than their white students for the same kinds of classroom misconduct.

A 4th/5th grade teacher said he realized that he was labeling black student conduct as disrespectful or inappropriate when the same type of behavior by white students seemed more like “goofing around.”

“It was a huge a-ha moment, an immediate change,” he said.

A primary grade teacher said she realized that she was justifying her disparate treatment by believing that the school was a safe place to teach her black students behavior that would serve them in the larger world. But then she recognized that in fact the message to her black students – and her white students – is that black students are troublemakers, the teacher said.

“This has really forced me to examine my beliefs and practices and look again at what I’m doing in the classroom,” the teacher said.

Another beacon school teacher said the training has helped her improve communication with parents. Recently, when she needed to discuss a sensitive situation with a parent of color, she broke from the usual practice of asking the parent to come to the school. Instead, she invited the parent to meet at a place near the parent’s office.

The teacher said that she felt outside her comfort zone at the meeting, but it made her think about how many parents must feel when they come to the school. She and the parent had a constructive conversation and left feeling good.

That teacher’s assessment of the equity training: “Finally, we’re going to start talking about what really matters.”

Principals applaud the training as well for giving them crucial tools.

The training creates a vocabulary to talk about race, a protocol for examining how disparities play out and strategies to bring change, said Irvington K-8 Principal Cynthia MacLeod.

Added Irvington Assistant Principal Lisa McCall, “We can have those honest conversations - what’s race got to do with it.”

Additional efforts

At the district level, the training is helping leaders address systemic wrongs and create an equity policy that sets out expectations for educators at all levels. PPS leaders are vetting the policy with teachers, principals, administrators, community partners and parents. The School Board will take up the policy in June.
But PPS administrators are already getting busy.  They are, for example, analyzing student disciplinary data and working with teachers and principals to consider how attitudes about race affect who gets disciplined.

The district is rolling out an approach called Response to Intervention (RTI) that calls for positive, not negative, reinforcement and is proactive in addressing conduct. RTI also teaches educators to test for learning challenges early and often, and adjust teaching to reach all students. The approach is viewed as a powerful tool for helping educators take responsibility for the achievement of all of their students.

Tammy Jackson, senior program manager for student conduct and discipline, praised teachers for making courageous insights and changing their practices: “Teachers are coming forward and saying I see this data, I get it. And I need help. I want to be more culturally responsive.”

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