Our primary purpose in getting together was to check in with families to see what their experiences were. Over the past months, I have been happy to hear families overwhelmingly express satisfaction with the high quality of instruction our children receive. We feel our kids get appropriate attention and appreciate staff receptiveness to questions about our children’s learning.
Additionally, we appreciate how staff handle issues of student conflict, specifically around issues of race. I’ve learned that this is a potentially large problem in our district as about half of the black families I’ve spoken to tell me they have transferred from other “high-performing schools” due to the feeling that those schools were not respectful of black culture, nor did they manage racialized issues in appropriate ways.
Finally, we appreciate school support of our black family affinity group. Support from our principal has been invaluable in getting our group started. Even though our wonderful school is located in a “progressive” city (San Francisco) we learned there were a few teachers who expressed concern when they heard black families were getting together. (?!) We are also happy to be supported by our school district. In fact, at a recent Board of Education Meeting, our school was recognized by the Board as pioneering the way in having an African-American Advisory group (our Black Family Breakfast group). We were one of only four groups in the district as of that date.
Based on our conversations, we started hearing consistent themes. At our last meeting (our forth thus far) we took the liberty of capturing some of the common ideas parents have expressed so that we could share our thinking with others in our school community. Writing our ideas down as a collective will help us amplify our shared beliefs and questions to increase our school focus on supporting black student and families. We are excited that our efforts may also pave the way for a heightened focus on other underrepresented cultural groups at our school.
Invest in diverse literature
Our conversations have already led to some exciting changes at our school. Families are happy to hear that our principal is allocating money to classroom teachers to increase visibility of African-American (and other underrepresented) ethnicities in our children’s reading. Our literacy coach is actually working with teachers to do classroom inventories of their books to get a clear picture of what they have and what they need. Then, they will create a purchase list of books that are developmentally appropriate, high-interest books that reflect a wide array of cultural experiences. We wholeheartedly encourage this and have asked the school to share a book list with families who also wish to diversify our own home libraries. (Asking for a “deliverable” like this is also a great way to make staff “accountable” for following through on this promise.)
Increase visibility of black history and culture
Black families want more education around black history and contributions of African-Americans in math, science, history, and the arts. There are many negative stereotypes perpetuated about black people and culture. Especially now, with the high visibility of police brutality in the media, it is important for our children (and children of ALL races and cultures) to see positive, empowering black role models. We want ALL kids to know that our culture and history is valued and visible at our school. (I found this great resource to share with my kids.)
Increase representation of black staff and role models
Families are concerned there is a lack of representation of African-American staff at our school. Our principal has informed us this is a nationwide challenge. Nonetheless, we want leadership to continue to work on hiring more staff of color, especially black (and Latino) staff. In the absence of hiring more black teachers, we encourage staff to partner with African-American parents, grandparents, community members to be positive role-models for children of all races. In this way, we can increase positive interactions and experiences with members of our community who can help dispel myths and stereotypes and create positive relationships.
Out of our conversations, several questions have come to the surface. We are sharing these questions with other parent leadership groups, staff and site decision-making bodies and are asking them to collaborate with black families to address the following questions:
- How do we ensure all students are exposed to black history ALL YEAR in regular classroom curriculum, and not just on “cultural celebration days” like Black History Month, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day? (This also includes histories of other traditionally marginalized groups at our school such as Spanish-speaking families, students with disabilities, etc.)
- Teachers miss out on vital cultural perspectives when they don’t collaborate with families in the planning of school-wide events. How can parents from various ethnic groups be more involved in helping to plan cultural celebrations: Black History Month, Chinese/Lunar New Year, etc.?
- Our school staff is mostly white and Asian-American. Most of our school population is Asian-American. How can teachers build expertise in increasing engagement with underrepresented cultural groups and learning styles when they lack exposure? What types of professional learning and resources are available? How can school leadership create space and time for staff to build expertise?
- Acknowledging the fact that there is a lack of representation from many cultural groups at our school (e.g. black, Latino, white, Samoan-Pacific Islander, etc.) how do we name race with students, families and other staff members? How do we increase staff expertise in managing conflict between children (and families?) of various ethnic/racial groups?
- How do we increase representation of black educators on our staff? In the absence of more black teachers, how can we increase representation in other ways (e.g. consultants, field trips, parent talks, etc.)
- How do we ensure school programs that recognize students (such as “STAR Student Awards,” “Caught Being Good,” or Student Council elections) are equally including students from all cultural backgrounds? (This question came up after some parents expressed concern around how students are chosen for STAR students. In our discussion, there was shared concern that in classes where students are chosen by peers, there may be less opportunities for kids who are “different” e.g. students from underrepresented cultural groups.)
- How do we ensure students have high-interest reading which includes a wide array of main characters and authors of color in both classroom libraries and school libraries? How do we share diverse, high-interest, age-appropriate reading lists with families? (Our school is using this tool.)
Ali Collins is an educator, parent organizer, and public school advocate living in the Bay Area. She writes about race, parenting and education on her blog SF Public School Mom. To read her musing on being a public school parent and educator, and to download resources to spur change at your child’s school, go to SFPSMom.com or connect with her via Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.