By Alia Verner
One of the primary themes during EdVestors’ 18th annual Education Showcase was advancing racial equity in education. The panelists provided powerful examples of racial equity work in practice alongside recommendations for how to advance racial equity from different perspectives. Panelists emphasized the importance of providing collaborative and differentiated learning opportunities for school staff, families and students; incorporating culturally affirming, holistic curriculum and teaching practices in the classroom; and working collectively to address the root causes of racial inequities in schools.
The speakers, comprised of practitioners and community members, included Dr. Jaykyri Simpson, Director of Young Man with a Plan; Garcie Champagne, Boston Public School parent at Mozart Elementary and Co-Chair of their Race and Ethnicity Committee; Michael Baulier, principal of the Mozart Elementary School; Lovely Hoffman, Edison K-8 Music Teacher; and Anthony Beatrice, BPS Executive Director for the Arts.
Prioritizing Racial Equity
Despite the renewed attention to racial equity work, racial inequities and the systems, institutions, practices, policies, and culture that produced them are deeply embedded in America’s history as well as the current education system. Students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students in the city of Boston, have been disproportionately impacted by gaps in opportunities and outcomes. Dr. Jaykyri Simpson, Director of Young Man with a Plan, discussed how this past year has further disadvantaged students of color as they experienced disproportionate harm from COVID-19, family economic insecurity, racial trauma, as well as increased neighborhood and gang violence that have had heartbreaking effects on students’ lives. Thus, advancing racial equity within our school systems requires addressing the root causes of these inequities both within and outside of classroom walls.
For our panelists, and so many other education practitioners, families, and community leaders in Boston, racial equity work is not a new priority but has been the priority, the core of their mission statements, the driver of their actions and decisions. What does it mean to prioritize this work in education? Michael Baulier, Principal at the Mozart Elementary School, provides a description: “Prioritizing racial equity means applying an anti-racist lens to every aspect of the Mozart community, every staff hire, every family interaction, every leadership decision, every instructional choice, every main office referral. Prioritization means this work is consistent. It remains year after year, and our efforts grow and deepen every step of the way.” Our panelists shared how they prioritized and worked towards racial equity in education both within and outside school walls.
Collaborative and Differentiated Racial Equity Learning
Panelists spoke about the importance of providing both collaborative and differentiated learning opportunities for school staff, families, and students.
Garcie Champagne, a parent at the Mozart and co-founder of the Mozart’s Race and Ethnicity Committee (REC), shared that school staff and families deeply valued engaging in professional development together: “It felt like a true exchange of ideas where families are able to have input and be a part of the thinking and brainstorming and bring themselves into the curriculum and the activities students are a part of.” She emphasized the importance of bringing all stakeholders to the table to ensure collective learning and opportunities to hear multiple perspectives. For Principal Baulier, it is crucial to learn from and engage in thought partnership with “educators, families, and community members who have different identities and lived experiences” because his “identity and perspective as a single white male administrator is limited.”
While opportunities for collaborative professional learning are important, learning and growth opportunities centered on racial equity also need to be differentiated to meet the individual needs of those involved and build upon their already existing funds of knowledge and lived experiences. “Meeting the needs of families of color and needs of white families is often different,” Champagne observed. “It is important to acknowledge that people are coming in from different places, which necessitates different entry points of learning.” One of the ways in which the Mozart community has responded to the various needs of their families is by creating affinity groups for families with shared affinities to share and problem-solve together.
At the district level, differentiated professional learning is a core strategy for supporting arts educators. Anthony Beatrice, the BPS Executive Director for the Arts, shared an overview of the Arts Department’s racial equity professional learning framework. One of the department’s realizations when beginning this work was that arts teachers were at different stages of their learning journeys and that professional development had to meet the needs of all teachers. The Arts Department used the Continuum of Cultural Competency to identify stages of cultural competency and sequence learning experiences for arts educators.
Culturally Affirming and Holistic Approaches to Teaching
The Boston Public Schools Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Policy describes a culturally affirming curriculum as one that connects with students’ cultural schema and affirms and admires their backgrounds, identities and experiences.
For Lovely Hoffman, a music teacher at the Edison K-8 School, providing culturally affirming education experiences to her students means teaching from a holistic perspective and ensuring “what we are teaching is relevant, socially conscious, and teaching the whole child.” In practice, this requires moving away from western traditions of compartmentalized subject areas to a more interdisciplinary approach that brings in the real world and students’ identities. Hoffman utilizes a broad range of musical styles, poetry, and songs to teach students about different cultures and leads lesson activities that enable students to bridge connections to their own cultures and identities. As an educator, she saw that low self-esteem was a recurring issue among young Black girls, directly impacting their confidence, motivation, and performance in school. In response, Hoffman created her now viral music video “My Black is Beautiful” and accompanying Self-Esteem Curriculum for Young Black Girls to “encourage young girls of color to define and embrace their natural beauty.” Her “Kwanzaa Song” video teaches students about the traditional African-American holiday and her poetry unit examines Tupac Shakur’s music and poetry in relation to larger discussions about racial relations in America.
Dr. Jaykyri Simpson describes Young Man with a Plan (YMWAP) as a holistic mentoring program for young men of color. Beyond academics, YMWAP mentorship helps students make sense of and prepare for the world they live in as young men of color. Students in YMWAP discuss a variety of topics with their mentors of color and each other, including race and identity, current events, academic challenges, healthy relationships, finance management, stress, and college and career options.
Principal Baulier believes curriculum must “engage students in learning about representative journeys of achievement, social justice, and antiracist action.” At the Mozart, school staff and families examine and transform current curriculum together. In their Race and Ethnicity Committee, parents brainstormed literature projects with educators that allow students to explore their racial identities. They worked collectively to unpack and understand the Learning for Justice Framework for Anti-bias Education and Social Justice Standards, then applied these standards alongside antiracism research and the Universal Design for Learning framework to co-develop writing units and grade-level curriculum.
The BPS Arts Department has worked with arts teachers to decolonize and examine existing curriculum for bias using the 7 Forms of Bias Protocol. Auditing curriculum often resulted in the district asking vendors to change existing curriculum, having to buy new curriculum, or creating curriculum on their own. The Arts Department created their own Elementary General Band book that focused on merengue, muchata, and hip-hop after auditing the existing instrumental bandbook and finding it heavily Western European-focused. Like the Mozart, they also engaged in co-creation, enlisting high school students to create artwork for elementary general music teachers to accompany lessons. Beatrice noted that auditing curriculum for bias does not necessarily mean removing content and bias from curriculum, but adding counter-narratives and explicitly teaching students how to be critical consumers of information.
Cross-sector Collaboration for Change
Operating across sectors is critical to the success of Dr. Jaykyri Simpson’s YMWAP mentorship program. To advance racial equity, Dr. Simpson calls for an honest, holistic, radical, and collaborative approach to system change. This approach acknowledges and addresses the root causes of racial inequities, considers the interconnectedness of factors impacting students both in and outside of the school building, and requires cross-sector collaboration so that everyone can “row together,” put adequate resources in the right places, and make broad-scale change.
YMWAP breaks down silos by working across different types of schools, in partnership with families, and alongside other organizations like the Private Industry Council and the Boston Police Department. As a result of YMWAP’s collaborative and holistic approach to mentoring, students’ academic and social-emotional skills improve, and the program bridges understanding across sectors, schools, races, cultures, and neighborhoods.
Continued Commitment to Racial Equity in Education
Racial equity in education requires change in our classrooms and school buildings, but also calls for change in all policies, practices, and environments that shape the lives of students and their families. The approach to broader systemic changes rests firmly in working collectively and holistically. Racial equity has to remain a priority and it has to center students first. As Principal Baulier states, “The more we do racial equity work, the more work there is to do…We learned that no matter where you start, you have to start somewhere.” Until every child, regardless of race or ethnicity, has access to the opportunities, resources, and support they need to thrive in our school system and beyond, we all have work to do.