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365 group seeks courage on race

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Over the past decade, Yellow Springs schools have consistently scored in the top tiers of public school standards established by the Ohio Board of Education. Yellow Springs may deliver an excellent education, but is it equitable — especially across racial lines?

Organizers of the 365 Project say no. And they are spearheading what they hope will be a community-wide effort to talk openly and courageously about what causes the achievement gap in the village and the power we may have to correct it.

The 365 Project is kicking off a new phase this month that focuses on promoting diversity and educational equity, and, organizers hope, will help them to become a fully funded nonprofit organization. They open the Elaine Comegys Film Festival this month with a free screening of the film With All Deliberate Speed: The Legacy of Brown v. Board, which will show at the Little Art Theatre this Saturday, Feb. 21, at 3 p.m. Released in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that made segregation in public schools illegal, the film addresses the successes and failures of the decision to establish educational parity between white students and students of color. The aim of the panel discussion to follow the film is to get participants to think critically about the local educational system and engage their help to make it better.

Since the 365 Project began last year with the intent to recognize African-American culture not just during Black History Month, but all year round, its committee members have continued to articulate and prioritize their goals. The committee, including Joan Chappelle, Karen Durgans, John Gudgel, Robin Jordan-Henry and Jocelyn Robinson, came out of a retreat last summer with the following mission:

The 365 Project serves as a catalyst that challenges and supports the people of Yellow Springs and Miami Township to engage critically and respectfully in dialogue and action that promote and sustain diverse African-American heritage and culture, and educational equity, 365 days a year.

The group chose education as a primary focus this year because of its ability to empower marginalized groups.

“Education is the only equalizer, the only thing that can level the playing field in this country,” Robinson said in a recent interview.

Looking at empirical data from the last three years at Yellow Springs High School, Principal Gudgel noted recently that very few students of color enroll in advanced placement courses. Using as a baseline the current total student body number of 265, of which about 32 percent are students of color (the overwhelming majority of whom identify as black or multiracial), the data shows a situation that Robinson calls “abysmal.”

According to the numbers, in the 2005–2006 school year, of the 102 students who took AP courses, just 14 were students of color. Similarly, during 2006–2007, 92 students enrolled in AP courses, of which nine were students of color. And the following year 12 of the 112 AP students were people of color. The ratio of mainstream to minority AP students does not mirror the demographic of the student body, according to which, in an ideal and equitable world, instead of the current 10 percent of students of color participating in advanced courses, the number would be closer to 30 percent.

The 365 Project members would like to explore this issue deeper, but they believe it is related to an unconscious, unintentional form of racism.

“It’s racism, subtle and insidious,” Robinson said. “It’s structural racism, and it’s incredible.”

According to Robinson, Gudgel and Jordan-Henry, that racism happens when tracking occurs in the early grades, and certain students are afforded opportunities that others don’t get. It happens when, as at YSHS, the teachers are mostly white females while the student body reflects a male to female ratio of 60:40 and over a third of the students are minorities. It happens when a new black student comes to YSHS and a school employee asks if he is here to play basketball.

“All these things are interwoven, race, gender, class, and they’re all intersecting systems of oppression,” Robinson said.

In its first year last year, the 365 Project celebrated that historically, Yellow Springs had a high percentage of black professionals who moved to town because they weren’t welcome in surrounding areas. These professionals held seats on Village Council, led local organizations and worked and taught in the schools. In 1972 there were 10 black male and female teachers and administrators employed at the high school, compared to now, when there are five black employees in the entire district.

But now, black leadership has waned, and according to Robinson, there is little representation of people of color in the community anymore.

“This community owes a lot to those movements and that legacy, and it feels very much to me like this community has not fully honored that legacy,” Robinson said.

As part of its mission, the 365 Project aims to encourage leadership within “local organizations, Council, school board that begin to reflect what the community looks like,” Jordan-Henry said.

Many volunteers have helped support the 365 Project already through donations and in-kind service, including facilitator Fred Bartenstein and attorney Ellis Jacobs, the First Baptist Church, Village Council, the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, the Unitarian Universalists, the Little Art Theatre and the Yellow Springs Arts Council, which will serve as the 365 Project’s temporary fiscal agency until it secures its 501(c)(3) status.

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