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Yellow Springs Schools seeks deeper diversity

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This article is second in a series that will address racism in the village and efforts to improve the climate of diversity and inclusion at local institutions.

Articles in this series

Achieving greater racial diversity among employees of Yellow Springs Schools — teachers, administrators and staff — has been a longtime goal of the local district. 

But despite that desire, the district hasn’t succeeded in increasing the number of people of color on staff, currently between 13 percent and 15 percent.

It’s time for a new approach, Superintendent Mario Basora told the school board earlier this month. 

Basora was pleased to announce that the district had a $20,000 state/federal grant in hand for a new innovative initiative to encourage and mentor students of color to become teachers who might come to work in Yellow Springs schools.

It’s the latest in a variety of efforts, including some student-led, initiated over the past two years to deepen diversity and cultural competency in the local schools.

This week the News looks at the positive steps taken and the work yet to be done in the local school district.

Community’s call

Recent efforts at the school address a call from the community that came out of a series of discussions during the 2016–17 school year.

Following several racist incidents at the middle/high school, including one detailed in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day essay shared communitywide, the Young People of Color group, an outreach of The 365 Project, sent a letter to district leaders expressing concerns about school culture and listing specific actions they wanted to see implemented. 

“[W]e feel an unhealthy environment exists for students of color at the high school and middle school,” the letter stated.

The group’s suggestions for addressing their concerns included providing professional training for staff and students on diversity and inclusion; updating school district protocols on dealing with racial harassment; implementing a diverse curriculum; and creating a student advocate staff position to assist with culturally sensitive issues. An additional concern about hiring practices was later added in April 2017.

In follow up to the students’ letter, about 50 people — students, parents, teachers and interested community members — attended a meeting at the end of June that same year and urged district leaders not only to provide more racial sensitivity training for school staff and students, but also  to hire more people of color.

The gathering pressed Superintendent Basora to intensify his hiring efforts and expand his scope for seeking out new candidates.

Research supports diversity

Research is prolific and unequivocal in concluding that the diversity of school staff has a significant impact on the lives and academic success of students, especially students of color.

“There’s overwhelming data that clearly suggests that having a teacher of color makes a huge difference in the lives of students of color,” Basora affirmed.

McKinney Middle School language arts teacher Jaime Adoff, the middle school’s only teacher of color, agrees, adding in an interview this week that research also shows that a diverse staff is good for all students, regardless of race.

“It’s a win-win,” he said.

Yet, finding teachers of color to hire has been difficult, Basora told the school board earlier this month. And a major cause has more to do with numbers than effort, he said.

“A big breakdown happens,” Basora said. “It’s not that people are going into programs, graduating and just finding jobs in other places, and we just can’t get them.”

According to a recent study of Ohio students, the racial gap grows wider as students progress from high school to college to teacher training programs.

“Think about it as two line graphs,” Basora said.

“Right now in Ohio, 66 percent of students are white, 34 percent are students of color,” a statistic that matches the Yellow Springs student population as well, he added.

The gap widens statewide, however, at graduation, when 70 percent of the students who finish are white and 30 percent are students of color.

“When you go into the college ranks, it’s about 75 percent white, 25 percent students of color.”

And by the time you see enrollment in teacher education programs, 95 percent are white and 5 percent are people of color, he said.

“The problem isn’t  on the back end, hiring them, or getting candidates to apply. The problem is the lack of candidates completely. There is a major dearth of candidates. It’s a major crisis across Ohio, and across the country.”

Yellow Springs’ plan is to be proactive and reach students on the front end, as they enter college, initially working with Wittenberg University, where despite having a population of students of color, only white students entered the teacher training program last year.

The local district’s plan — supported by  a new $20,000 grant award from the Ohio Department of Education and the Department of Higher Education — will be to meet with freshman and sophomore students of color to encourage interest in teacher training. The district will then bring the college students into the local schools as tutors (up to three at Mills Lawn and three at the middle/high school) for 10 hours a week, and  eventually provide a place to fulfill their student teaching experience if they continue to pursue certification.

“This grant’s going to be really valuable for us, because we’re going to tackle the problem where it is, which is entering into teacher prep programs,” Basora said.

“We’ll be broadening our candidate pool. We think it will make a difference.”

Recent in-school actions

Other actions in the schools are also seeking to make a difference. An internal effort that came out of students’ concerns two years ago was the re-establishment of the then inactive United Student Society, or USS, a student club focusing on issues of race.

The reformed group has grown from an initial five or six students to between 20 to 25 regularly attending the group’s weekly meetings, according to teacher Adoff, the group’s advisor.

Describing the gatherings “as a safe place for kids to come and talk,” Adoff said the group is “wonderfully diverse,” and includes white students who attend as “friends and allies.”

Group member Hannefah Jones said in a recent interview that having a place to air concerns is important.

“At the end of every meeting, if there are any racial issues, we share it out, to understand each other.”

Fellow USS member Annlyn Foster said that the experience brings the group closer.

“There’s a lot of bonding,” she said.

A recent topic among students was the vandalized sidewalk near the middle/high school that had been defaced with a racial slur — the N-word — before workers repaired it.

“It angers me. It upsets me,” Foster said of the anonymously made epithet. “I can’t do anything about it. I can’t change that person’s mind because they have ignorance. They know what they’re doing. They know what they’re saying. They’re trying to get a reaction.”

Jones said the racist vandalism angered her as well, and she wished she knew the identity of the perpetrator.

“I can’t talk to them and ask them why they did it. I wonder if they don’t realize how it affects people.”

At the same time, the two students and another USS member recently interviewed said they felt that while racism is present in Yellow Springs — as evidenced by the sidewalk vandalism — it is less noticeable here than elsewhere.

“I think the energy of racism is everywhere, but here in Yellow Springs it’s very thin — rare,” said Sumayah Chappelle. 

“The system is already set up with ideas of race,” Chappelle added. “It’s in the air everywhere you go.”

For her part, and focusing on the school culture, Foster said she doesn’t see overt acts of racial discrimination at school, but at the same time notes that cliques separating people into different groups are prevalent.

“I do see some people who are apart.” she said. 

One of United Student Society’s efforts is to address those separations.

Jones noted that the group, in addition to its weekly meetings, also plans a variety of activities to promote racial understanding.

Hosting a community potluck following the middle/high school’s Exhibition Night is one example.

The most recent potluck, the group’s second annual, was Monday, Nov. 19, at the high school gym. About 65 people, including students, parents, siblings, school staff and other community members, attended the gathering. Besides the experience of sharing a meal together, the event invited participants to share with their table-mates their responses to a series of questions tiered from easy to more difficult: What’s your favorite color? What do you love most about yourself? If money weren’t an issue, how would you spend your time? Is there a “best” response to acts of racism? Is racism, sexism and homophobia getting better or worse?

The gym buzzed with the resulting conversations, evoking a lot of laughter, and some tears.

Teacher Adoff, who grew up in Yellow Springs and attended the local schools, said that activities like the potluck offer opportunities not only to talk, but also to form relationships across race.

In addition to the Young People of Color and United Student Society activities, the district has held two day-long cultural competency trainings for staff this school year, hosted by the Cultural Competence Committee.

Adoff said he appreciated the district’s recent efforts.

The trainings, he said, helped staff “understand a lot more deeply the intricacies, subtleties and complexities of a different culture.”

A USS student-led discussion took place at the trainings as well.

Adoff said the discussion was effective.

“I think it’s been a turning point [for staff]. He said he has seen staff paying more attention to cultural diversity and incorporating more diverse resources in their classroom instruction.

“I feel a change,” he said. “I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t want to learn this, which to me gives me a lot of hope.”

Former high school principal John Gudgel, who is now a counselor at Mills Lawn, said in an interview earlier this month that the schools were exploring other ways of addressing racism as well.

One example is through restorative justice methods, he said, noting that he helped facilitate a restorative justice circle between two students at the beginning of the 2017–18 school year. 

While optimistic about the district’s direction, Adoff noted that the work is ongoing and has much to overcome.

Basora, in his remarks to the school board Nov. 8, pointed out that the dearth in the number of teachers of color can be traced back to unintentional consequences of Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation also ended the careers of many black teachers whose schools closed.

“When they brought [the students] together, they didn’t bring the black teachers along,” Basora said. “We have a lot of work to do to reverse that trend.”

Board member Steve Conn agreed.

“This isn’t just a Yellow Springs problem. It’s not just a state of Ohio problem. It’s a national crisis that has some really long roots.”

Megan Bachman contributed to this article.

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