Countering racism in Yellow Springs schools
- Published: November 23, 2020
Other articles in this series
Facing Race: This is fifth in a series on the impacts of racism in Yellow Springs and local anti-racist efforts and approaches.
On the Monday before the new school year was scheduled to begin, district employees — teachers, administrators and staff — took time to discuss the issue of race in Yellow Springs Schools.
The resulting conversation was “robust,” according to Superintendent Terri Holden, who organized the meeting, which was conducted online amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During the exchange, local educators listed a variety of observed behaviors, circumstances and practices they believe perpetuate racism within the local schools.
Among them, according to Holden, were:
• An absence of students of color in advanced classes
• A failure to consciously select texts by and/or about people of color for performances
• The removal of black males from learning spaces
• An inequity in behavior referrals and corresponding discipline consequences for white and black students
• The honoring of requests from white parents for specific teachers
• Academic tracking in high school classes
• A lack of diversity and underrepresentation of minority groups in curricular materials
• A need for more staff of color
• A pervasive belief that racism is not present in Yellow Springs schools
• Labeling students from grade to grade, giving them a reputation
• Stereotyping of black females
• A lack of effort to understand cultural and communication differences
• Allowing adults to opt out of conversations around race
• Inequities in technology access
• No way to serve gifted students of color
• Limiting racial and cultural awareness to holiday celebrations
“We have much work to do,” Holden, who is white, says.
Identifying and excising systemic racism is no easy task, but it is vital for the health of the schools and community, agrees parent Kineta Sanford, who was trained as an educator and currently works with the locally based housing nonprofit Home, Inc.
Sanford, who is Black, also was involved in the interview process last spring for hiring the new principal at Mills Lawn School. That experience, as well as her experience as a district parent, have revealed for Sanford some of the racial attitudes and issues at play locally.
“We as a community, we have a duty to visit our racism here,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We have to dive deeper. We have to do more.”
In the News’ ongoing “Facing Race” series, we turn this week to the local school district for a look at how the schools are reckoning with race and implementing new efforts, alongside continuing initiatives, to counter racism’s presence and effects.
Taking on the challenge
The above examples of racism in the schools were shared by Holden by the superintendent during the Aug. 29 Speaking Up for Justice rally. The rallies were organized by local youth and held downtown each Saturday following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last May and continuing through the end of October. Invited by rally organizers, Holden also spoke in June.
The first invitation came after Holden wrote a public letter subsequent to Floyd’s death about her views on the responsibility of schools to engage in antiracism work.
“Educators are often told not to talk about politics or highly controversial public events,” she wrote. “Some argue that we teach all children and our own personal beliefs should not get in the way. But teaching is a personal act. Education is not neutral. How do we teach our children if we cannot talk to them openly and honestly about issues and problems they see with their own eyes?”
“We cannot be neutral about the death of another person of color at the hands of law enforcement,” she continued. “We cannot be neutral about the injustices that we see, about the injustices in a system of which we are a part, about the injustices our very own fearless thinkers of color face very day.” (“Fearless thinkers” is the district’s oft-repeated description of Yellow Springs students.)
The school board addressed Holden’s letter at its next meeting, with board President Steve Conn speaking supportively of the superintendent’s initiative and leadership.
“We’re educators. This is our moment to step forward,” Conn said.
Holden said she felt compelled to make a public statement.
“I could not not speak,” she told the board. “I believe it is my responsibility to do it. I know the children are watching us, so what we do and what we say is critical.”
“I think we have a lot of work to do in our house,” she continued. “Yellow Springs is very progressive, but I think sometimes that allows us to put on blinkers.”
Students, staff on front lines
Others in the school district were also active in the weekly anti-racism rallies, including the student organizers, the adults who assisted them, and several school staff members who spoke.
Mills Lawn Elementary School counselor and former McKinney Middle/YS High School Principal John Gudgel, who is Black, has provided consistent support to local youth in organizing the weekly gatherings.
Racism is a matter of life and death, Gudgel said during an early August rally that focused on Black mental health.
Addressing the crowd gathered in front of Mills Lawn, Gudgel noted that from 1991–2017, suicide attempts among Black teens increased by 73%, twice the rate of white teens. He connected the statistic to stress and trauma from growing up Black in America, noting that a right of passage for Black males is getting “the talk” from a caring adult, where they learn they have to be extra careful in interacting with law enforcement officers and other authority figures.
McKinney Middle School language arts teacher Jaime Adoff shared at a rally his ongoing efforts to address issues of race and racism. For the past three years he taught a unit called “Race and Revolution: the Power of Protest,” where his eighth-grade students research incidents of police brutality. He is also the advisor of the middle/high school club United Student Society, a school group that was active in the ‘70s and revived three years ago in the wake of several racist incidents at the high school. Its 20-some members seeks to bridge racial divides in the school community.
Other teachers have also incorporated a variety of racial awareness and social justice lessons in their classrooms and curriculum. Mills Lawn music teacher Jo Frannye Reichert, who both spoke and led rally-goers in song, has worked to “decolonize” her music room, eliminating songs from the racist minstrel era and incorporating songs from world and Indigenous cultures. Also sharing his efforts was U.S. history teacher Kevin Lydy, who said he strives to provide avenues for “democratic empowerment” to his students, saying he believes “raising awareness and promoting justice are at the core of [his academic] discipline.”
Districtwide efforts this school year kicked off with a book study by staff members of Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist.” About 50 participants read and discussed the work. And in conjunction with the book read, Holden put out a call for volunteers to form an Anti-Racism Team. The resulting 10-member committee includes the superintendent, middle/high school Principal Jack Hatert and teachers Lydy, Sarah Amin, Megan Bennett, Emily Cormier, Chelsey Earley, Eli Hurwitz, Kate Lohmeyer and Brandon Lowry. None of the members are Black.
Holden said she is fine with the racial makeup of the group, as white people need to use their privilege to dismantle oppressive structures that white supremacy has created and maintained. She said she also wanted to be sensitive to the fact that Black staff members are continually called on to help fix problems related to racism when they are the recipients, not the instigators, of racist trauma. Group participation is not necessarily set, she added; others may join as the work continues.
The group followed up the book study with an online screening of a series of films to further educate the entire school community on issues of race. Now the committee is collecting personal stories by way of a survey open to both current and past members of the district community — students, parents, families, staff. The experiences shared will help the group create an action plan to address ongoing systemic racism in the schools, according to information that accompanies the survey. The survey is available online at the following link: bit.ly/30UfzPV.
Evidence of disparities
One issue of continuing concern for the district is the achievement gap between white students and students of color, Holden told the school board this summer, though she didn’t cite specifics.
According to the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University, the scores on standardized tests indicate a narrowing in recent years of the division in achievement between white students and students of color, but the difference remains significant. Locally, the difference in performance on state tests, as documented in the annual state report cards, shows a wide divide.
While there are no scores from last year, when testing was canceled because of school closures, testing results in recent years for the middle/high school showed nearly 80% of white students earning proficient results in language arts, compared to about 55% of multiracial students. In math, the difference was about 70% compared to 40%. At Mills Lawn, the breakdown for language arts scores has been about 90% to 75%, and in math, about 85% to about 60%.
Of the approximately 335 students at McKinney Middle and Yellow Springs High School, nearly 66% are white, over 17% are multiracial, over 8% are Black, nearly 8% are Hispanic and less than 1% are Asian or Native American. Of the 360-some students at Mills Lawn, about 65% are white, 16% are multiracial, about 9% are Hispanic, nearly 7% are Black, 1.4% are Native American and 1.1% are Asian.
While addressing the disparities in testing results and other indicators of systemic racism is a priority for Holden, she said in a recent interview that her time and attention, as well as that of district staff, have been adversely affected by the educational challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, they are trying to keep the antiracism efforts visible and moving forward.
Counselor Gudgel said this summer that he was heartened by the district’s efforts to examine racist structures within the school system.
He said that Black educators and students perpetually face the experience of feeling they need to prove they belong in predominantly white settings.
A history of inequity
The racism being identified in the local schools took root with founding father and enslaver Thomas Jefferson, who proposed a two-track system of education that separated the “laborers” from the “learned,” according to educational scholars. At the same time, and for a century after, enslaved Black people were given no formal education at all, and teaching them to read was illegal in the South.
“Time has not done much to change” the division of educational opportunities, Holden said in one of her rally talks. “The dream of desegregation efforts in the mid-1950s to provide equitable access and opportunity in education for children of color has never been fully realized. … The mandated school closures in March highlighted many of the inequities that exist in public education today: access to technology devices; access to the internet; access to quality instruction; and access to food.”
In the early years of Yellow Springs, Black and white children attended separate schools, with desegregation not implemented until it became Ohio law in 1887. Even then, the desegregation of the local schools was bitterly resisted by white parents. Nearly 70 years passed before the first Black teacher was hired in 1956, after community members organized a protest against the district’s employment discrimination. A decade earlier, Antioch College student Coretta Scott, who would later marry the Rev. Martin Luther King, was famously denied acceptance as a student teacher in the public schools because she was Black.
But accepting that racism remains in the schools is a hard truth for educators to embrace, Holden said in a rally speech.
“Teachers are helpers and givers. They devote time and energy to teaching children as best they can. That makes it really hard for educators to think that they are part of a system that is racist by nature through policy and procedure, and that reinforces inequities that are inherent in the system.”
For Holden, speaking in August, the necessary work at hand means “we have to directly confront the racism that we see. It means that we have to examine institutional policies and procedures that provide some students more access and opportunity than others. It means we need to prioritize the interest of students of color. It means we need to develop a deep understanding of the dynamics of racism in our schools. It means fixing racist conditions and inequitable policies.”
Diversity of staff
An area of attention that has been on the district’s agenda for several years is attracting a more diverse staff. According to district records, about 85% of Yellow Springs staff are white, while 15% are people of color, compared to the 7% national average.
Multiple studies show that all students benefit in having teachers of color. Not surprisingly, the impact on students of color can be even more profound. One recent study found that Black boys who have just one Black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade get better grades and graduate at a higher rate than peers who have only white teachers.
Mills Lawn first-grade teacher Mikasa Simms, who is Black, is aware of the research. And she said it bore fruit in her own life growing up in Yellow Springs, where now-retired teacher Betty Felder not only inspired her love of school and learning, but also her own desire to go into teaching.
The local district had a number of Black teachers and administrators during Simms’ school years in the 1980s and early ’90s, including both principals, she recalled. Her mother, the late Linda Simms, was also an educator.
“I thought that was the way it was,” Simms said in a recent phone interview.
Going on to attend a historically black college in Kentucky, Simms said she had a rude awakening when she started her field work as a teacher in training. She found that all-white faculties predominated, and their treatment of her was often unwelcoming.
“They’d put me in a corner, not introduce me to the class, act like I wasn’t there,” Simms recalled.
That experience has led her to be more aware of the ways schools embrace or alienate staff and students of color. It has also encouraged her to open her classroom to student teachers and to participate in the district’s partnership with Wittenberg University to increase the number of college students of color going into teaching.
Funded by a grant from the Ohio Department of Education, the program has been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, but Simms expects it will ramp up again after students return to regular classroom routines. She said the program is worth continuing, that the mentorship it provides is invaluable.
Her first graders loved it, too.
“Because the Wittenberg students were young, they were able just to connect a little bit better,” Simms said. “They went around, got down on the floor, they were very engaging from the beginning, and that was very endearing for my kids.”
Also toward the district’s goal of increasing the diversity of staff, two of the three new hires this school year are Black — Mills Lawn Principal Michelle Person and middle school science teacher Cameron Dickens.
The hiring of Person, however, was not without some red flags for parent Kineta Sanford.
The community group put together to participate in the interview process for the elementary school’s new principal was diverse, Sanford said, and she appreciated the “intentionality” that appeared to have been involved in it organization.
Of the seven candidates, four were white and three were Black. All were women.
But as the interviewing process unfolded, certain aspects of implicit bias began to appear in conversations about the candidates, she said.
“Some language came up that I would say was implicitly biased.”
Certain words that may feel innocuous to the speaker also have a deeper racial resonance — what sociologists refer to as “coded.”
Describing a Black candidate’s experience as “urban,” or their possible interactions with students as “stern,” or questioning whether they would be “a good fit” for the community, all have connections to biased thinking, Sanford said.
“A lot of these mindsets are deeply rooted,” she said, so we need to ask, “What is the narrative that’s driving them?” For example, “If we want someone to reflect our community, and if we look at our community and a majority are white, think about what we’re looking for. It can’t just be rooted in what we feel comfortable with.”
Having grown up in Xenia, Sanford said she has found that Yellow Springers feel that they’ve transcended racist motivations, but “the undercurrent is really insidious.”
“I’ve heard it said that people aren’t afraid of talking about race here. Yes they are.”
But the conversations are vital, she -continued.
“If we really want to move forward and consider this a diverse place, then we really have to [talk about racism],” she said.
So she’s pleased that the school district is engaging in that work.
She said she felt distressed after the principal interviews, so she contacted High School Principal Jack Hatert, who had moderated the conversations. She told him what she had heard, and asked him whether the school might consider providing implicit bias training for those participating in future interview sessions. Not only was Hatert receptive to her thoughts, but Superintendent Holden followed up with her as well.
“That felt like a shift,” Sanford said.
“People are listening. People are paying attention to this. I walked away from the total experience feeling good. It came full circle. I think that’s the approach we have to take as a community — really embracing that we don’t have all the answers. That is what creates and builds trust in a community.”
A story about the survey results and student experiences will follow in a future issue of the News.