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Another black history month came and went and far too many students I work with were told they don’t matter.

Every year, I ask my students in TeenSHARP how their schools celebrated and acknowledged Black History Month. If they’re lucky their school displayed their trusty Dr. Martin Luther King poster, made a few black history announcements, or hosted a black history performance. The most fortunate ones had one class where their teacher found a way to incorporate an important black figure into their lesson plan for the day.

Even with an extra day this February, somehow most of my students’ schools (they represent nine different schools in Delaware and 15+ different schools in PA and NJ) failed to find the time to remind students of the historical and the present contributions of people of African descent.

As peer leaders, we encourage our TeenSHARPies to take initiative to ensure their voices are heard and their culture and history is honored. One student found a lonely bulletin board and adorned it with a poster he created to acknowledge black leaders. Another compiled a list of black history factoids and asked to read them during the morning announcements. We implore our students to be solutions-oriented, as they should be. We push them to take action when they see a void. 

Still, we must acknowledge that there is a gaping, massive, and marginalizing hole when it comes to the education system’s concern for the voice, culture, and experiences of children and families of color.

The abundance of lip service cannot plug this hole. Booking the latest hip hop dance troupe for a school assembly also falls short.

Because after students are finished being entertained by the latest culturally-relevant attraction, they are still educated about how the school system feels about them through its many monuments of non-recognition.

Case-in-Point.  If you walk into the Cabinet Room at the Delaware Department of Education you’ll see the walls lined with pictures of Teachers of the Year from each district, past and present. I’ve met many of these educators and they are doing exemplary work in the classroom. But whenever I’m in this room I am always puzzled about how the various education leaders who frequent that room are so comfortable sending the message to students, families, and educators that excellent teaching is sourced from a racially homogenous group of teachers. In fact, of the 193 Teachers of the Year from 2005 until 2015, only 5% were non-white educators.

Overall, while 53 percent of Delaware’s students are non-white and Delaware is on track to be one of the most diverse states in the nation by 2060, only 14 percent of educators are non-white. Across the nation, only around 6 percent of school superintendents are nonwhite and 88 percent of state commissioners/superintendents of education are white. Now imagine how it feels for students of color (or any student) to scarcely see teachers of color in their buildings and for the majority of their teachers to lack racial proficiency, cultural competence, and deep experience with anything other than a Eurocentric reading of their given academic discipline.

Some might claim that there just isn’t an adequate pool of educators of color for districts to recruit to their schools. This is somewhat true. Last fall, the state released scorecards on educator preparation programs in Delaware and most earned low ratings for candidate diversity numbers.

Among the programs, Teach For America stood out for its substantially higher than average proportion of educators of color (33% compared to some programs with only 4% non-white students). This mirrors the increased diversity of recruits the organization has seen nationally and suggests that the claims about the limited pool of applicants are only half true. If it really mattered, districts could invest their resources and adjust their practices to change the status quo. But claims about too few students of color entering the teaching profession usually are enough to change the conversation.  

That’s because all-too-often people of color (school leaders, teachers, parents, and students) are scarcely invited to participate in the conversation or even subtly discouraged. 

The state’s DPAS-II Advisory Committee and Subcommittee (the two committees charting the future of the teacher and leader evaluation system in Delaware) are a perfect example.The Advisory Committee was created through legislation and is required to have teacher, higher ed,  parent, school administrator, school board, superintendent, legislature, etc representatives. I was a non-voting member of the committee as the Delaware Department of Education designee. Somehow after all of the other stakeholder groups selected their representative (some groups had multiple representatives on the committee), I was the only person of color on the committee.

But no problem! Maybe it was an honest mistake. I noted this to the committee during our first meeting and while some expressed concern, nobody was concerned enough to give up their seat at the table as an acknowledgment that other voices actually matter.  

At the committee’s most recent meeting, a few black parents from Wilmington sat through the meeting and provided comments during the public comment section. After the meeting, they followed up on their critique of the committee’s lack of parent representation (it has one parent representative from the PTA) with the PTA representative. He noted that he agreed we need more parents on these committees. One of the parents pressed further and said, “Well I’ve seen you as the one representative of parents on a number of state committees. You should share the wealth.” His response: (paraphrasing) I’d love to not be the only one on these committees if other parents could learn enough about these issues and systems to be able to participate.

I joined the parents in letting him know that we found that notion offensive. He chided me for not understanding the research and advocating for ineffective and uninformed parent engagement. I retorted that perhaps the problem is we have policy wonks and interest groups advocating for adults at the table. Meanwhile, nobody is asking the simple questions and speaking from the heart about what is best for students.

I reminded him that ours is a democracy that lets everyone participate even if they are seemingly less informed. I also reminded him that the hoops and prerequisites he was promulgating as a barrier to participation seemed painfully similar to hoops black people had to jump through to prove they were smart enough to vote. One of the parents informed him (sarcastically) that she had a doctorate in education and that she was pretty sure she could figure out Delaware’s educator evaluation system–but it shouldn’t take having a doctorate degree to be worthy of sitting at the table.  

Let’s work toward an education system where the voices, needs, and contributions of people of color truly matter. But first, we’ll work toward a tomorrow where all will be at the table. 

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5 thoughts on “Do #blackvoicesmatter in Delaware schools?

  1. Sharing a comment I received via email from a Delaware teacher…. “Thanks for sharing. I particularly agree with you on your comments about Black History month. The recommended social studies curriculum is dominated by a European discourse. Consequently, I work hard to incorporate the subaltern, women, African-Americans etc. into my classroom. I find that my minority students appreciate studying history through a non-white lens. They are often more engaged and more likely to participate in class discussions.”

  2. Thank you for bringing awareness to the serious issue regarding diversity and inclusion and the lack thereof here in Delaware . These systems that control our pockets/purses and quality of life have to be challenged head on. Business as usual can no longer continue to thrive without confrontation. All of Delaware’s children require a quality education. One’s success should not be a threat to another, there’s room at the table for us all. We will continue to speak out against inequality and injustice.

  3. One parent representative does not represent stakeholder voice. Active and informed parents have differing views, so the idea that one parent, used again and again to the point of becoming an institutional insider, can effectively represent this stakeholder group is anti-democratic. Your last few paragraphs are a powerful indictment of a state education system that through its passivity stifles minority voices both in our schools and in our government. Except, as I read my last sentence, it is not just passive, as evidenced by the sole parent representative actively fighting to diminish other voices.

  4. Very insightful and thought provoking! It seems ev’ve gotten comfortable with the racial inequality in the educational system. The work to get parents and educators on board with this is imparative. Great article.

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