First Ahmaud Arbery. Then Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rashard Brooks. 

As high-profile deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement, or those associated with them, made headlines this summer, middle school principal Derek McCoy felt similar feelings of shock. 

He thought a lot about his son and daughter, both Black young adults. He thought about his own apprehension whenever he encountered police as a Black man.

And then McCoy thought about his students — both the ones he recently left behind in Georgia, just an hour away from where Arbery was killed, and the ones he will meet this fall at North Asheboro Middle School in Asheboro, North Carolina, where he was recently hired as principal.

“Are they hearing a good message from their schools? From their teachers? Somebody who they’ve developed some trust with that they can go to and pose some questions for?” McCoy said. “I’m hoping that educators are embracing that piece, that role of their jobs right now.”

In the weeks since Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day and a wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, some school leaders have made headlines of their own after losing their jobs for speaking out against the Black Lives Matter movement. But for McCoy and others who spoke to Education Dive, there’s no question current events should infiltrate classrooms, curriculum and school culture going forward.

“What’s going on right now is a call for all of us to really make sure that we’re focused on teaching the right things,” McCoy said.

Practically speaking, this means history teachers don’t have to start day one of class studying cavemen and leave the unit on the Civil Rights Movement until the spring semester, he said.

“We’re here to serve learners, and our learners need us to bring what’s going on right now into the conversations,” McCoy said. 

Questioning what you learned

In California, San Lorenzo Unified School District Superintendent Daryl Camp has long been encouraging educators to take a hard look at what they teach and acknowledge there’s an information gap — even for Black educators like himself who grew up learning from largely Eurocentric textbooks.

It wasn’t until he attended a historically Black college and university that Camp learned more about Black history and the contributions of his ancestors before the slave trade, which is where American textbooks typically pick up, he said.

“The way (slavery) is framed in our textbook, it was labor, and the emphasis is on the physical skills that the slaves brought. But no one recognizes the science behind agriculture, and the reality is that the slaves had a certain amount of knowledge of how do you take and cultivate land that was different than people here,” said Camp. “It’s looking at slavery differently — recognizing that … the slaves had incredible physical strength and academic strength that really helped build this country.” 

Camp said he wants his staff to start questioning their education and how they got to the point they’re at now, including what they learned and how they learned it. 

Prior to the events of this summer, the San Lorenzo district already held monthly conversations about race and education with central office leaders. There have also been periodic “Beyond Diversity” workshops with Pacific Educational Group Founder Glenn Singleton open to all staff, including office workers and custodians.

“Adults create the culture, and everybody has a role,” said Camp, who is also the president of the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators. “It’s broader than the classroom.” 

In New York’s Pleasantville Union Free School District, leaders have been taking a similar approach. 

Administrators in the predominantly white district read the books “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” throughout the school year. But in light of the recent wave of protests — including a Pleasantville student-led rally in the middle of town on June 13 — the district is now making them required reading for teachers and staff, as well.

“Those two books were really important professional reads,” said Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter. “You know, we as educators constantly say we’re lifelong learners, and this was an area that we challenged ourselves to grow and to understand.”

District leaders have also started meeting with alumni in recent weeks, asking for feedback on their experiences and what could’ve been better. In some cases, Pleasantville High School Principal Joseph Palumbo said, the district is already on the right track, such as replacing a European history and Western civilizations AP course with one focused on world civilizations a few years ago.

“We would encourage more districts, if you’re looking at curriculum, to make that shift in your AP program,” Fox-Alter said.

School culture and questions around SROs

Recent events have also rekindled the debate about police presence in schools, which some studies and analyses show disproportionally impact minority students in an education system with a school-to-prison pipeline and documented discipline disparities between white and black students. One of the demands of the group Black Lives Matter at School is to “fund counselors not cops.”

Already, the school district in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and many others have ended their relationships with the police department, and other districts are also re-examining their policies.

Harry Lawson, director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, said it’s been an ongoing debate for some time that he predicts will get more attention as the start of school nears.

Lawson said the organization is currently working on guidance for its members with points to consider as schools consider reopening plans under the coronavirus pandemic this fall. 

“If it’s going to be mandated still that people are wearing masks, and things like that, what is that going to mean particularly if we believe that students of color are already sort of in a lot of ways over-policed?” he said. “We could see that being a problem.”

McCoy is aware of the debate about police presence in schools, but it’s not one he’ll be tackling at his new school. 

While he said having uniformed officers on campus can “send a message and create an air,” the school resource officers he’s worked with in the past have genuinely cared about building good relationships with students.

“There is a lot of work and conversation to be had about having school resource officers in schools,” McCoy said. “There’s going to be a lot of pros and cons.”

For now, he’s focused on cultivating a school environment that lets students take ownership of their learning — especially in times like these.

“This is a great time to not tell students why we’re here but to let them find out why we’re here and to let them do their own research, demonstrate their learning in different ways and let them make different historical connections,” McCoy said. “This is a great opportunity to come to (the) classroom and not only learn in a historical context, but facilitate some authentic conversations to come up in the classroom about what is really going on.”

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