Student voice changed a high-schooler’s life. It now drives his leadership as a superintendent

Gregory Hutchings still recalls being denied entry to a 10th-grade honors class as a student in Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia. Rather than let that roadblock stand in his way, he pushed back.

I petitioned and I got students to sign [it], and I went to our high school principal and I said, ‘You know, your policy says I can’t get into honors, but your students think differently,'” Hutchings said. “That changed my trajectory. That moment, I realized: My voice is powerful.” 

Hutchings, an African American who graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 1995, is now the district’s superintendent. In recent years, and decades after the integration of his high school in 1971, Hutchings’ district has focused its efforts on creating more opportunities for students of color. Key to the process has been giving students a seat at the table.

We caught up with Hutchings after a summer of civil unrest in nearby Washington, D.C., and in light of findings earlier this year suggesting most superintendents are not prepared to lead race and equity conversations, to discuss serving the needs of students of color, especially through and after the pandemic.

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

EDUCATION DIVE: How have current events impacted your district’s ongoing efforts to even the playing field for students of color? 

GREGORY HUTCHINGS: [Looking at our] engagement data during the pandemic, what we saw was there was no discrepancy or disparity between our Black, brown and White students in regards to engagement. That rarely happens. Typically our Black and brown students don’t feel as engaged as their White counterparts. This is the first time that we’re seeing no disparity.

That, to me, is concerning [because it] means many of our Black and brown kids don’t feel safe in school. They are feeling more welcome now, [being] remote. That is shocking. It’s shocking that now we have our affluent White families that are saying, “This is too much. We can’t have our children at home.” But when we are in session, we have Black families saying, “What are you going to do about engaging my child?”

There has been a lot of talk among district leaders about how to make the community feel safe in returning to school. How are you doing that? 

We’re still seeing more of our Black and brown families are not as in favor of coming back to in-person learning as their White counterparts, which is very interesting because a lot of the research and comments that have been made in our community are saying we need to reopen our schools so our Black and brown students can come back. But what our data is showing is they’re not rushing to come back.

I think some of it is attributed to the fact many of our Black and brown families are not treated the same way when it comes to health conditions. They’re left waiting to die in emergency rooms. Those who are low-income may not have the health insurance, so they can’t afford to get sick. Their concerns are very different than their White counterparts.

Some people actually have fear of coming back, and we have to pay attention to that. Fear contributes to anxiety. If some of our families don’t want to return, particularly Black and brown families because they have a fear, we have to respect that and see how we can meet them where they are. 

We are going to miss the mark and miss serving their needs appropriately if we’re not listening. 

How are you making sure you are serving the needs of students of color? 

Our board just approved for us to move forward with IDRA (Intercultural Development Research Association). This is an organization that is going to come in and do an equity audit of our policies. Our policies really drive our practices in our schools. This is really our first giant step in dismantling the systemic racism we know is present in Alexandria City Public Schools. 

Our board also unanimously adopted our strategic plan, and it makes racial equity the heart of our work. That’s a bold and courageous step our board is taking. 

We also recently requested proposals for anti-racism trainings. We are going to have to have every single one of our employees trained on anti-racism. This has to be an all-hands-on-deck approach, including our board. If we work in pockets, it doesn’t really become the culture of the school division. 

How are you talking to students about changes in the world and within your classrooms? 

By allowing our students and our young people to actually have a voice and a seat at the table. And I think that has been the missing link for too long. The adults have been trying to make the decisions for this country, for the young people, and we’re basing it off of our experiences. We need to allow for our young people to have their voices to be heard and for us to act on what they’re saying. 

Just recently, our student reps on the school board were sharing some of the experiences they have in their AP classes and [those of] their friends who happen to be students of color, and they talked about how it’s unwelcoming. They are treated like they don’t belong. Sometimes they are asked, “Why are you in this class?”

We’re giving them that platform to share that information and to be able to make sure they have that seat at the table, and we are acting on what their experiences are.

What are some practices you would like to see change in your own district? 

I think the major change is you should not be able to determine how a particular group is going to perform based off of their race. I really feel like some of the practices we have put in place are not giving students multiple ways to show how they have achieved or to demonstrate their mastery in different ways that are culturally competent. 

I also think some [educators] bring cultural biases [into the classroom] they don’t even realize they have. Society has created this culture where unfortunately Black and brown people are second-class in some ways. You watch the news and media, and you see them portrayed as the villain or not educated or poor. All of those micro-aggressions and biases become ingrained in our country and across the world, and we have to fight against that.

How do you balance that against talk about the expected widening achievement gap for students of color? 

I think [educators] should be going into [that conversation] with a different mindset. I think we need to reprogram how we assess our students and rethink what achievement is. We are so focused on our testing and assessment, [but] there are other ways [for students] to demonstrate their mastery.

Whether its internships or certification programs within their school divisions, I think we need to start thinking beyond these state-norm and nationally normed tests. I really do feel like it’s going to require a paradigm shift with all of our superintendents across the country. 

How will you keep momentum for change going beyond the pandemic?

This global pandemic has forced us to provide low-income communities with technology we used to beg for many, many years ago. This global pandemic has allowed us to bring meals into our communities so students are not just getting breakfast and lunch, but they’re also getting dinner. We haven’t evicted people in cities.

Now some people aren’t experiencing some of the stress that was coming before the pandemic. Now they’re getting supports. For the academic achievement component, while we’re going to experience some gaps right now we might be able to remedy, we have to provide the professional learning for our educators, because they’re now having to learn to teach in a different way. 

This global pandemic is probably one of the toughest times we’ve had. But it is also an opportunity. 

This lets us know that, moving forward, we’re going to have to demand more funding, and we can’t go back to the funding amounts we were receiving prior to the global pandemic. If the country can afford to give us tech, meal programs, [and] all of these additional [federal] CARES Act funds while the entire world is in a global pandemic, there’s no reason they can’t do it when we get out of it. 

I hope we will remember that. “OK, you all did it at the most vulnerable time in America, so why can’t you do it now?” That’ll be my mantra moving forward.

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