As schools in the United States try to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, they're also opening during a racial reckoning across the country.
Last month, a Black sixth-grade teacher in Milton, Massachusetts, was briefly placed on administrative paid leave because of remarks she made about police violence and the killing of George Floyd. After an uproar, the school district reversed the decision and pledged to consider an anti-racism curriculum.
Some schools like Albemarle County in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area already have an anti-racism curriculum in place. Yet some, such as the Miami-Dade School Board, are trying but finding it difficult to implement one.
Last year in Albemarle County, a largely white school district, school board members passed an anti-racism program called Reframing the Narrative. John Hobson, the project leader, says the program encompasses social studies classes in their middle and high schools. Students are encouraged to ask questions and interrogate power.
For instance, he says Reframing the Narrative has been working on a lesson related to Floyd and the importance of saying someone’s name, then connecting the concept to formerly enslaved people wanting to change their names after the Reconstruction period.
Saying one’s name “affirms their humanity,” Hobson says. Humanizing individuals both past and present lets students see history not “as inert or in the past,” but something that’s impacting the current moment.
Hobson, a white man, says he acknowledges his privilege and his duty to speak up for marginalized voices.
“In many cases, people like me have not been out front and have not been good allies,” he says. “So I think it's important in this time to certainly step forward.”
So far, the feedback from students across the board has been “very powerful,” he says.
Students have voiced their disappointment when discovering Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, he says, especially considering the county is home to where Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was located.
“Monticello is doing a great job of telling that story now, but I think there's been years and years of kind of telling a narrative that sort of conceals that history,” he says. “And so I think similarly, students really get frustrated and angry with their teachers when they feel like something's being hidden from them.”
Because of that, students are pushing faculty to do more, he explains. Part of that effort was students’ involvement in developing the anti-racism policy.
Discomfort oftentimes is a byproduct of conversations regarding race and racism. Hobson says the county turned to the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves for teacher resources and professional learning before jumpstarting these conversations with students.
Looking inward and identifying potential biases is a critical first step before teaching an anti-racism curriculum, he says. Second, Hobson advises teachers to consider what their students’ potential feelings might be.
Lastly, he says to give students an outlet to do something with the information they’re learning.
“I think it's important that students are given the space to kind of construct their own knowledge and understanding,” he says. “... I think that's really the goal of social studies. It's not for them just to become receptacles of facts, but really to sort of understand their past so that they can act in their present moment.”
In South Florida’s Miami-Dade County — where 71% of residents are Latinx — the school board voted 8-1 in favor of introducing an anti-racism curriculum like Albemarle County’s.
But even with a majority in favor, the school district — one of the country’s largest — quickly ran into opposition.
WLRN education reporter Jessica Bakeman says while there is no set plan for what the county’s curriculum will look like, the school board has the superintendent reviewing the existing curriculum, developing a curriculum that deals specifically with anti-racism, and creating a student task force to report back to the board quarterly.
“On August 12, the superintendent will bring that report to the school board and they can figure out going forward what exactly that anti-racism curriculum will look like,” she says.
Hundreds of residents flooded board members’ phones and email inboxes after a misinformation campaign regarding the new anti-racism school directive took hold in the county, she says.
Only one member of the board voted against the plan. Marta Pérez, a Cuban-American, said the plan would be a distraction from COVID-19.
During a virtual committee meeting in June regarding the initial anti-racism curriculum proposal, Pérez commented that in her opinion, “this school district is a shining example throughout the years of inclusion in all matters, including race, ethnicity, disabilities, et cetera. If there has ever been a wrong, we have stepped up and corrected it.”
Perez’s comment toward past injustices didn’t sit well with Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, a Black woman and fellow school board member.
Bakeman says Bendross-Mindingall was a “victim of the school district’s racism in the past.” In 1947, the city of Miami evicted Bendross-Mindingall’s family along with 34 other Black families by eminent domain “in order to make way for an all-white school,” Bakeman says.
“I'm the little girl who was put out of my house at 3 years old in the rain so that they could build a school," Bendross-Mindingall said seemingly in response to Pérez. "How dare you. How dare you. It didn’t stop there."
Bakeman says she’s also heard from teachers who believe the school district isn’t doing enough to educate staff.
Kalyn Lee, a Black English teacher and rookie teacher of the year for the school district in 2020, told Bakeman that Black teachers want to see more initiative from the school board to foster an anti-racism culture. She also said the district needs to listen to Black community members about their lived experiences.
While the school board waits for the superintendent to report back in mid-August, Bakeman says some action has been taken to incorporate conversations about Floyd’s death with students in virtual summer school. Some professional development for teachers about race and racism in the classroom also took place this summer.
While the debate over an anti-racism curriculum has sparked controversy, it’s also opened up a deeper conversation about the city's race relations. Bakeman points out that in the past and present, white-passing Latinx in Southern Florida enjoy “privilege and political power that Black communities there don't have access to.”
“Miami-Dade County is very diverse,” she says. “And because of that, many people in Miami believe that the city is somehow above racism or beyond racism.”
This segment aired on July 22, 2020.