How This District Is Confronting the ‘Brutal Facts’ of Racism

Providence Schools is facing a second pandemic: racism. That warning comes from Superintendent Harrison Peters. “George Floyd[’s murder] hit us like a ton of bricks,” he says. “I mean, how do I react? What do I even do? For a while, we had to play catch up."

Peters became superintendent on January 27, about a month and a half before schools nationwide began closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, as well as nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, have highlighted for Peters the inequalities that plague his district. A scathing Johns Hopkins University report, published in June 2019, pointed to dire academic outcomes and a lack of commitment to racial equity in a district with 85 percent students of color, and where 80 percent of teachers are white. The report prompted a state takeover of schools.

Peters wants to end inequity, starting by opening up a district-wide conversation about race. “You can imagine the discomfort some of our white teachers have discussing race,” Peters says. “But we are not going to hide from racism. We are going to face the brutal facts. Racism exists within our school system and we want to eradicate it.” Here are four ways Providence Schools is making these words a reality.

1. Providing Teachers with Resources They Need to Talk About Race

Teachers and administrators told Providence Schools leaders that they wanted to have conversations about race with students but didn’t know how to go about it. So, Chief Equity Officer Barbara Mullen designed the online toolkit “Say Their Names” to provide guidance. (“Say Their Names” refers to some of the Black people recently killed by police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.)

“Kids are having emotional reactions to George Floyd’s death,” Peters says. “Teachers who are uncomfortable having those conversations will just shut them down. This toolkit shows how to talk through those feelings with students, how to have those emotionally-charged conversations, starting with ‘What are you feeling?’ and ‘Why are you feeling that way?’”

The toolkit calls on teachers to educate themselves on why protests are happening and cautions them not to rely on Black people to share their feelings or explain recent events. The resources highlighted help educators to:

  • Support youth as they cope with the trauma of current events; use restorative practices to host healing spaces; find ways to support their own mental and emotional well-being.
  • Talk about race remotely with students of different ages and races without causing further trauma.
  • Be critical of how stories are told in the media, and hold the media and themselves accountable for the information they share.
  • Learn what it means to be anti-racist and work toward becoming an anti-racist educator.

2. Holding Equity Office Hours for Teachers, Administrators, and Community Members

Providence Schools instituted “equity office hours” to support teachers, principals, and community members who need personalized guidance. Office hours can take the form of a direct conversation with Chief Equity Officer Barbara Mullen, or anti-bias training, depending on what’s needed. A principal could invite a group of teachers to practice the conversations they would like to have with students or come to office hours for advice on, say, how to set up student advisory times for conversations about race or a particular aspect of the protests.

“The principal has the chance to ask: ‘Barbara, can you help me with this? What are the right tools? Point me to the right resources to help me with this problem I’m experiencing right now,’” Peters explains.

During one session, Mullen provided training on implicit bias for the community advisory board as part of the school improvement process. The focus was on how we enter a conversation with a set of assumptions, or biases. “Her advice was to step back, look at the data, and stay very low on the ladder of inference,” Peters says, referring to our thinking process, from receiving data to drawing a conclusion.

3. Implementing Anti-Racist Curriculum and Literacy Training for Teachers

According to the Johns Hopkins report, the Providence Schools curriculum didn’t reflect the experiences of students of color who make up the majority of the student body. Now, all elementary and middle schools use the American Reading Company curriculum, which includes embedded anti-racist literacy training for teachers and culturally-responsive teaching pedagogy and texts. Bottom line, kids will see people of color in the books they read.

Anti-racist curriculum in the younger grades is about being self-aware and reading books “that show how we all bring something special to the table, and that build appreciation for others who may not look like you,” Peters says. At the high school level, students might explore a James Baldwin poem, study the Emmett Till case or George Floyd murder, or talk about white fragility. “The higher the grade, the more sophisticated and deeper the conversations,” Peters says. “We want this kind of teaching to be in the tapestry and the drinking water of our district. All of these things are helpful in moving the needle around anti-racism.”

4. Allowing Students to Lead the Way on Race Reform

Students in the district have demanded a voice in the changes taking place as a result of the state takeover. They have asked for more teachers of color, a culturally responsive curriculum, and student-led talks with teachers about racism. Soon, thanks to student advocacy, ethnic studies will be taught in all of the district’s high schools. And in the fall, the program “Diversity Talks” will bring youth-led professional development on equity to Providence Schools. Students will share their experiences with the goal of helping teachers confront racism, acknowledge privilege, and ultimately build better relationships with their students.

Peters has been proactive about getting students involved in decision-making. In the spring, he asked a group of students to weigh in on how to grade during school closures. The students persuaded the superintendent to institute a pass-fail grading system, arguing that it would be unfair to punish students who did not have reliable internet access.

“Our students have leaned into becoming social activists,” Peters says. “They feel very strongly about doing no harm. This is what happens when you are cognizant of giving students a voice, and not just paying them lip service.”

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