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Educators discuss ways to elevate the Black student experience

41 Action News hosts virtual town hall
Black educators virtual town hall
Posted at 1:29 PM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 14:29:42-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — 41 Action News hosted a virtual town hall with Black educators around Kansas City to open a conversation about racial inequities, representation, leadership in education and much more.

The town hall, facilitated by 41 Action News anchor Rae Daniel, put the experiences of Black students and educators at the forefront of the discussion.

In the Kansas City Public Schools system, a 2019 equity review by SchoolSmart showed students performed 16% worse on English language arts and math efficiency scores than the state’s average. The bottom 5% of schools have at least a 90% Black student population.

“Just wanting our kids to meet that state average is not enough. We should want exceedingly more for our students,” said Samara Crawford Herrera, director of community partnerships for SchoolSmartKC. "It's just a departure point. Here's what we know, and what can we do?”

One of the things teachers said school systems can do is debunk the traditional style of learning to which many generations are accustomed. The pandemic has allowed teachers to explore different ways to learn, including virtually.

“Our systems are broken, so this is a perfect time ... to plan a new system with effective outcomes with this type of leadership that we're seeing here — with advocacy and the financing to go behind it, and the policy, of course,” said LeAnne Richardson, instructor with Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools.

The shift to virtual learning allowed educators to reconnect with families. For example, team members at Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy check in with families on a biweekly basis. The conversations are more focused on the families’ social-emotional well-being than academics.

“The main commitment that we've honored is love and relationships,” said Tara Haskins, school leader and cofounder of KC Girls Prep. “If that is the only thing we get right this year — that a scholar and families feel loved, and that they feel safe — then we are just far beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”

The teachers also explored other ways the students can feel seen and connected. They recognized not only have the next generation of leaders experienced a health crisis in the pandemic but a racial pandemic as well. After the death of Geroge Floyd in May 2020, teachers said students had many questions.

Many students simply asked, “Why?”

LaKrystal McKnight is a special education teacher with the Shawnee Mission School District. She said her district, which is staffed with predominantly white educators, has made efforts to ensure Black students and teachers feel safe.

“A lot of times in schools we shy away from these topics because they're controversial when our kids need an outlet, they need to talk to us. We are with them more hours of the day than their families are. We need to give them the opportunity to share what they're feeling and what they're experiencing,” McKnight said.

The Black educators stressed the importance of taking care of their own mental health. Many said it's vital to process their own feelings regarding current events before educating students.

“I told my students that I'll never pretend like the world isn't happening in the classroom,” said Jermaine Thompson, Pembroke Hill Upper School English teacher and adjunct UMKC professor.

Thompson is a Black man who teaches English at a predominately white school. One educator called Black male teachers “unicorns” because of their rarity.

Thompson said some of his students have mentioned that his classroom discussions have more credibility because they come from him, a Black man, as opposed to a teacher who doesn't look like him.

George Jefferson was another Black male teacher speaking on the town hall panel. He shared his experience of being told he wouldn't be able to go to college because his handwriting wasn’t neat enough.

Jefferson said those messages translated to “you couldn’t do my job,” essentially, because of his darker complexion. He also said he lacked Black male educators as role models when he was going through school.

“If you don't see yourself in a space, it's hard for you to imagine that possibility," Jefferson said. "If you're not shown the possibility, it's hard for you to manifest in a lot of ways. I think it's really powerful for us to show our kids ... who we are, what it means to be Black, the rich culture, the rich history."

Representation in schools is a tool that can break barriers for people of any race. Herrera said it can change the narrative about Black students, leaders, and educators.

Some school districts, such as KCKPS, have a commitment to have staff who look like the students they serves.

Richardson mentioned how every staff member can make a difference, including bus drivers or food service workers.

“Systems work exactly the way they are designed to work, and if they're not working for our Black and brown kids, it’s time to blow it up. We gotta figure out something better or different," Herrera said.

The town hall concluded with a discussion about the realm of possibilities to address the needs of Black students. Dismantling the current measure of achievement, using more resources to build connections, and valuing a student's perspective were some of the ideas mentioned.