Confronting race, racism and privilege in schools

How educational leaders can help promote inclusivity in schools

Although the country is becoming increasingly diverse, our schools remain racially and economically segregated. High poverty schools with large proportions of students of color often have less experienced teachers, more transitory populations and challenges in providing a safe environment.

While most educational choice policies expand access to different types of schooling for students, few explicitly target racial and socioeconomic desegregation. One policy, interdistrict desegregation, does so by allowing students to move across district boundaries.

Here we focus on the Rochester, New York, Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program (USITP) to examine the challenges and opportunities in shifting toward more integrated environments.

Research study

Rochester City School District serves 32,000 students (approximately 89 percent non-white and 88 percent low-income). It is located in Monroe County, which is 73 percent white and home to 17 suburban school districts. Students are eligible to participate in USITP if they live in the city, are in grades K through 8 and are a minority as defined by the state.

Our team interviewed 53 parents of participating students to better understand their experiences. We found that race was an issue in three thematic areas:

Students faced individual racial stereotypes. Parents described stereotypes around blackness or representation of blacks. Much of this was described as covert or ignorant, with a focus on how children looked, talked or acted.
Students faced negative portrayals of city neighborhoods as violent and unsafe.
Students faced institutional and structural racism nested in the policies and procedures of the program or receiving districts. This included assumptions about academic levels, structures and policies relevant to race, and beliefs of predominantly white staff.

The narratives forced us to reflect on three things educational leaders should do. They must address negative stereotypes. They must ensure that educators have the knowledge and skills to create environments that build on the strengths of all communities. Finally, they must reduce institutional barriers. This requires structural, systemic and political introspection, confrontation and action.

Confronting race

Administrators, boards of education, families, communities and students must begin to have frank, open and direct conversations about how race relates to both achievement and the school experience.

School leaders must also look closely at data pertaining to achievement, discipline and school climate as it relates to race, and be willing to openly discuss how to close gaps.

Targeting PD and training

PD must be an integrated experience, especially when considering the academic success of each student and the impact of racial and ethnic shifts occurring in school districts. Instead of the more traditional forms of PDÑsuch as workshopsÑ”reform professional development” is necessary to include cultural competence coaching during the regular school day in the educator’s environment.

Aligning beliefs, practices, policy

The next step is to entrench core beliefs around racial equity and access. These beliefs should be nonnegotiable and inform practice and policy. Clearly establishing the belief system is a critical first action. This allows leaders to strategically redesign school experiences by addressing historic and institutional racismÑmoving from complacency to action by aligning beliefs with current practices and policies.

As our nation’s schools become more racially diverse, educators must confront race through dialogue, training and review of data. They can then create accepting and inclusive environments for all families, and reduce the negative stereotypes and institutional racism that continues to exist.

Kara S. Finnigan is associate professor of education leadership at the Warner School of Education of the University of Rochester. Lesli C. Myers is superintendent of Brockport Central School District in New York. Shaun Nelms is deputy superintendent of East High School in Rochester City School District. Kevin McGowan is superintendent of New York’s Brighton Central School District.