How one of nation’s biggest districts talks about race and racism

A look at the framework Broward County schools educators use to lead discussions about equity, diversity and tolerance
Superintendent Robert Runcie, Broward County Public Schools
Superintendent Robert Runcie, Broward County Public Schools

One change in behavior that can begin to dismantle systemic racism and implicit biases in K-12 education involves the hundreds of “discretionary moments” that occur during the school day.

These are the moments when a teacher may alter facial expressions and body language—whether consciously or unconsciously—when different students raise their hands or behave in certain ways, says Superintendent Robert Runcie of Broward County Public Schools.

“These things are rooted in our history, our perceptions, our biases,” says Runcie, who has been working over the last several years to build the cultural competence of the educators in his district. “Those discretionary moments can have a significant impact on student learning and engagement.”

One of Runcie’s primary tools has been Courageous Conversation, a professional development framework that guides administrators, teachers and other school staff in leading discussions about race, diversity and tolerance.

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When the district launched Courageous Conversation, 300 teachers trained to become equity liaisons to champion the program’s goals with their colleagues and to work with their principals to develop school-based equity plans.

While the program isn’t mandatory, Runcie has encouraged central office leaderships, principals and assistant principals in his South Florida district to participate in Courageous Conversation professional development sessions this year

“Our schools can be ground zero for a better dialogue, for a better level of conversation among adults who can better prepare the next generation to behave in ways that are an improvement on what we see going on today,” Runcie says.

Transforming teaching practices

Many educators and community members are hungry to discuss these issues, particularly in the wake of the shooting deaths of George’s Floyd and Breonna Taylor, says Glenn E. Singleton, who created Courageous Conversation through his consulting firm, Pacific Educational Group.

“This is a profession where people are dedicated to making sure the next generation has what it needs to be successful,” Singleton says. “It’ s a very sensitive area to say, ‘with all the incredible things you’re doing, there are still these parts we want you to pay attention to because of the of results—because bias is showing up in curriculum and instruction.”

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These discussions start with the educators themselves, regardless of their background, examining how race has impacted their lives and shaped their beliefs.

This leads educators to discover the role race plays in their teaching and leadership practices, Singleton says.

Glenn Singleton, Courageous Conversation
Glenn Singleton, Courageous Conversation

This process spans practices as simple as learning to pronounce students’ names correctly to understanding and appreciating nuances in how different students express their knowledge, Singleton says.

The fact that the educators in a district as large as Broward can take on this work should serve as a model for other districts hoping to make progress on race, he adds.

“People from very different racial perspectives, backgrounds and experiences can talk about topics in ways that lead to a transformation in their practices,” Singleton says.

Embedding equity across the curriculum

Broward County schools, one of the nation’s most diverse districts, serves students from more than 200 different countries.

As part of the Courageous Conversation initiative, Runcie and his team are now modifying the curriculum to make instruction more relevant to students of all socio-economic backgrounds.

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The district has also made social justice a key focus of its speech and debate program, which is the largest in the nation. Debate is now offered in all high schools and middle schools and almost all of Broward’s elementary schools, Runcie says.

Broward leaders are also looking to distribute resources more equitably. For instance, some schools need funding than others to fortify early literacy programs.

“It is enormously difficult for a young person to be the best they can be, academically or otherwise, if they’re dealing with a bunch of social-emotional issues, many of them grounded in issues of race,” Runcie says.

“If you’re really serious about closing achievement gaps, if you’re serious about giving all students an equitable opportunity for success, this is ground zero for creating a culture that’s going to enable you to do that.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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