Race Talks: the bridge, the journey, the work
By Renee Jacobs
“We must teach the way students learn, rather than expecting them to learn the way we teach.”
— Pedro Noguera
The journey of reflection on race and education for me began as a college student. I had been raised in a predominantly African-American community where 95% of the students and a high percentage of the teachers and administrators looked like and communicated similarly to my African-American family. When I made the decision to attend West Chester University in the late 80’s, the student population was approximately 10% students of color and the professors were significantly less racially diverse. Although no one attempted to make me feel different at West Chester University, I felt very alone. As a seventeen-year-old freshman with a strong sense of history and culture, I still felt unsure of myself initially when it was time to contribute to class discussions or request help when I needed additional clarity on the material. I understand now that my professors had no sense of my isolation. They smiled politely and said hello, while conducting business as usual. They had no sense that my urban high school hadn’t used the same language or resources in the classroom. They didn’t understand the hypervisability that I felt when I had to enter the room a few minutes late while every eye in the room seemed to say, “the Black Girl is late today.” When I look back on my undergraduate transcript today, I can definitely see the difference between the time that I started that racial and cultural transition and the time that I finally achieved some sense of belonging in my new community. My time at West Chester turned out to be one of the most rewarding times of my life. It also became the foundation for my ongoing inquiry about the intersection of race and achievement.
The first time that I reflected on this topic as a professional was when President Bush enacted the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative. It became obvious that “good” districts were not yielding high achievement results for all children. In fact, in some cases, students of color were not performing any better in the wealthier suburban districts than students in the financially-challenged urban districts. Research shows that black and brown students have historically struggled to obtain the foundational building blocks necessary to fully access a quality education. Based on my experiences as a student, I noticed that certain teachers made me feel welcomed and connected to the classroom; the material usually made sense in those spaces. According to Maslow’s Theory, students must have their basic physical and safety needs met, as well as a feeling of belonging before they can even begin to journey to the summit of self-actualization. Could this be related to the data that suggests an “achievement gap?”
During my tenure with the West Chester Area School District (WCASD), the administration recognized a racial pattern in students that were not meeting benchmarks. WCASD began to explore why black and brown students were not scoring the same as their white peers. District leaders observed that race, particularly as it relates to education, was an uncomfortable topic for most of the employees. They established a partnership with a professional organization tasked with providing inquiry- based work related to race and the “achievement gap.”
We began the work of embedding protocols that support culturally relevant practices. The overall goal is to improve the teachers’ understanding of the unique perspectives of students and colleagues of color, thereby improving communication, relationships, and effective delivery of instruction, all leading to increased student learning.
From the beginning, the plan was to create an equity team that would plan for implementation of the protocols in each school, and allow for the phasing out of the consultants. I had the privilege of serving as one of these district-level equity trainers; the experience resulted in my personal growth and healing due to the authenticity of the conversations that I shared with my colleagues over the years. I have come full circle from my awkward days as a freshman at West Chester University. Far from being isolated or merely tolerated, my voice and unique perspective became a part of the community conversation. I relish the thought that as a result of this process, teachers will give their students the gifts of authenticity and individuality in the classroom. Being an active participant in a learning community that has the tools to values all perspectives, seek the untold stories, and welcome authentic relationships without fear of offense drastically increase the likelihood of student learning. I don’t believe that WCASD has all of the answers as a result of this journey. However, I have observed less discomfort as employees engaged in discussions with colleagues and students about the intersection of race and achievement, culture, and life. In addition, the district wide achievement data on black and brown students showed some gains. As educators we must quiet the voices of fear in our communities and commit to this kind of courageous inquiry-based work.
Renee Jacobs is currently a middle school Reading Specialist and English teacher. She has been employed in several Chester County school districts for the past twenty years and has taught students from preschool through the eighth grade. Mrs. Jacobs is a 2012 Fellow of the PA Writing and Literature Project. She enjoys reading, writing, church participation, and spending time with family.