June 12 — 2:14 pm, 2020

Unencumbered hopes of an angry educator

Here are 10 ways to challenge the racial injustices in public schools.

Julio C. Nuñez

p10 fair funding rally harvey finkle Students and others attended a rally for fair school funding in September 2016. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
― James Baldwin

When educators across this country started this school year, no one imagined it would go like this. End like this.

In Philadelphia, as in most major U.S. cities, teachers and administrators commenced in the fall of 2019 with the same worries they’ve had for years: how to contend with the chronic underfunding of their schools; how to make up for the gap; and how to mitigate once again the negative impact of narrow metrics of student ability. No one anticipated that by late winter in 2020, they would suddenly stop teaching students in person, hugging them, and instead be prompted to master online teaching within days while juggling a worldwide pandemic and personal lives.

The root of my anger has to do with my awareness of racial injustice in schools and how it harms children. Adding to this is my struggle to comprehend why, in the United States of America, such profound disparities still persist.

It is time for every school district across this country to institutionalize antiracist policies to counter centuries-old willful neglect. The collateral benefit of policing reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests may not be enough to make headway in this area. Instead, it will need to be a deliberate, focused effort to champion difficult conversations with business and policy leaders and taxpayers to develop predictable and equitable revenue sources for public education.

Another cause of my anger is the shamefully high number of schools still named after white supremacists, who, if alive, would deny minority students the right to be fairly educated – or even exist. Philadelphia is no exception. My school is named after an individual known for stating: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Not only is this anachronistic at best, but at worst, asking students and staff to recite daily the name of such individuals is an affront to their dignity.

We know why the caged bird sings. It sings for freedom. It sings for justice. It sings for equality. It sings to be heard. It sings for a fair opportunity to fly. My hope is that change is within reach if, and only if, we all demand it. Below are 10 ways leaders can commit to tackling such injustices:

  • Make education budgets equitable. Ensure that district and school budgets reflect priorities that address the needs of their communities, particularly in urban and rural areas. This is how the moral argument is won. Pennsylvania is among the states that have the most inequitably funded schools.
  • Phase out police officers from schools. There is a prime opportunity for education leaders to reorient resources to hire counselors, behavior specialists, and mental health professionals. Handcuffs do not solve the underlying problems of disruptions that plague schools in urban settings.
  • Build a pipeline for teachers of color and meet need with experience. Invest, truly invest, in developing a pipeline of educators of color early on by having the best and brightest high school recruits attend local universities and participate in hands-on internships with a commitment to hire them. Additionally, incentivize the most experienced teachers to work in schools with the highest needs.
  • Diversify curricula. Conduct a comprehensive review of curricula to identify materials that sterilize history and offer only an anglo-centric view of the world, and replace them with culturally responsive and relevant academic texts.
  • Diversify school boards and cabinet positions. Provide explicit commitment of school boards and district leaders to seek and appoint minority members or trustees, or make it easier for these candidates to enter races for elected seats. This would ensure a diversity of perspectives and a check on each other’s biases.
  • Upgrade or build new school facilities. Ensure that all school facilities, including those in poverty-stricken areas, are safe and free of toxic elements like mold or asbestos. Broken windows, lack of air conditioning, poorly maintained HVACs, missing Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades or fire suppression systems, for example, make it difficult to argue that we really care about students and families.
  • Increase school staff capacity. Adopt comprehensive year-round professional development for all school personnel to develop cultural competencies and recognize and challenge conscious and unconscious biases.
  • Systematize and accelerate comprehensive student supports. Provide equitable academic, behavioral, and emotional support and develop metrics of success that accurately gauge students’ progress. Groups who need more help and attention in these areas include English language learners, children with special needs, and those whose trauma pushes others to make wrongful assumptions about their ability or worth.
  • Review school names. Embark on a thorough review of school names to identify those that no longer reflect their student demographic, and change their names to those that more closely embody school and community values.
  • Adopt Sanctuary School and Safe Zone policies. Codify protections to ensure a safe environment for all students, reaffirm the constitutional right of access to education, and protect the rights of undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations. Immigrants Rising affirms: “Schools and educational institutions do not have the legal authority or resources to engage in federal immigration enforcement and should not cooperate with federal agencies in their efforts to identify, detain or deport undocumented immigrant students.”

We will know we have made enough progress when the mother of a black child in North or West Philadelphia does not feel the need to have an attorney sit by her side in school meetings, just to be heard, and when the child with the most challenging behavior receives a helping hand and an unassuming ear instead of a suspension or handcuffs. We will know when a little girl in the poorest corner of South Side Chicago shows up to a school that looks like a school, is greeted by a teacher who represents her dreams and knows how to pronounce her name, and opens up a book with characters and superheroes that make her feel she is looking at a mirror, not just reading a story.

We will know we have made enough progress when the shame of our nation is told and taught in raw form, not sanitized because it makes the majority feel uncomfortable, guilty, or fearful of uprising. On this I say to white folks, imagine how the other side feels from the orchestrated silencing of their pain. Your apprehension and discomfort with the conversations on race and racial injustice happening all around is a small price to pay for the violence of indifference in the past. Progress cannot happen until the American apartheid is understood, felt, and challenged by your voices as well.

We will know we have made enough progress when an undocumented mother is not fearful of being indefinitely separated from her children on the way to school simply because she lacks a piece of paper that artificially deprives her of her humanity; when statues that honor men who are antithetical to the founding values of this country are taken down.

We are enduring two pandemics: an indiscriminate health pandemic that we will surely overcome, just as we did 100 years ago, and a pandemic of racism for which we are still struggling to find a vaccine, 400 years later and counting. … Until we find it, I shall remain an angry educator.

Julio C. Nuñez has taught and led schools in Philadelphia for 11 years. He was the founding principal and CEO of Independence Charter School West and now serves as an angry, yet hopeful, school principal in North Philadelphia.

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