DISMANTLING SYSTEMIC RACISM IN THE SCHOOLS:
A Grassroots Strategy
Thanks to Black Lives Matter – the New York Times estimated that up to 25 million people were in the streets worldwide in the months of May and June, 2020 – the issue of systemic racism and how to dismantle it has risen to the fore of the political discourse.
Clearly, the police represent the front line of systemic racism, as indicated by the fact that although Blacks represent 13% of the population, they comprise 36% of police killings.
Defunding the Police as a demand raised by BLM effectively addresses this issue by hitting them where they live – in their budgets: if you don’t stop killing Black people, we’re going to take away your money.
But systemic racism is hardly limited to the criminal justice system. Systemic racism is embedded in every aspect of U. S. capitalism, so much so that to eliminate racism may require the elimination of capitalism itself.
One of the primary institutions perpetuating system racism is the education system.
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum:
After the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, all slave states except Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write. For example, in 1831 and 1832 statues were passed in Virginia prohibiting meetings to teach free blacks to read or write and instituting a fine of $10 – $100 for teaching enslaved blacks. (https://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Literacy-as-Freedom.pdf)
While it’s no longer illegal to teach Black people to read, the education system nevertheless effectively enforces differential education practices that perpetuate much lower levels of literacy in the Black and Brown communities than in white communities.
This is not an accident. Results reflect intentions. The purpose of the education system is to reproduce the class and race stratification of society to train the ruling class to maintain leadership, the middle class to provide technical and other support, and the working class to function minimally to keep the wheels of commerce turning — as well as to ensure the continued oppression of Black and Brown people in particular. Every aspect of that system contributes to this purpose from public schools, to charter schools, to private schools, to public colleges, to private universities.
Some examples of how systemic racism works in the schools:
1. Standardized testing (beginning with the racist IQ tests)
2. Tracking (placing Black and Brown students in lower tracks or learning groups)
3. Discipline (way higher suspension rate for Blacks)
4. Segregation, both de facto and de jure
5. Standards (Common Core and others which force grade level teaching on students who are below grade level, rather than teaching them where they are)
7. The vilification of Spanish and African American Vernacular (Ebonics). (If the API/AYP school rating systems had a bilingual component, many inner city schools would surpass suburban schools)
8. Any evaluation of students: placing a value on a child based on how much they know
9. General emphasis on competition as opposed to cooperation
10. The egregious lack of teachers of color many of whom are prevented from becoming teachers by racist testing and financial requirements
11. Class sizes which prevent teachers from providing needed individual attention
12. The whole idea that children as young as six should be made to sit still and listen for six hours a day
13. The general curriculum which fails to reflect the cultures and history of Black and Brown students (racist textbooks, lack of ethnic studies programs)
14. The grotesque underfunding of public schools (California in particular)
15. The continuing protection of racist and racially insensitive teachers and administrators by seniority provisions of teachers’ contracts (As recently as 2017, a principal of an elementary school rolled his eyes at me when a Black parent demanded to know what the curriculum her child’s teacher was using)
16. The horrible food in schools
17. The exclusion of parents from any real decision-making power, despite ineffective window-dressing of “parent engagement” programs” – particularly in the hiring and firing of teachers and principals.
18. The closing of public schools in low income neighborhoods
19. The proliferation of untested charter schools to enhance a privatization agenda
20. State takeovers of urban school districts
21. The inferior conditions of schools in low income neighborhoods
22. The oppressive climate of most schools suppressing all traces of the joy of learning
The list could go on, but you get the idea. The education system in the U.S. is thoroughly and perhaps irredeemably racist.
But maybe not irredeemably. This article will present a grassroots strategy for dismantling systemic racism in the schools – school by school. The principle element of this strategy is an alliance of parents and teachers. It is a strategy that I have attempted to implement for the past fifty years, with mixed success.
This strategy is based on the relationships of the people in the building of an individual school. An authentic alliance between teachers and parents at a school is a powerful thing, and so we will start there.
The COVID crisis gives us new opportunity to reinvent the schools. It’s clear that some forces want to go all New Orleans privatization on us, as well as replace teachers with robots. At the same time, our schools are connected electronically as never before, an organizer’s dream. If the crisis is over by the time you’re reading this, the principles are still valid. Replace Zoom with one-on-one meetings.
The following suggestions are directed to teachers and parents interested in implementing this strategy.
- As a teacher, get to know the families of the children/students in your class(es). Have them all on Zoom chat. Check in with them daily. Get to know their strengths and their struggles.
- This is easier said than done. Most teachers have to overcome professionalism to take this step. White teachers will need to resist the racism that we’ve taken in with our mother’s milk. However, the best antidote to fear of people of color is to get to know people of color.
- As a parent, get to know your child’s teacher, as well as other parents in your child’s class. Establish an email list and hold Zoom meetings. Teaching is a stressful job, so offer support to the teacher as much as you can. Sometimes just listening can be immensely helpful.
- As a teacher or a parent, act as a resource for the families. If they need food, send them to Food Banks. If someone is ill, help them find the appropriate assistance. If the child or student in your class needs extra tutoring, give it to them, or find someone who can.
- Exchange emails with the parents and the students. Encourage the students to send emails to you and to each other. Consider it a writing exercise. Ask who can come up with the shortest story.
- To the extent possible, teach the families to navigate the technology, to find Wikipedia, to learn how to program. Teach them how to use Scratch or another simple programming languages.
- As a teacher or a parent, organize virtual fieldtrips to museums on-line. Help them explore topics they’re interested in. There’s no end to curricular ideas that can be enhanced by technology. It’s just not in the Pearson-video-game- phonics direction that school administrations will try to steer everyone toward.
- As a teacher or a parent, encourage students and parents write to their state and Washington representatives demanding schools get a pandemic bailout and fund schools at double the current rate.
- As a teacher, meet the parents of students in your class together on Zoom and listen to their concerns, have them imagine a dream school to create once the crisis is over.
- As a teacher or a parent, tell the other teachers and parents that you want to organize a parent-teacher alliance for your school and meet (remotely) with teachers who like the idea. Not all will. It’s better than it used to be when I was teaching, but too many teachers blame the parents for their children’s challenges. Too few blame the racist society.
- Find the parents and teachers most committed to building such an alliance and encourage them to run for the School Site Council. Once the council is elected, suggest they facilitate a school-wide conference on a Saturday and select a committee to organize it.
- Reach out to teachers and parents in other schools, and to some extent, the teachers’ union. You don’t want union folk to dominate because the union agenda can conflict with the parent agenda on personnel issues (cf. the New York Techer’s Strike of 1968). The parent teacher alliance (whatever you call it) should form an alliance with the teachers union on issues they agree on, like more funding. Seniority, not so much.
Those are the basics. In any case, you need to be prepared to be attacked, because a parent teacher alliance is an existential threat to the education establishment. But a unified movement can overcome these attacks.
I wanted to start with these twelve suggestions because they’re the conclusion of my fifty years in education, what I want people to hear. How I got here is a long story,
I taught for thirty years in the San Francisco public schools, mostly preschool. I was involved with numerous struggles allied with parents, mostly at first to keep my own job, later to keep a childcare center open. This struggle has been fictionalized in my novel, White Knight, which you can check out on my website. http://henryhitz.com/,
Long story short, my wife, Earldean (I’m white, she’s black) and I were living in a predominantly Black housing project in the south of San Francisco, Geneva Towers. I worked in the childcare center, rode the elevator to work. After Proposition 13, the school district tried to close the center. The parents organized and took over the center and continued to operate it as a nonprofit for eighteen months, until the grant money dried up.
In 1996, my family moved to Oakland. As our son hit school-age, and I became an Oakland public school parent myself, I met with Alice Spearman, the chair of the District Advisory Council (who was later elected to the school board), and we started a new organization, Oakland Parent Organizing Committee (OPOC). We were a feisty little group, mostly Black and Latinx, Terry Jordon, Valerie Denice Alexander, Rich Harper, Cedric Long, Les Morones were some of the founding members.
In October 2000, OPOC got invited to join the steering committee of a coalition of parent groups, spearheaded by Lance Tsang, head of ARC Associates, an education non-profit. The coalition called itself Oakland Parents Together (OPT) with the purpose of organizing a city-wide parent conference. They were looking to hire someone to organize it. Since I had retired from my teaching job, I raised my hand and got hired. We held the first such conference in January, and it was a huge success, with 300 parents attending some 30 workshops on all kinds of subjects related to schooling, from making soap with your kids to organizing a school site council at your school. We organized three such conferences over the next three years and I became an employee (Project Director) at ARC.
To sustain OPT between conferences, we got a grant to develop a Family Resource Center (FRC) at Allendale Elementary School. One of the first things we included as a service to parents at that school was a parenting class facilitated by Hand in Hand Parenting (handinhandparenting.org), an organization founded by Patty Wipfler, the parent leader of the co-counseling movement.
Over the next five years, OPT ran not only the FRC, but the after-school program, the Parent Group, the ESL class for parents, and the Supplemental Educational Services (SES) tutoring program [a part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)]. And we were engaged with both parents and teachers to develop the “school improvement plan,” required by NCLB.
Then, in the spring of 2005, the principal decided to transfer two of the most active and well-regarded teachers. OPT called a meeting, and the parents voted to hold a one-day boycott the day before Cesar Chavez Day and a weeklong spring break. 85% of the students stayed home. Even though in self-preservation I personally tried to disassociate myself somewhat from the action, I was summarily fired by ARC.
While I’d had the foresight to get nonprofit status for OPT a couple years earlier, we went from a $300,000 budget to zero. In retrospect, I vacillate from feeling like our support for the boycott was a mistake and the feeling that we did the right thing. My son reinforced the latter conclusion when he wrote for one of his college admissions essays that what he learned from the experience of his father losing his job was that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe no matter what happens.
The Allendale experience was close to a model of how a parent-teacher alliance could transform a school. As powerful as we were, we played our hand too early and underestimated the ferocity of the administrative retribution. While holding the boycott on the day before spring break doubtlessly increased the number of participating families, it also caused us to lose momentum and allowed the administration to regroup.
OPT was able to rebuild itself over the next few years, establishing tutoring programs at several schools. We developed a parent workshop, based on Patty Wipfler’s pamphlets, called “Listening to Children – and to Each Other.” In 2009, we secured a grant from Alameda County First 5, an organization established by statewide ballot initiative to tax cigarettes for programs serving children aged 0-5. For 3 years, we facilitated such workshops in several OUSD Child Development Centers in the low-income neighborhoods of the city, as well as in the Oakland Housing Authority projects. We were able to field an impressive team, and I want to honor some of our staff: Kwame Nitoto, LaQuisha Cowan, Lavenia Charles, Flor and Laura Chavez, Matilde Hollander Ortiz, Linda Grayson, Bilquis Alawi, and the current Executive Director, Katrina Marsh, along with so many others.
In the summer of 2010, the Oakland school district announced that it was closing seven Child Development Centers, including three where we had held our workshops. OPT called a large meeting of parents and proposed that we have a “People’s Takeover” of the centers – we could keep them open using volunteers until we could establish them as private non- profit centers. The plan was based on our experience with the Geneva Towers experience in San Francisco.
We were less confrontational than we were with the Allendale boycott, working with the district as much as possible to send a message to the state. We consulted with then Superintendent Tony Smith, and he supported the idea. I had known Tony from various workshops before he became Superintendent. My sense is he was being told to close the centers by the state, but he didn’t want to, and our strategy gave him cover. I think it’s important to realize that many people in administrative positions are more progressive than they are allowed to behave in their positions. Sometimes they’ll act as allies.
The logistics were daunting, however, and rather than risk the public relations disaster of such a takeover, the school board was able to find the 3.2 million dollars to keep five of the seven centers open. This was our biggest victory.
The next year we responded to a Request for Qualifications from First 5 to implement Parent Cafés in Oakland. We didn’t know that much about Parent Cafés, but with a little study we realized they were highly compatible with our workshop series, and we were awarded the contract.
In the Parent Cafés we train parents to facilitate conversations with each other to enable them to strengthen their families. It’s a very powerful program that meets parents exactly where they are and gives them space to explore what they need to talk about. Our West Oakland cafes, funded by Oakland Fund for Children and Youth (OFCY), drew 30 parents a week, half black, half Yemeni, 50 weeks a year. The Parent Café remains the signature program of OPT, though I retired from the organization in 2018.
The Parent Café program, developed by Be Strong Families (bestrongfamilies.org) is not designed to engage the schools politically, but it does train parent leaders. We were able to use the organizing to support a more political agenda. We watched the Clinton-Sanders debate together. We convinced the city to clean up a garbage-strewn lot near one of our schools. We developed a plan and petition drive for the schools to hire parents as instructional assistants.
We also developed a spin-off from the Parent Café which we called the School Café, where we invited teachers and parents in mixed groups of four to six people to discuss three questions: 1. What’s great about your school? 2. What needs to change? 3. As a parent, where do you need a hand from the teachers; as a teacher where do you need a hand from the parents? We implemented this program in three schools, but never found the funding to test its full potential in building the parent-teacher alliance.
From our story, it is clear that working within the non-profit sector to organize people for fundamental social change is a tricky business. The sector is largely funded by the billionaire class (First 5 and OFCY are exceptions to this) as a deliberate effort to force people who want social change to jump through their hoops to chase their dollars. Schools too are designed to keep poor people poor and don’t respond flexibly to radical challenge, to put it mildly. Results reflect intentions. But if you are able to slalom through the contradictions, seriously powerful organizing can flourish.
OPT’s use of what we called the dyad – two parents listening to each other for five minutes each – has been a critical factor in our success. Many organizations use this technique as an icebreaker, but we based our whole organization on it. We’ve sometimes referred to it as “knitting the fabric of the new society.” Connecting people on a human level is the most important aspect of organizing. Meeting people exactly where they are is another essential element.
The parent-teacher alliance remains a key strategy in transforming both the schools and the society as a whole. I can imagine a time when the alliance at individual schools is so strong that the parents and teachers step up to run the school themselves based on who’s in the building. Forget the standards and the tests. Focus on the children or students. Figure out what they know and what they need to know, one by one. Help them learn how to get along with each other. And make it as enjoyable as possible. Schools should be judged on the joy factor, a simple survey which asks students, teachers, parents, and staff on a scale of one to ten: How much joy do you experience in school on a daily basis?