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  • Kris Amundson

We have a lot to learn about race. Start with the public schools.

Our students need to know more about their history so they can honestly address the issues we face today.

If the past few weeks in Virginia have taught us anything, it’s that we have a lot of lessons to learn about race. As Gov. Ralph Northam addresses this tough issue, he must address race-related issues in our public schools. Here are four things he should do:

(1) Ask the Department of Education to review the Standards of Learning.

When the governor talked about Africans coming to Virginia as “indentured servants,” he was likely repeating what he had been taught in public school. As an April article in this newspaper noted, state-commissioned history books still in use in the 1970s presented a view of race that was, and I use the word advisedly, a whitewash.

Virginia’s Standards of Learning have undergone important revisions since then. But if the state’s racial history as presented in the SOLs is now more accurate, it’s certainly not prominent. Massive Resistance is not mentioned until 11th grade Virginia and United States history. There, it’s a minor entry in the accompanying 66-page Framework document.

The department should bring together scholars and teachers to develop resources and lesson plans — at all grade levels. Our students need to know more about their history so they can address the issues we face today.

(2) Ensure that students of color are not suspended for minor misbehavior.

You can’t learn if you’re not in school. But in Virginia, black students are more likely than their white peers to be suspended — even for minor violations. The Legal Aid Justice Center found that in 2016-17, black students were suspended at rates five times higher than Hispanics and whites. This gap was significantly wider than it had been the previous year.

Virginia’s experience tracks that of other states. Typically, suspensions for major offenses (such as bringing a weapon to school) are not the problem. Rather, it’s the judgment calls, particularly for things like “disrespect,” that account for the greatest racial variance.

Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended Obama-era discipline regulations aimed at reducing racial discipline disparities. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Virginia does not need to follow suit. More training for teachers, more support for students, and yes, the governor’s commitment to hiring more guidance counselors are better approaches.

(3) Listen to minority parents’ stories about what schools expect from their students.

I’m not a big fan of listening tours. But if the governor is set on doing one, may I suggest he schedule some sessions with black and Hispanic parents. He should ask about the expectations schools hold for their children. He’s likely to hear what I heard: that too often, schools and teachers just expect less of black and brown students. One story from my time chairing the Fairfax County School Board sums it up. A mother relayed her experience after her daughter received a C in algebra. The mother, who had a master’s degree, knew that grade was not good enough to get her daughter into the college of her choice.

She talked to the teacher, who dismissed her concern. “A C isn’t such a bad grade,” the teacher said. “It is at my house,” the parent responded.

There’s plenty of data to back up this story. Although black students made up about 23 percent of total enrollment in Virginia in 2016-17, fewer than 10 percent of those enrolled in gifted programs were black. Hispanic students represented about 15.5 percent of total enrollment, but just 8.4 percent of those in gifted programs. And black students make up just 1.69 percent of the student body in Fairfax County’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Virginia can do better.

(4) Take steps to diversify the teaching force.

All these issues could be helped by a more diverse teaching force. Here’s what we know: A Vanderbilt study found that black students are more likely to be identified as gifted if they attend schools with more black teachers. They are less likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline, according to the Brookings Institution. A Florida-based study even showed small but significant increases in student achievement depending on the race of the teacher.

Yet a recent report to the Virginia State Board of Education concluded, “The lack of diversity among our current educator workforce is significant.” While minority students make up roughly half of the state’s student population, only 21.4 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities.

Virginia is taking some steps, but other states are moving much faster. Mississippi, for example, has begun a “Grow Your Own” program, encouraging local school districts to identify, nurture, and recruit local students into teaching.

First published in Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 21, 2019 - Read the article here.

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