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No longer colorblind

Schools' new approach turns racial issues into cultural lessons
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Open Meadow Middle School students Chris (left) and Manny head down the hall during passing time between classes. The PPS-wide equity training teaches staff to treat students as individuals, and be culturally responsive to their backgrounds and experiences.

A black teacher at a North Portland's Open Meadow School sent an email to fellow teachers and staff last week with the subject line of 'Whiteness,' asking for 'articles or anything that helps explain what 'Whiteness' is and the impact it has.'

At nearby Jefferson High School, the white principal is working with her majority-white teaching staff to be more culturally responsive to the largely black student body.

Across town at mostly white Mt. Tabor Middle School, the black principal is encouraging open discussions in the classroom about the recent black-on-white assault of a 14-year-old girl on a MAX train.

At Marshall Campus library last week, 70 Portland Public School teachers - all but 10 of them white - ranked themselves in order of their self-assessed 'White Privilege,' then candidly shared their feelings and experiences with racism.

Why all the talk about race in the schools, if we live in a nation where children 'will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?' to cite Martin Luther King Jr. on the anniversary of his birth this week?

For decades, it seemed that the right thing to do was foster a 'colorblind' society, where race doesn't matter - a la Stephen Colbert's 'I don't see color' shtick.

Now education and government leaders here and nationally have adopted the opposite thinking, that we must focus on race at all times - because not doing so is actually setting the cause of racial equality back even further.

'Without 'unpacking' race, White educators often attempt - whether intentionally or unintentionally - to make their colleagues of color as well as their students of color conform to the normalized conditions of White culture,' says Bay Area equity consultant Glenn Singleton in his 'Courageous Conversations about Race,' a training book used by school districts across the country, including Portland Public Schools.

'For educators, students and families of color, challenging White educators' mythical color blindness can lead to their further marginalization and often even stand in the way of their receiving critical resources, support and advancement.'

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Tribune Photos: Christopher Onstott • PPS teachers participate in a "Courageous Conversations" color line exercise last week, ranking themselves by their self-assessed "White Privilege" score (above) - which divided the teachers by race. The school district's equity plan says race will be a dedicated focus - rather than something that's ignored - in trying to boost student performance, attendance, graduation rates and overall success.

Schools' 'Care Team'

Since 2007, PPS has spent $1.7 million to contract with Singleton and his organization, Pacific Educational Group, for equity training. That includes $257,600 for the current school year, although PPS has recently begun to reduce its costs by training its staff as facilitators.

In the past year, the district has also adopted a Racial Equity Educational Policy, hired a chief equity officer to lead a new Office of Equity, and pushed equity work forward at 10 'Beacon Schools,' which are the pilot schools in transforming the culture in their buildings.

Each has its own Equity Team of teachers and staff who meet regularly to talk about how to address their disparities. Each building also has a 'Care Team' of teachers who are just starting their work this week. They will observe their colleagues' instructional practices and offer feedback to improve.

So far, all district administrators and principals have completed the training, which will soon be mandatory for all employees. The plan is to train all teachers during the next three years; a series of two-day seminars is under way, even though there has been some resistance by teachers who don't want to leave their classrooms to a substitute for that long.

The monumental effort is all part of the district's goal to close the racial achievement gap, the disparity in performance between white and minority students.

According to PPS data for 2010-11, the largest achievement gaps are between black and white students: 29 percentage points in seventh-grade writing; 33 points in eighth-grade algebra; 28 points for 10th graders on track to graduate. In third-grade reading, the largest gap is between Hispanic and white students: 38 percentage points.

When it comes to discipline, black students saw the highest referral rates at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Overall, black students accounted for 15 percent of the discipline referrals in 2010-11, compared to 4 percent for white students. Black students accounted for 27 percent of the total discipline-related incidents, compared to 7 percent for white students.

The gap in graduation rates is just as dismal. For the class of 2009, white students had a graduation rate of 61 percent; black students lagged behind at 44 percent, Native Americans and Hispanics were even further behind at 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

To anyone who insists that the achievement gap is socioeconomic, educators point out that poor white students still perform better than black students.

Lolenzo Poe, now in his fourth month as the district's chief equity officer, cautions against demanding a timeline for change. A cultural transformation could take three to five years, maybe seven, he says.

He and other leaders say there are already 'pockets of excellence' in the schools, but the goal is to build systemic change. There's already been a big boost in hiring teachers and administrators of color; more work has been laid out in the district's racial equity policy.

Poe bristles at any suggestion that the equity work could be solved by more investments in other strategies, like a longer school year, smaller class sizes, more summer and afterschool classes or parent education.

'We've done all that,' he says. 'But at the end of the day, this issue of race will still be there.'

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Tribune Photos: Christopher Onstott • PPS Chief Equity Officer Lolenzo Poe (right) shares a moment with State Sen. Margaret Carter at Roosevelt High School's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Poe says that people who don't see the value of the equity work are part of what he calls the 'microwave society - put it in for 30 seconds and have it done."

Interracial dialogue

Newcomers might find themselves extremely gratified, confused or enlightened by Courageous Conversations, a 270-page text that introduces a bevy of new lingo.

For instance, the lesson on 'White Talk' versus 'Color Commentary' describes the differences between typical communication styles, which sometimes result in frustration or misunderstanding.

White Talk is 'verbal, impersonal, intellectual and task oriented,' Singleton describes, while Color Commentary is 'nonverbal, personal, emotional and process oriented.'

'Safer interracial dialogue,' he writes, happens when we 'monitor' our styles and balance the conversation to ensure fuller participation - for instance, if a parent wants to hear from a teacher that her child is being respectful in class, while the teacher is just focusing on the child's academics.

The thinking is that such background will help teachers avoid labeling their students 'disrespectful' for talking out of turn in the classroom, says PPS equity specialist Paula DePass Dennis.

'They're not meaning to be, it's just who they are or that's what their communication style is,' she says. 'They need to not be penalized every time they do something that's natural to them. They're being penalized because it doesn't fit well in the structure we set up for them.'

Critics have attacked such thinking as Orwellian propaganda, saying it's those labels that feed harmful stereotypes and racism in the first place. There has been some resistance to the content in Portland, but leaders chalk it up to its sensitive nature.

'We still have people who are skeptical,' says Carla Randall, the district's chief academic officer. 'I think we're raising some people's stress level, holding them accountable for the outcome of kids of color.

'We're not just sitting around having a conversation. We're having difficult conversations about racism, whiteness and its impact on people of color. It's also common for people of privilege to not want that to happen. … We're very proud of how we're moving the work, but we have so much farther to go.'

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Tribune Photos: Christopher Onstott • Rosa Parks Elementary teacher Emma Ford runs a tight ship for her fourth-grade students, as she feels the weight of her job. She found last week's equity seminar powerful. "Race," she says, "is something I think about absolutely every day."

Fewer discipline issues

Sensitive or not, there's a buzz of excitement around change in the 10 Beacon Schools, now in their second year of carrying out the equity work. They are: Cesar Chavez, Boise-Eliot, Irvington and Vestal K-8 Schools; Mt. Tabor, Jackson and Hosford Middle Schools; Franklin and Jefferson High; and Open Meadow Schools.

One of the strategies is to infuse the curriculum with more racially diverse subjects; for example the upper grade levels are reading the best-selling 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.' The Multnomah County 'Everybody Reads' book by Portlander Rebecca Skloot tells the story behind the poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were used after her death for cutting-edge scientific research.

Teachers are also being coached to find out more about their students' lives outside the classroom, so they can use it in their teaching. There's more time spent considering discipline issues; before, what used to be a 'send-home' offense, possibly a suspension, is now solved by other means.

At Open Meadow Middle School last Thursday, a student who blew an air horn with his iPhone app during passing time was given a firm reminder to put the device away. Students who talk out of turn in class are gently diverted back to the task at hand.

The middle school has also added a black family coordinator, who helps maintain a tight relationship with parents and brought 95 percent of them out to a recent event. Teachers and parents have each other's cell phone numbers and keep in regular contact, sharing stories about their kids' successes and trouble spots.

'There are times in the classroom when we're saying, 'I'm gonna call your mama,' and the students have the fear of God,' says Executive Director Andrew Mason.

He points to data showing that equity work has started to make the needle move. In 2009-10, the school's discipline rate stood at 420 referrals for the year; after the equity work began, it fell to 144. Retention in school jumped five points and attendance edged up three points during the same two years. And the number of classes students passed jumped from 57 percent to 70 percent in the two years.

'Our discipline policy is not a stable milieu,' Mason says. 'It's, 'You will stay in school.' '

Confronting 'White Privilege'

At Rosa Parks Elementary, meanwhile, Emma Ford thinks about how race has played a role in her fourth-graders' education and lives. All but a handful of her 24 students are black, as is she.

'I know there are a lot of factors,' Ford says. 'Every day I have them for six hours, 15 minutes. Whether or not they do homework is out of my control. When I'm here with them I'm the teacher, the parent, the counselor, the janitor, everything.'

She began last Friday with a number of read-aloud and writing exercises and a spelling quiz on tricky words such as 'its' and 'it's' and 'family's' and 'families',' material they'd see on the upcoming standardized tests.

The words caught them off guard because they'd missed her lessons the prior two days. They had a substitute teacher while Ford was away at the two-day Courageous Conversations seminar.

A proud grandmother who has taught in the same community for 13 years, she took her place in the color line of 'White Privilege,' at the end of the spectrum with the other 10 nonwhite teachers in the room.

Many of the teachers said they were heartbroken, frustrated, enlightened or empowered by the exercise; it became emotional for some and at times tense. At one point in the afternoon, a white teacher questioned whether he could really speak freely and invoked the 'N word' to the uneasiness of most in the room.

The training moved right along. When Ford spoke up, she told her colleagues about how being black gives her more 'buy-in' with her students; for instance, she used to keep a pair of suspenders, sometimes pantyhose, in her desk drawer for the boys who sagged their pants low.

The strategy caught on quickly, and sagging isn't a problem as much anymore, although 'they still try,' she says.

Ford doesn't think a white teacher could have or would have done the same: 'A lot of teachers in our building might think that was barbaric. But most of (the students') moms are black, and they're used to their moms being the law.'

Back in her classroom, Ford decided to give her confused students a pass on the spelling quiz last Friday, since her lesson had been postponed.

'Yes!' they all exclaimed, before starting on their science lesson, dissecting owl pellets to identify the bones inside.

Ford warned them sternly not to get used to it -she believes in holding them all to the highest standard, no matter what their background.

'You don't need someone to give them a break,' she says. 'I don't think that will help them in the long run.'