Recent headlines across Texas reveal that our students need more honest conversations about race and racism, not fewer. Three years ago, two videos surfaced in which students from Carroll Independent School District used the n-word. In March of this year, a Black middle school student from Plano Independent School District was forced to drink urine by his White teammates. And a month later, White students from Aledo Independent School District held a “slave auction” of Black classmates.
Instead of allowing these incidents to further divide our communities, these moments can help shift our focus back to the student experience and can be a lesson in cultural relevance. Can we find common ground in our shared desire to create schools where every student feels included, respected, and “seen?” Let’s resist the urge to retreat defensively and instead come together to acknowledge the unfinished work that these incidents highlight.
Beyond these individual stories, the data continues to show that students of color are not succeeding at the same levels as their White counterparts, despite many decades of school reform. How do we unravel the complex factors at play? By examining how our systems, structures, and policies may be contributing to these inequitable outcomes. For example, Black and Latinx students in Texas are underrepresented in Advanced Placement math, science and technology courses. Black youth are more likely to attend schools with high rates of teacher turnover and more inexperienced teachers. Systemic inequities like these don’t require intentional discrimination or bad actors to result in disparate results. Policies and practices that are baked in – what we can define as “systemic racism” – must be challenged as we seek a level playing field that allows every child to thrive.
Parents and taxpayers have an important role in keeping the focus on students where it belongs. We must resist efforts to inject partisanship or to wage culture wars at the expense of students’ humanity. Further, we must elect school board members who reject dishonest either/or narratives about the role of race and racism in our history and in public policy and who champion respectful dialogue to foster critical thinking around our nation’s most important issues. The most effective school boards are ones that focus on improving both the student experience and their success. They promote the elimination of opportunity gaps through racially-conscious decision-making that centers students. We all must hold our boards accountable for how all students are experiencing their educational journey, making sure that each student has what they need to succeed and the opportunity to pursue their boldest dreams.
As a White woman, a parent, and an advocate for public school children across Texas, it’s dismaying to see parent groups – largely White and affluent – rising up in communities in North Texas speaking out against the need for students to learn about race, racism, and the history of inequality in our nation. When I think of the work that school districts like Dallas ISD, Richardson ISD, Ft. Worth ISD and many more have done to build a process of transformation that names race, identifies the disparities, and sets goals and strategies to create classrooms where every child can thrive – I can’t help but feel that these groups have no idea how their protests can derail progress for our children that has been hard fought by our educators, trustees, and advocates. We must name and address the needs of every child if we want to create an educational experience that will lead to student success.
When we think about racial equity work, we need to ask ourselves 3 questions;
1. Does every student feel seen?
2. Do we value every student’s cultural identity?
3. Can every child find their voice and future in their classrooms?
This is not zero-sum work. When we value and lift up Black and Brown children, others are not left behind. All of our children, including my White child, are lifted up into an education experience that teaches critical thinking skills, is kinder, and centers humanity.
Even though critical race theory is not a part of public-school curriculum in Texas, it’s become a catch-all term that reveals our collective discomfort addressing race and racism, both its historic origins and ongoing implications. Do not fall for the fallacy that there are only two ways to frame the discussion – either American democracy is the greatest and most admired system successfully guaranteeing opportunity and liberty for all, OR America is a hopeless nation defined solely by its history of oppression and racism. Can we be honest and reject both of those notions as simplistic and incomplete?
We must resist this misguided attempt to divide us or allow the distraction of politics to get a foothold in our Texas schools when the genuine work of equity is carrying us to create schools rooted in dignity and opportunity. I invite fellow White parents to join me in putting the focus back on our students where it belongs. How do we build schools as places where students of every background and skin color are equipped to contribute their brilliance to creating a thriving future?
I reject the premise that an honest and accurate understanding of all aspects of US history, including reckoning with historic racism and oppression, is harmful and divisive. The recent commemoration of the Tulsa massacre reveals the gaps in our education. So many of us were painfully unaware of these horrifying events. We cannot expect today’s students to lead effectively if they have not grappled with this shared history. We can help them both celebrate the tremendous progress achieved in matters of race, while still acknowledging there’s much work left to do. Any approach that doesn’t make space for the full story is a disservice to students and to the future of this great nation.
Patricia Arvanitis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership ISD (LISD), a Texas nonprofit which seeks to advance educational excellence, opportunity, and racial equity in public education by equipping and mobilizing parents, students, teachers, community members, and school board trustees. Leadership ISD works with districts in the 3 largest urban areas of Texas representing 1.6 million students. Over the past ten years, LISD has built a powerful network of thousands of racially conscious grassroots education leaders across the state. Our leaders have supported their school systems by engaging in our in-depth fellowship programs and academies; advocated for academic excellence and racial equity at the local and state-level; and have changed the way school districts operate by supporting student focused and accountable school board governance.