The start of a new school year is a prime time to refocus priorities with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
This year, Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS) is renewing its focus on a topic that is both deeply personal and deeply systemic, at the heart of teaching in an urban context. They’re calling it “Culturally Responsive Teaching for All: All Means All.”
One reason this work is important, according to Stacy Clay, who serves as SLPS’s deputy superintendent of student support services, is that it is hard to separate the experience of race from the experience of poverty in an urban context. “We know that we have to address trauma and its effects, and a lot of that is a result of multi-generational poverty and systemic racism,” Clay said.
A clear marker of poverty in schools is the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. In Saint Louis Public Schools, the percentages are so high that all students qualify.
Educational consultant Khatib Waheed, who is an integral part of SLPS’s professional development plan, defines what “culturally responsive” teaching means to him. “I prefer to use the term racial equity,” Waheed said. “We began using the term cultural competence back in the ’80s because of the social backlash about race.” Waheed regularly discusses issues of racial equity with a variety of school and other child and family stakeholders, like safety officers and instructional coaches. He calls his professional development work Racial Equity Learning Exchange (RELE) sessions as opposed to “training.”
“It’s really an opportunity to explore: Why, in spite of our best efforts, does race still matter? And how does multi-system level data prove that structural and institutional racism continue to impact outcomes?” Waheed said.
Institutional Patterns To address the intersection of race and poverty, Waheed has worked with the school district in several different ways. He works with a group of elementary schools under the direction of Norm White and his organization, Shut It Down, which aims to combat what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Examples of the school-to-prison pipeline include high suspension rates of students of color that directly correlate to institutional patterns in the criminal justice system, as well as disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color.
One school benefitting from the Shut It Down program is Adams Elementary, located in the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood.
“I truly appreciate the time and effort the Shut It Down team has afforded to our school,” said Sabrina Mack, a first grade teacher at Adams. “I am cognizant of creating an environment where each child can have some sense of success, regardless of their circumstance.” MiRita Smiley, a third grade teacher at Adams Elementary, said she wants to raise young citizens in the mindset of a “culturally responsive pedagogy.”
“This places students’ cultural and social identity at the center of the education process and affirms the development of a student to be their best selves,” she said. Clay emphasized that the district’s focus on racial equity needs to occur on both the institutional and the individual level. He uses the simple example of school breakfast policies to distill his point. Students with food insecurity are dealing with one form of trauma and toxic stress: they may not know where their next meal is coming from. Students with housing insecurity are also dealing with trauma. They may make it to class right before the bell rings, but without having eaten breakfast.
So SLPS worked with both teachers and district food service providers to provide a “culturally sensitive” and common sense approach: making Nutri-Grain bars available to students who arrived late to school.
“If you’re a teacher who comes from an environment where everyone ate breakfast every day, and you have a kid asking for food at 10 in the morning, you can set up a system in which you acknowledge that some kids are coming to the classroom hungry and need a breakfast. Even if they come late, they can get it,” Clay said.
Lindsay Schuessler, an academic instructional coach at Adams Elementary, said Waheed’s work has helped her understand some student misbehavior in a more clinical way. “We are starting to see behavior problems as symptoms of trauma, not just a student being bad,” she said. “This allows us to implement solutions that are effective instead of simply punishing a child. We manage student behavior with greater empathy and understanding.” Implicit Bias
As common sense as this policy may seem, part of culturally responsive teaching on the individual level is confronting implicit bias.
Tony Neal, president/CEO of Educational Equity Consultants, who also advises schools throughout St. Louis city and county on issues of racial equity, defines implicit bias as the “lizard brain.”
“We walk around with different narratives and messages hidden within us, and sometimes triggers allow those messages to come out,” he said. According to Neal, “many schools (in the St. Louis area) are addressing implicit bias.” Waheed prefers to emphasize the importance of also implementing and monitoring institutional changes.
According to Clay, one of the major institutional changes toward racial equity that Saint Louis Public Schools made during the 2014-2015 school year was allotting additional support staff, such as social workers and nurses, to schools in high-need areas that may not have met the typical enrollment requirements to earn those positions.
“Even though we weren’t explicitly calling that racial equity, that’s in fact what it was,” Clay said. “Some of this is just semantics. Some of it is just doing the right thing. We can call it racial equity, but it’s putting the resources where the need is.”
Waheed said that “putting the resources where the need is” is very much about race. “As a society we intentionally concentrated poverty in racially segregated neighborhoods for several decades, so those neighborhoods look that way in large measure as a result of racial policy,” he said. “Not enough of us know that, so when we begin to look for causes and solutions we tend to look at the victims of those policies while ignoring the intent and impact of these policies.”
Waheed said that “implementing and monitoring institutional change” starts with leadership demonstrating that racial equity is a priority.
“Our superintendent (Kelvin Adams) is doing just that,” Waheed added.