Opinion: Ugly reality of racism plays out in our classrooms

Cobb parent and former teacher says school staffing, curriculum and practice need to change
These sgns were placed on the fence in front of the White House in Washington during racial inequality protests last summer. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

These sgns were placed on the fence in front of the White House in Washington during racial inequality protests last summer. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

In the wake of the guilty verdict today in the George Floyd murder case and the recent shooting deaths of young men of color by police, a former high school teacher says we must address race and racism across public institutions, including schools.

Charis Granger-Mbugua graduated Cobb County Schools, where her young son is now a student. In this guest column, Granger-Mbugua, a National Board Certified teacher and Spelman graduate, talks about the need to focus on racism not only in law enforcement agencies but schools. You can read other AJC Get Schooled essays by Granger-Mbugua here and here.

By Charis Granger-Mbugua

Daunte Wright should be alive today.

But he isn’t.

His tragic story was just one of the most recent to flood our news feeds and television screens over the last week.

Only days after the world witnessed the murder of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, disturbing and admittedly controversial bodycam footage of 13-year-old Adam Toledo being shot was released, adding fuel to an already smoldering fire.

It has become increasingly evident the United States is experiencing a true and undeniable crisis regarding policing and the use of deadly force, particularly when it comes to people of color.

Though Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict provided temporary relief to many, it is not enough.  George Floyd’s death, as well as the death of Daunte Wright and so many other people of color, serve as a reminder that systemic injustice must be dismantled. That work needs to take place not just in police departments, but in schools, and in every other public institution in America.

Daunte Wright was 20 and Adam Toledo was 13. As a former secondary English teacher, I can easily imagine standing in front of these two young people in the classroom, sharing with them the transcendent beauty of literature and the irreplaceable power of their voice.

After more than a decade as an educator, I know what it means to see students not just for what they may represent on the outside, but for all the potential that exists inside of them, when given a chance. My heart breaks knowing that these young men will have the opportunity to realize the dreams they undoubtedly had.

Charis Granger-Mbugua

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Despite their circumstances, backgrounds, and challenges, they were still young men filled with potential. Potential that can now never be realized.

While there should be no question that better training, accountability, and perhaps federal legislation are needed to help police departments change the way they interact with people and communities of color, the reality is that the same can be said for our teachers, schools, and districts.

Sadly, the same bias, prejudice, and injustice often exist inside of our school buildings. Too many Black and brown students in school systems, around the country, and here in Georgia, are faced with curriculum, instructional practices, and even teachers who fail to acknowledge the role culture and race play in a student’s ability to learn, thrive, and grow.

As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it is for some to admit, race and socioeconomic status continue to negatively impact the way students of color are taught and disciplined, how schools are funded, and the opportunities these students are afforded inside and outside the classroom.

Adam attended a school serving more than 900 students from third through eighth grade. Nearly 98% of students are Hispanic, and 95% are low income. Adam’s school and others like it often need additional resources, highly qualified teachers, and training in culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy to adequately meet the needs of students.

As the nation continues to grapple with the ugly reality of racism, we cannot turn a blind eye to the way racism plays out in our classrooms and its effect on students of color.

As the parent of a Cobb County student, and product of Cobb County Schools myself, I am challenging our district, the superintendent, and members of the school board to be leaders in the fight against dismantling systemic racism and truly serving and meeting the needs of all students in our district.

There have been calls in the past from parents, community members, and Cobb staff for district-wide training in culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy, and these calls can no longer be ignored. We must take an active role in both learning and unlearning the ways in which implicit and explicit bias impact what happens in the classroom. We need only look to the video released earlier this year of a Pebblebrook High School teacher’s disturbing statements regarding Breonna Taylor to see why this need is so critical.

Additionally, Cobb, and districts across the state, should immediately begin the recruitment process, if they have not already, for a qualified and competent chief equity officer who can spearhead the efforts to train teachers and staff on what critical race theory or CRT is and why it is relevant in our schools.

An article published by the American Bar Association titled, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory,” states that critical race theory “…cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.” It is time to stop approaching the idea of CRT as a dirty word, but rather a way to further understand the needs of the students in our school.

And, finally, school districts across the country, and in Cobb specifically, must actively work to recruit, hire, and retain qualified teachers of color. In Cobb, minority students make up 65% of the student population. However, a 2019 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article reported about 74% of teachers were white, as were 68% of principals and 70% of administrators.

These disparities are worth noting, and more importantly changing. While there is no question of the significance of a highly qualified teacher in front of every student, it is equally important that all students learn from a diverse body of teachers.

Research shows students of color have improved graduate rates and college attendance when taught by a teacher who looks like them. Our schools are a microcosm of our community and of the country. They continue to be a place where students are molded and taught, not just about academics, but also about their place in society and the value of their very lives.

We can no longer deny what Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this month: “Racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Confronting the impact of racism will not be easy. We must recognize that we are working to overcome centuries of discrimination. We will only be successful in undoing the entrenched systemic and structural barriers if we work in collaboration with our public health partners, and deeply within our communities, across the country.”

There should be no question that the lives of present and future students are worth the work.