Gwinnett educators demand diversity, equality in curriculum

July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Participants rally in Town Center Park during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Participants rally in Town Center Park during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Anthony Downer and Aireane Montgomery have a lot in common. Both teach at Gwinnett County Public Schools, and both are products of that school system.

He graduated from Berkmar in 2013 and she from Brookwood in 2009.

As Black students, Downer and Montgomery said they didn’t have many teachers who looked like them or could relate to their culture and life experiences.

That is changing after Montgomery and Downer, along with other district employees, formed Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice and approached district officials with a list of suggestions that will diversify curriculum and staffing. Some new courses have already been added for the coming school year.

And Gwinnett isn’t the only school district where teachers are asking for more inclusive curriculum, and equity for students of color. A group called Georgia Educators for Inclusive Curriculum is made up of about 500 like-minded teachers of all ethnicities from across the state and is lobbying the state for similar changes.

Montgomery often quotes research from Johns Hopkins University that shows having one Black teacher in elementary school makes Black children more likely to graduate high school and significantly more likely to enroll in college.

“I had one Black teacher in high school,” she said. “I’m blessed that I had great teachers regardless of their color and I turned out well, but I’m an exception.”

Employed by a school district with the most diverse student population in the state -- and one of the most diverse in the country -- they want better for their students and their community.

July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Participants rally in Town Center Park during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Participants rally in Town Center Park during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The group is asking for more diversity and inclusion in hiring and retaining teachers and other staff. It wants lessons that are less Euro-centric and that include the accomplishments and contributions of people of color. And it strives for a change in culture that recognizes the implicit bias and cultural insensitivity among staff.

“I love this school district, I want every student to receive a world-class education,” said Montgomery. “I’m putting my job on the line to ensure Black and brown children have the same advantages as everyone else.”

That is particularly important in Gwinnett, where 64% of the student body is evenly split between Black and Latino children. Another 11% identified as Asian/Pacific Islander and 4% multiracial.

Twenty-one percent are white.

The demographics of the teaching staff doesn’t reflect that diversity. About two-thirds of Gwinnett teachers are white, nearly a quarter are Black and all other ethnicities combined make up less than 10%.

“Above all we disrupted business as usual,” Downer said during a July rally at Suwanee Town Center, where the group unveiled its goals to the public. “Some officials became allies because our push removed roadblocks to their work.”

“We want everyone to be involved in transforming this school district that we love,” Montgomery said. “We may be viewed as instigators and agitators but we want to work with the administrators, not against them.”

July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Valyn Turner performs during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Valyn Turner performs during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

After months of meeting, establishing priorities and strategies, seeking input from educators outside the group and gauging support with a change.org petition, they sent an open letter to Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and members of the Board of Education in mid-July outlining specific actions they want implemented:

  • Mandatory implicit bias training for all faculty and staff members. This training should be accompanied by regular coaching and monthly professional learning opportunities.
  • Culturally responsive curriculum, lessons and resources -- including a course about Black history/African studies -- for all K-12 core literacy courses.
  • Advisory councils on equity and justice that make recommendations about student discipline, community relations and parent grievances based on data, and allow anonymous reporting forms for incidents and experiences of bias for students, families, faculty, staff, and other community members.
  • Recruitment and retention plans specifically for Black and other diverse teachers and administrators.

A contingent from the group met with Wilbanks and his executive cabinet. The reception was open and respectful, said Clay Hunter, Gwinnett’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Support.

The same group led a rally on July 20 to urge the district to start the school year off with online-only classes. Before the demonstration got underway, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks had announced all classes will be virtual.

“Our staff members certainly have a right to share their concerns,” said Wilbanks in a written statement. “Today’s event was just another way they have done that.”

At the July school board meeting he acknowledged their concerns and said the district is working with them to find solutions that work for everyone.

“The district has had to answer tough questions about their plan for racial justice,” Downer said. “An ethnic studies course will launch as a pilot program in high schools in January, with a multicultural literature course to follow.”

Downer said socio-emotional training -- which involves understanding and managing emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions -- will be available to teachers this fall.

Teachers in other districts also seeking inclusive curriculum

Many credit the renewed surge of the Black Lives Matter movement with increased awareness of the plight of minorities in several aspects of day-to-day life -- whether it’s encounters with law enforcement, workplace discrimination, wage inequality, lower quality healthcare or educational biases.

“I want to advocate for change in our curriculum to be more inclusive. After teaching the curriculum, I was disheartened to learn that the essentials we teach do not include some of the rich African-American history in Georgia,” said Myra Lee, 8th grade social studies chair at Fulton County’s Haynes Bridge Middle School who is a member of the Georgia Educators for Inclusive Curriculum group.

“There is a great amount of focus on how those who were White supremacists shaped Georgia,” Lee said. “I do acknowledge that we teach about some African Americans, but we do not focus on how Black Americans adjusted to being excluded from life in Georgia.”

With limited resources, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there are even fewer chances for Black children to see their culture in the story of America, said Lee.

“There are many certified teachers who do not know enough history of Black America, through no fault of their own, because they were not taught themselves,” Lee added.

Similarly, they’ve started a petition, but with a narrower focus than the Gwinnett group.

They’d like to see the 8th grade history completely revamped and include many more works from Blacks in literature classes.

“Curriculum taught in Georgia largely excludes the history of the 640,000 Black students in the state, which represent the largest minority group served,” the petition states.

Representatives from that group have met with Georgia Department of Education officials to look at developing a statewide Black History course.

Joy Hatcher, Social Studies Program Manager at the state DOE recently convened a small group that included representatives from Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fayette, Rockdale, Henry and Houston county school districts. Although no concrete plans have been set, the conversation is ongoing.

Allie Mathis, a senior at Fulton’s Centennial High, believes that making instruction more diverse will help race relations all around.

“I’ve been uncomfortable in class when a lot of the lessons seem that Blacks were just slaves,” she said. “It always leads to racist jokes and when I try to correct classmates it feels wrong that more positive aspects of Black history aren’t taught in class.”

There should be an intentional attempt to include history that touches all aspects of society, many educators believe. This need is evidenced by the current state of affairs our country is facing, said several educators.

“Kids are receptive to lots of new things,” said Rachel Hicks, a Fulton County 8th grade social studies teacher who is white. “They can learn from different perspectives and achieve a greater understanding and respect for other cultures.”

The positive response from education leaders is encouraging said members of both groups.

“The district will bolster their plans for systemic equity and recruitment and retention. Local leaders are on high alert that teachers in every cluster in the county will demand a seat at the table to realize our priorities. These are markers of progress,” said Downer.

July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Demetrius Nelson (center), 7th grade math teacher at Summerour middle school leads a small group discussion during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 11, 2020 Suwanee - Demetrius Nelson (center), 7th grade math teacher at Summerour middle school leads a small group discussion during Gwinnett Citizens for Equity and Justice event, a rally and information session organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity & Justice, at Town Center Park in Suwanee on Saturday, July 11, 2020. They are explaining their stance on forcing Gwinnett schools to include implicit bias training for educators, include cultural and racial history and education in curriculum and hire more teachers of color. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But changing curriculum isn’t a speedy process.

Once there’s agreement on certain aspects of lesson plans, there needs to be an evaluation by a group of parents, community members and staff members to ensure it adheres to Academic Knowledge and Skills standards and aligns with the Georgia Standards of Excellence and/or Georgia Performance Standards. The standards spell out the essential concepts students are expected to know and skills they should acquire in a given grade, subject, or course.

“This has been ongoing in the district for some time, but at the end of the day we’re looking for the right approach for every student to succeed academically,” said Hunter. “We’re grateful for teachers stepping up and taking more active roles in helping students see themselves and connect their ethnicity to the contributions of this country.”

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it does means the timeline might not be as aggressive as many in the teacher groups would like. Now that the challenge has been presented, teachers across the state say they will hold administrators responsible.

“We will hold the district accountable for ensuring equitable opportunities and outcomes for all of our kids,” Downer said. “The path to a truly world-class system of education must be inclusive and transparent.”

MORE INFORMATION

Learn more about Georgia Educators for Inclusive Curriculum: https://campaigns.organizefor.org/petitions/we-demand-racial-justice-in-georgia-education

Learn more about Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice: https://bit.ly/GCPS4CHANGE