Black history is not a month, it’s a key to dismantling inequities

It’s Black History Month. 28 short days. We also need to celebrate Groundhog’s Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day and Ash Wednesday. It’s a set-up. It’s not possible for anyone to learn the long, painful, complicated, beautiful, resilient and magical history of being Black in the United States in 28 days. So don’t do it. Black history is American history. Latinx history is American History. Asian history is American history. Native American history is DEFINITELY American History. We have been here from the beginning and even though there have been institutionalized and individual crusades to stamp us out, we are still here.

It is nice to have a month dedicated to different ethnic groups. It makes it easy to plan curriculum units, school assemblies and art exhibits, but it is not helpful for dismantling the inequities felt by Black and Brown students every day. It does not help White students and educators understand their role in being active partners in dismantling inequities. School and district leaders need to think beyond the ethnic group of the month and make sure that every facet of their schools is designed by, with, and for the students and communities they serve.

The public-school system in the United States was not designed to serve the predominately Black and Brown students it currently serves. Therefore, a school or district leader should expect this work to be personally and politically challenging. If it’s not difficult, you’re not pushing hard enough to create an equitable school environment. A leader who makes her school or district more equitable must be highly reflective and action-oriented. They need to constantly examine the policies, practices, and principles that impact students every day.

The Leadership Academy has developed five leadership dispositions to help build a path to creating a school community by, with and for students.

1: Reflect on personal assumptions, beliefs and behaviors

Before any leader, whether on the school or district level, can credibly talk with her staff and students about inequities, she must first reflect on her own beliefs and behaviors, particularly those associated with race. What can a leader do in the short term? Model vulnerability by publicly discussing her work to become more aware of her own identity, privilege, and biases. What can a leader do in the long term? Ensure that all committees that serve an advisory role to the principal or superintendent represent the student body's demographics. 

Questions for leaders to reflect on

  • What is your personal vision and belief system about race and equity?
  • How has race intersected with your leadership journey?
  • How have you benefited from and leveraged your education to get where you are?
  • How are your experiences different from or similar to the students you serve?

2: Publicly model a personal belief system that is student centered and grounded in equity

Once a leader has done the internal work of reflecting on beliefs, the next step is to show and tell others that he is aware of his biases. What can a leader do in the short term? Communicate a clear vision that is grounded in equity and which promotes the cultural, racial and linguistic diversity of the community as an asset. What can a leader do in the long term? Prioritize the creation of curricular units that offer all students choice and the opportunity to think critically about authentic problems.  

Questions for leaders to reflect on

  • What is your educational vision in general, and for your district or school specifically?
  • Where does equity, particularly racial equity, fit into that vision?
  • What are your beliefs around growth mindset, and how, if at all, have you talked about mindset with your teams?

3: Act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making and practice

Along with modeling beliefs comes the need to integrate them into your work as a leader. What can a leader do in the short term? Observe and give feedback to educators based on evidence of their cultural competency in the classroom or school. What can a leader do in the long term? Ensure that all aspects of the curriculum are culturally relevant, respectful, and accurate. 

Questions for leaders to reflect on

  • What have you said and done in your career to address racial inequities?
  • Are the decisions you are making as a leader reflecting the needs and priorities of students and families? If so, how? If not, what changes would you need to make to your decision-making process to better reflect the needs of different stakeholders?

4: Confront and alter institutional biases of student marginalization, deficit-based school, and low expectations associated with race

A good school or district leader uses her knowledge of herself and her community to take on and address inequities that have been in place for decades. What can a leader do in the short term? Call out deficit-based thinking when it is observed among educators. What can a leader do in the long term? Revise policies that further marginalize students, such as those that result in the under-enrollment of students of color in high-level classes or assign students to schools in ways that result in racial and economic segregation.  

Questions for leaders to reflect on

  • How have you incorporated inequities, particularly those associated with race, into your staff’s professional learning experiences?
  • Consider a time when you identified and confronted practices or interactions that were based on race or culturally biased assumptions. How did you manage that situation? What was the outcome?

5: Create systems and structures to promote equity with a focus on race

To truly address inequities, school and district leaders must lead systemic change, which requires looking at systems and structures across an entire school or district, from curriculum to human resources, with an equity lens and with a particular focus on race. What can a leader do in the short term? Manage resources, such as funding and high-quality teachers, in a way that prioritizes student need and racial equity. What can a leader do in the long term? Develop an accountability team (or series of teams) that regularly examines school and district data and the results of parent/student surveys for signs of inequity and is empowered to make changes to the system based on their findings.  

Questions for leaders to reflect on

  • What are your staff assignment policies? How are those policies, as well as your initiatives for recruiting and retaining teachers, helping your school or district better reflect the diversity of your student population?
  • How do you determine the needs of different subgroups of students across your district? And then how do you decide how district resources are allocated?

Whatever our race, personal experiences, and background, we all have the ability to learn and practice these dispositions every day and to intentionally shift our practices. There are 23.5 million Black and Brown students sitting in K – 12 classrooms across the country who cannot afford for us not to.

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About the Author — Mary Rice-Boothe

Mary B. Rice-Boothe is the Vice President for District Leadership Support at NYCLA. With more than 15 years of experience in education, Mary has been a teacher, principal, and a designer and director of school leader development programs. She is a graduate of NYCLA’s APP program.

School leaders need to think beyond the ethnic group of the month and make sure that every facet of their school is designed by, with, and for the students and communities it serves.

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