As classrooms grow more diverse, equity training shows teachers have a lot to learn

‘It was like a flower opening,’ NKC teacher describes how equity training reached one of his students

Chris Homiak, a teacher at Northgate Middle School in the North Kansas City School District, explains how equity training helped one student feel more comfortable in a diverse school environment.
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Chris Homiak, a teacher at Northgate Middle School in the North Kansas City School District, explains how equity training helped one student feel more comfortable in a diverse school environment.

The data was clear: minority students in one North Kansas City classroom were not achieving at the same level as other students, and Rene Cooper had a suspicion why.

Cooper, the teaching and learning coach at Northgate Middle School, started looking for patterns in the teacher’s work. She visited her classroom.

“I was looking for who was she talking to first. Who was she allowing to answer questions in the classroom? Who was she calling on? Who was she greeting at the door? And how was she greeting them,” Cooper said. “When we started looking at them (patterns) we noticed that she had biases in her work.”

It wasn’t intentional. “She had no idea,” Cooper said. “She had the best intentions. She’s an amazing teacher.”

Once her unconscious bias was pointed out, “We made a plan for how to disrupt it.”

The work the two educators took on last school year is just the sort of thing North Kansas City school leaders expect to tackle more of after completing a year’s worth of equity training.

Across the country public schools like those in North Kansas City, which often have student populations that are far more diverse than their predominantly white and female teaching and administrative staffs, are investing in equity training to help assure every child is getting a fair shot in the classroom.

Jumping on the equity band wagon, though, doesn’t always happen without some resistance.

Consider the Lee’s Summit School district where white parents, some teachers, school board members and members of the community pushed hard against the district hiring a firm to train employees in equity.

The Lee’s Summit battle for equity erupted in threats against the district’s first black superintendent along with verbal and social media attacks. It took district leaders more than a year before agreeing last week on a firm to lead the training and force a conversation about race and bias and how both affect the way educators teach and relate to their students.

This new equity, implicit bias and inclusion training flips the script on the typical two- or three-hour annual diversity training. It digs deep and promises discomfort. Its objective is more meaningful, experts say, than recognizing Cinco de Mayo or Black History Month. It’s intended to penetrate into all aspects of an education system, from instruction to student discipline. Even into financing and how the money is divided among a district’s schools.

Teachers in those districts are being asked to critically examine “how their own identities have shaped their experiences,” says a report in Education Week by the American Educational Research Association .

The training then proposes a call to action that requires a change on the educator’s part to do something about the inequities and racial disparities in their districts.

“We are experiencing a browning of America and our classrooms don’t look like they did 25 years ago,” said Frank Henderson, who is the western regional director of the National School Boards Association.

The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that by 2024 more than half of all public school children in the nation will be children of color. White students will represent 46% of that population.

On the other hand more than 80% of public school teachers are white. It’s much higher than that in North Kansas City and in some of the surrounding districts in the Kansas City area.

And here’s the hard part: research confirms that teachers — with their implicit biases — can be a barrier to students of color reaching their full academic potential.

“Teachers make the first decisions about behavioral consequences that lead to referrals and suspensions,” the report in Education Week said. “They also are often the gatekeepers for gifted, honors and Advance Placement courses by deciding which students get recommended for such programs.”

According to a 2016 study at Johns Hopkins University, “white teachers are more likely to doubt educational prospects of black boys and girls.” That study found that a teacher telling a student they’re not smart, directly or indirectly, can weigh heavily on how that student feels about their future and affect the effort they put into doing well in school.

It’s why school districts across the country — including many in the Kansas City area — have looked to equity training as a tool for helping to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

It’s why the National School Board Association, which represents 90,000 school board officials, has made equity training a priority in every state.

And it’s why before classes began in fall 2018 North Kansas City Superintendent Dan Clemens held a district-wide convocation, dedicating his whole welcome-back-to-school speech to building a culture of inclusion with equity and cultural competency training at the foundation.

North Kansas City Superintendent Dan Clemens held a district-wide convocation and dedicated his welcome-back speech to discussing building a culture of inclusion through equity and cultural competency training.

The number of black students in North Kansas City schools increased by 50% from 2015 to 2018 and Hispanic students doubled during the same period. More than 125 different languages are spoken by students attending NKC schools.

Clemons used district data to make his point with pie charts showing that in North Kansas City — the third most diverse district in Missouri — a black male is disproportionately more likely to be expelled or suspended and disproportionately less likely to be sitting in an Advance Placement class than his white schoolmates.

A similar lopsided statistic has been true in school districts across the state for years.

Every year since 2008 Missouri schools have handed out around 40 percent of their suspensions to black students, even though those students have never made up more than 20 percent of the public school population.

Clemens told his teachers, 89.5% of whom are white, that there were three possible reasons this was happening: “either we don’t care, we don’t believe all kids can learn, or we have to start understanding more about our unconscious biases.”

That kicked off a year of workshops and staff trying to grasp the meaning behind prickly words and phrases like white privilege, implicit bias and systemic racism.

A controversial decision

But not all districts have been so quick to follow the directive.

In Lee’s Summit, a mostly white and fairly affluent district, a proposal for equity training tore the community in two and left some teachers wondering whether the friction might keep good teachers from joining their ranks.

Administrators, led by Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, spent the better part of the past school year trying to get school board approval on a firm to lead the training.

Some in the community called Carpenter “the race doctor,” threatening to harm him and his family, and blaming him for causing racial problems to bubble up in the district.

“But he didn’t cause the racial problems,” said Ovie Oghenejobo, an African American teacher who has been with the district six years. “But because he was hired and because of what he is trying to do here it has shined the light on a very dark spot in Lee’s Summit.”

Many parents and teachers in the district said the training was sorely needed. Some parents spoke up about racially offensive moments they or their children have had in the district.

One parent told The Star that his biracial son, in the sixth grade, was assigned to portray a plantation owner of 200 slaves, “which he didn’t feel comfortable doing. He told them numerous times he didn’t want to do so.”

The father said “other black students where portrayed as Confederate soldiers fighting for the south.” He said that when he talked with the school principal and his son’s teacher, “I was shocked to find out they didn’t realize how sensitive this issue is towards black students and their families.”

Another parent spoke at a public meeting about an Underwood Elementary School teacher who had her students sing “Pick a Bale of Cotton” during a school performance.

The Lee’s Summit School Board in February approved an equity plan designed by Carpenter and his staff. But it wasn’t until last week that it agreed to hire Education Equity Consultants of St. Louis to lead the training.

Getting to equity is hard work

It’s only been since August but teachers in North Kansas City say training there is working.

“I feel like we are on step one of a 100-step journey,” said Chris Homiak, who teaches students for whom English is their second language and is one of the teacher trainers. There are clear signs the training is making a difference, Homiak said.

“In the teacher’s lounge conversations can openly be about race and class and not in a coded way but in a critically conscious way and that is a shift,” Homiak said. “For teachers to go from coded language to openly curious questioning, that’s a really important shift.”

But for some teachers just getting to the starting line took a lot of effort.

At the start, some carried anxiety and fear with them to the training sessions, Homiak said. “As a society we don’t have cross racial discussions about race. White people don’t talk about race at all if we can avoid it.”

He said for some teachers the idea of needing equity training may have conjured up even deeper questions that challenged their whole reason for becoming an educator.

“I don’t know one teacher who wouldn’t say they want the best for all their kids,” Homiak said.

“When a training threatens the narrative we have about ourselves ... I think for me it was scary to think that there would be times when my good intentions wouldn’t be enough, that I may still be having a harmful impact.”

Some resisted the notion of equity training. When the district first put out a call for 60 teachers and staff to volunteer to be trained as trainers, “we had to go out and recruit them,” Cooper said.

But this spring, after teachers had gotten their first taste of the training, the second request for volunteers pulled in more volunteers than the district needed.

The first step is making sure teachers understand what equity truly is. Equal is not equitable, Henderson said. “Equity is not that every man gets a shirt but that every man gets a shirt that fits.”

Educational Equity Consultants, the firm leading training in North Kansas City and hired in Lee’s Summit, has been involved in inclusion and equity training for about 16 years. The firm has worked with nearly 50 districts and education agencies, from California to New York.

“But (the training) has gotten more intense,” said Tony Neal, who is president of EEC and the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity.

“A lot of the training has been impacted by what we see going on in the world,” he said, referring to the impact that political rhetoric has had on the nation’s social and racial climate.

Training is growing

Many districts have been seeking help.

In Liberty, parents called for equity training for teachers this past school year after their children were the target of racially charged incidents. Superintendent Jeremy Tucker said he expects to start equity, diversity and inclusion training for every employee in the coming school year.

The Shawnee Mission School District this year contracted with a professional development company that also offers equity training, set to begin in the fall. The district also is hiring a diversity officer. Those recommendations came from a parent group demanding that staff and teachers get equity training.

Group members said they’ve heard too many stories about students of color being mistreated in the district’s schools. Just last year a black 10-year-old student at Rosehill Elementary in Lenexa was playing with a friend in the lunch line when a teacher who thought the two were fighting pulled them apart and told the fourth-grader that when he turns 16 and ends up shot by police the only person he can be mad at is himself.

Employees of the Kansas City Public Schools went though an online equity and implicit bias training. The district launched its training when it recognized some of the same disparities in achievement other districts had pointed out. About 90% of the students in the district are students of color and 58% are African American, but only 12% of the students in Advance Placement classes are African American.

“We realize it’s our biases that contribute to the gaps,” said Derald Davis, assistant superintendent of equity and inclusion.

Davis said that even though 64% of the teachers in the district are white they are not the only ones with biases that contribute to the gaps.

“We are all victims of some socialization. For example, many of our students live in poverty. Most teachers are middle class and they may not be aware of some of the bias they have of students and parents coming from poverty.”

Poor and minority students are not the only ones hurt by implicit bias. Davis said he’s had white and Asian students say teachers who think they should be getting exceptional grades set expectations for them they can’t live up to. “That’s a lot of pressure,” he said.

This year new employees will be part of in-person equity and implicit bias training led by Davis.

Hickman Mills, where 90 percent of students are students of color and 70 percent of the teaching staff is white, has been immersed in equity training for the past five years with Pacific Educational Group.

Casey Klapmeyer, Hickman Mills associate superintendent of human resources and accountability, said that in his 20 years as an educator he noticed that as schools attempted to deal with the black-white achievement gap and disparities in disciplinary action, “we were always talking about poverty, socioeconomic status, education levels of family members, but never about race.

“But race, American racism, is built into every element of our society, including education. Whiteness is a cultural piece, it is what is decided as the norm,” so it is fundamental to equity training. “Race impacts how we deliver instruction and how our students receive it.”

EEC trainers attempt to break down misconceptions, misinformation, assumptions and negative teachings that people may have believed as true their entire lives.

“We ask individuals to suspend certainty and lean into discomfort,” Neal said. “We go through boxes of Kleenex.”

Oghenejobo, the Lee’s Summit teacher, said the training is crucial not just for the sake of the students but the district as a whole. As one of the 31 black teachers in the district, Oghenejobo said he has experienced moments when he’s been made to feel uncomfortable among his colleagues.

“I’m not going to call it racism,” Oghenejobo said. “But it looked like racism.”

Black teachers make up a little more than 2% of the 1,456 teachers in the district. Lee’s Summit has 56 teachers of color and 31 of them are black.

“And these are not regular black teachers,” Oghenejobo said. “These are the black avengers, exceptional staff members.”

Oghenejobo worried that if the district didn’t start doing the equity work other districts have already begun, and with a spotlight already exposing racial tensions in the district, Lee’s Summit may have a hard time convincing teachers of color to enter their classrooms.

The impact of that, Oghenejobo said, is great because teachers have a choice in where they work.

“The students, they don’t have a choice,” he said.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.