When discussing race disparities in the Salem-Keizer School District, some things are easier to quantify.
Students of color are graduating at lower rates, dropping out at higher rates and receiving more suspensions and expulsions than their white peers.
But understanding why this is happening, how the disparities affect students and finding solutions has challenged educators for years.
So the district partnered this fall with the Salem-Keizer NAACP to talk about race in education. Along with other community partners like the Salem Police Department and the Oregon Department of Human Services, they hosted about 300 community members Thursday night at Chemeketa Community College.
The goal was to identify issues in local schools that prohibit students of color from succeeding as well as their white peers.
Participants broke into small groups to discuss key topics, including access to rigorous courses, lack of diverse staff and making students of color feel welcome.
Advanced placement out of reach
Advanced placement courses can help students earn college credit, add value to their college applications and increase their chances of being accepted. These classes are also intended to increase the rigor of instruction for students and challenge them intellectually.
But not all students have access to these classes and when students of color do take part, some say they don’t have the support they need to be successful.
One forum participant said when he was in school, he took as many advanced classes as he could. But the atmosphere when he was in those classes, often as one of the only black students in the class, was extremely difficult to navigate.
“There was a lack of representation in the class itself,” he said. “We would be having a discussion about the lesson and soon it became about me being black.”
He said students would turn to him to ask his thoughts on the subject as a black person or make comments about his skin color and hair.
“I’m here to learn like everyone else,” he said.
Cynthia Richardson, director of the district’s Office of Student Equity, Access and Advancement, said Salem-Keizer has worked to clean up the AP programs across all high schools, ensuring each school has ample options.
But then the problem is getting students to take the courses, she said.
Richardson said her son was frequently late to his advanced placement courses because he didn’t want his friends to see him going in.
As principal of North Salem High School, Richardson worked to identify students who could benefit from advanced classes and encouraged them to register. The school also provided AP support classes.
While African American students make up 2 percent of North Salem’s 1,682 students, Hispanic/Latino students make up 58 percent and more than 95 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged.
After four years of targeted work to increase the number of underrepresented students in these classes, beginning in the fall of 2013, North Salem added 500 students, 474 of whom were students of color and/or low income.
But gaps district-wide remain. In 2015-16, 60.6 percent of students who identify as “Black/African American” graduated on time. Hispanic/Latino students graduated at 67.5 percent and white students graduated at 75.5 percent.
Race not reflected in staff, lessons
Though 37 percent of high schoolers in Salem-Keizer identify as Hispanic/Latino, only 6 percent of the staff do. On the other hand, 50 percent of high school students identify as white, while 90 percent of the staff do.
“We can’t teach and lead what we don’t know,” Richardson said. “Students who have staff members who look like them feel more included (and) welcomed (when) they have someone who understands their experiences.”
According to the U.S. News & World Report, “minority teachers are often more motivated to work with minority students or in high-poverty and racially segregated schools.”
These teachers also tend to have higher academic expectations for minority students, according to the Report, who benefit from having teachers from their own racial group who have better knowledge of their culture and can serve as successful role models.
Forum attendees also brought up the need for culturally-inclusive materials in schools and training for staff.
One example given at the forum was from a team facilitator who said her daughter came to her one day and asked, “Mom, why do I only have 20 days devoted to learning about my culture?”
These changes would be part of “culturally responsive practices.” This includes teaching techniques and curriculum that use cultural knowledge and prior experiences to make learning more relevant and effective for students of color, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
These practices have been shown to reduce out-of-classroom referrals, detentions, suspensions and expulsions, and help close the achievement gap. The practices build a relationship of trust and respect between students and their teachers, encouraging them to stay engaged in school.
Students of color ignored, unsupported
Some of the discussion groups tackled the least tangible of the topics — how to make students of color feel welcome at school.
When listing the problems they’ve noticed, they said sometimes staff “don’t even recognize those students are there” and “racial slurs go unnoticed.”
Participants said students of color are often singled out and teachers don’t or won’t relate to them. Students sometimes feel silenced for speaking up about their experiences.
Facilitators at the event wanted to know, “What do we need to do as educators so students can focus?”
“We need more educators to prioritize relationships with students over results of standardized tests,” one parent said.
Participants agreed mentorships are a huge part of that, but day-to-day interactions also play a large role. Groups listed things like knowing the students by name, making eye contact and intentionally checking in on a regular basis as ways to make students feel welcome.
When asked to describe what the ideal school would look and feel like, participants said they want to see an accurate representation of the various cultures in each school when they look at photos and art in the hallways, they want students of color to speak up and challenge things in class, they want to be included.
Marilyn Williams, a leader with the local NAACP, said the forum was a big step in the right direction.
“We had a dialogue that has been needed for years,” she said.
Equity and equality not the same
For the first time in Salem-Keizer’s history, a focus on equity was included in the district’s 2017-18 strategic plan.
This has lead to a student equity committee that meets once a month, a staff committee that will begin soon, equity classes available to district employees, gatherings like the forum, training for teachers and the Safe and Welcoming Schools resolution initially passed by the school board in January.
The school board also has an “equity lens,” a declaration that guides the board’s decisions on policies so they are as fair as possible.
When the board is presented with a new initiative — like a districtwide policy, a new bond measure or hiring changes — they will turn to the questions in the lens to decide if it is equitable.
Questions include, “What subgroups does the decision or initiative affect both positively and negatively?” “How have members of the community been intentionally involved in the decision-making process?” and “How does this decision build capacity and power in underserved groups?”
“Equality is giving everyone the same thing,” Richardson said.
“We need to meet the students where they are — know what their needs are and provide them with (the) supports they need to reach their academic goals. That’s equity.”
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