Chapel Hill: Opinion

Judy Jones: Closing gap will require top-to-bottom re-examination of school policies, practices

By Judy Jones

Two columns recently appeared in the Chapel Hill News. One was from Mary Carey about her disparate experiences with her black and white sons and the other is an article from Mike Harris, a teacher at Phillips Middle school, who is distressed by things he has read in the paper, words that suggest to him that teachers are being held solely responsible for the equity problem.

I would like to set the record straight about the recommendations from the Campaign for Racial Equity (CRE). There was no intention to fault the hard-working and good-willed teachers of this district. The CRE spent the summer researching and talking with teachers, parents and students. Our recommendations are based on those listening sessions and on our research – research that was focused on model school systems, on practices that encourage equity, and on curricula that promote equity. Here is a link to the report for those who would like to read the recommendations:

I taught in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district for 28 years, and I am deeply aware of the excellent teachers who work hours at school and at home to ensure that their students get the best. But I know that we need the support of our district and our school board to do our best work. We need to have a voice and be respected as knowledgeable professionals. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said, “Teacher Leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession.” In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, we need to have structures and policies in place that support our mission to provide the best education possible to all of our students.

What we, the CRE community coalition, are concerned about are the systemic structures that continue our historical journey of marginalizing our students of color. It has taken me years to understand this, and I am still learning how insidious and hurtful some of our practices are. I have had to face my own implicit biases and open up my mind and heart to listen deeply to my colleagues and friends of color in order to understand their experiences and their frustrations and to see how school structures and practices can perpetuate the problem.

I think that when the superintendent responded to our press conference by saying that the district is working on equity (and I know it is) and then went on to suggest that Project Advance (a process of requiring teachers to complete professional development and demonstrate its effectiveness in the classroom in order to earn teacher supplements) would solve some of the equity problems, many teachers felt that all of the equity issues would fall on their shoulders. That is simply not true from the point of view of the Campaign for Equity. We propose that the entire district from the top needs to look at the practices and structures in the schools that contribute to the separation of students of color from their white and Asian peers and thus also contribute to the achievement gap. Project Advance will absolutely not solve these systemic problems.

Certainly, as teachers, we welcome effective and meaningful professional development to help us work effectively with all students. But we also need schools where the systems and structures encourage students of all ethnicities to work together in heterogeneous classes and collaborative environments. We need schools where relationships, empathy, learning from each other, and restorative justice are the norm. We need school board members, administrators and central office personnel that see these changes as vital and create the atmosphere where they can happen. The entire system is ultimately responsible for student success, and we have to have the courage to look deeply at those structures that create barriers for our students of color.

Judy Jones is a retired biology teacher.