‘Open, Honest Discussions About Race’ in Alexandria

‘Open, Honest Discussions About Race’ in Alexandria

School division focuses on equity amid persistent racial bias.

Students and teachers in Alexandria still face racial bias, and now school officials are working with social justice advocates to expand training sessions and restorative justice practices.

That’s some of the aftermath of an alarming racial equity survey conducted this year to prevent race and socioeconomic status from being predictors of academic success or opportunity. The survey assessed areas of racial inequity in five categories: educational instruction, engagement, physical integration, social-emotional environment and learning opportunities.

“Race is often an elephant in the room, but it’s rarely addressed,” said Student Services Chief Julie Crawford.

Alexandria City Public Schools is a minority-majority school division, where only one out of four students is white. Hispanic students are 36 percent, and black students are 27 percent. Almost 60 percent of students in Alexandria qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indication that they live in poverty.

At the elementary school level, minorities and whites are spread out, some with a majority Black and Hispanic population like John Adams Elementary School and some with a majority white population like Matthew Maury. The demographics are less balanced at the middle school level; 75 percent of students at Francis Hammond Middle School identify as Black or Hispanic, with fifteen percent identifying as white. There are considerably more white students at George Washington Middle School, with the minority population comprising 52% of all students.

In September, the Alexandria School Board voted 6 to 3 to expand T.C. Williams High School instead of opening a new high school. Equity and access to educational opportunities were the two of the most popular reasons for supporting the decision.

“With one high school, we will be able to ensure all students have access and are fully engaged in a high quality learning environment,” said Superintendent Gregory Hutchings. “It will allow us to acknowledge that regardless of your circumstances, regardless of your ZIP code....”

Employee biases and perceptions contribute to inequities in school discipline, according to school division suspension data. Black and Hispanic students are suspended at a disproportionately higher rate compared to white students. That has stayed consistent for several years, and students notice this disparity.

“If a black student is walking around without a pass, then the automatic assumption is that they’re skipping class,” said T.C. Williams senior Mikaela Pozo, who recently participated in an Agenda Alexandria panel on school overcrowding. “If a white student is without a pass, then the automatic assumption is that they’re doing nothing wrong.”

Students’ satisfaction with their education differs largely across schools, gender identity and race.

“Browner students are more likely to show up negative in the data,” said Cheryl Robinson, cultural competency coordinator. “That is a reality.”

Students not identifying with a gender reported being less happy with their education in the social emotional aspect. They reported a smaller proportion of positive responses, showing concern for safety and student support systems.

When school officials started the training sessions in 2017, they discovered teachers and administrators were uncomfortable discussing race and socioeconomic privilege.

“One time, in a conversation, one of my colleagues said, ‘Well, you know, she’s white.’ And I said, ‘That’s not a disease,’” said Crawford. “It goes both ways. There’s not a comfort level when discussing racial issues.”

This discomfort with racial discussions and implicit biases may result in barriers to opportunities for students.

“Recently, a student of color informed me that she had been discouraged by her counselor from taking an Advanced Placement course, with the counselor saying it might be too rigorous for her despite the fact that she had maintained an A/B average,” said Hutchings.

After five years of work, the school system plans to expand their equity plan across the district, continuing equity training sessions with teachers, administrators and stakeholders. Professional learning trainings include sessions about using literature to teach about Muslim and Arab cultures and working with immigrant families.

Additionally, the trainings will be geared towards ensuring staff ability to understand and interact with students of other cultures, and types of racism and advantages or disadvantages students may face. Some staff, such as those at Jefferson-Houston School, already began discussions on restorative practices over the summer during professional development trainings, according to school officials.

Restorative practices, a method of resolving conflicts between students and staff in schools, may be more prevalent in classrooms. Community-building circles, one of many restorative practices, are already used as a way to build a positive classroom community. Groups like Tenants and Workers United view it as an effective alternative to suspensions.

“I do think it would be beneficial to have restorative practices,” said Pozo, who is working on Operation Integration, an organization dedicated to education equity and immigration justice. “You’re addressing the root cause of the problem instead of making the assumption that they’re just a bad student and they should be punished.”

Tenants and Workers United, a community organization in Arlandria representing minorities and immigrants, has been campaigning for restorative practices at T.C. Williams for six years. The youth members and organizers are developing a new survey specifically for students to give their input on their experiences with restorative practices, and academic and emotional support for students. The survey would be shorter than the equity survey the school officials created, and would give a student-driven evaluation of each school’s community climate.

“Our young people feel that there needs to be more relationship building and they have been working to make sure that is key,” said Ingris Moran, lead organizer. “We want to create a survey that’s really easy to answer and isn’t 100 questions long.”

This winter, Tenants and Workers United will start meeting with school officials to develop this new survey on restorative practices for T.C. Williams, which may be integrated into the next division-wide racial equity audit this spring.

Meetings with the School Board will comprise mostly students, along with school staff, the Alexandria NAACP and other grassroots organizations,

“This assessment will have more student voice,” said Gregory Baldwin, the school system’s climate and culture coordinator. “We’re making strides towards ending this school-to-prison pipeline.”