How education has changed in Illinois since the racial justice protests in 2020

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DEKALB – It was June 17, 2020, and protests took to the streets of towns across northern Illinois. The DeKalb School Board hosted a special meeting to hear the community talk about their experience with race and representation growing up in DeKalb Schools.

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A recent black graduate named Lige Caples spoke about the gaps in black history he learned.

“I’m 20, I’ll be 21 in October, and maybe two days ago I didn’t even know what Juneteenth was,” he said. “And I felt very bad because I’m one of the leaders of the protest going on and everything.”

David Seymour was on the school board and heard Caples talk about an inadequate school program. Other students spoke of the lack of students of color in AP courses and of blacks in leadership positions – persistent problems across the country.

Just two years ago, Seymour himself became the first black man ever elected to the DeKalb school board. The council serves a black student body of over 20%.

Seymour says the events where the community comes to share their story need to happen a lot more, and they need to be proactive, not just reactive to tragedies.

“[We should] Create spaces for people to come and share their views, or even organize workshops or speakers to talk about issues and situations, ”Seymour said.

The pandemic has made this difficult. But, he says, the district has taken steps to alleviate some of the issues tackled by students like Caples.

Rheon Gibson is one of the few black principals in DeKalb. He is the principal of Littlejohn Elementary School.

“If I wasn’t on the social justice committee, I would probably see a black man once every three or four months, during institute days,” he said. “And, you know, sometimes you can feel like you’re on an island.”

He says projects like Equal Opportunity Schools have helped reduce racial disparities in AP courts.

“Right now, they’re in their third year of the initiative, and they’ve also seen great growth with blacks, Hispanics, and students of low socioeconomic status,” Gibson said.

DeKalb’s diversity plan has also helped forge a new direction for the district. Their new superintendent, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, told the WNIJ that was one of the main reasons she accepted the job.

Maurice McDavid, a principal from West Chicago, helped develop the diversity plan when he taught at DeKalb. He was also part of the team that wrote the culturally appropriate teaching standards for the state of Illinois.

The standards have been in the works for years, but were unveiled earlier this year. Some Republican lawmakers have criticized them. McDavid was not surprised.

Some say the state should instead focus on improving mathematical standards. He says most of the complaints he heard were about critical race theory.

“Which is not even an integral part of these standards,” he said. “But this whole anti-critical racial idea: everyone has a racial theory. When you start to criticize the dominant race theory, that’s when people get upset. “

McDavid says the standards aren’t meant to turn students into an armada of left-wing activists, but to give teachers the tools to know their students – and their cultural experience – better.

“If I want to be a culturally relevant teacher teaching in DeKalb County, which still has over 80% agricultural land, part of my culturally relevant teaching is going to focus on agriculture,” he said. he declared.

The standards do not apply to Kindergarten to Grade 12 programs, but only to teacher preparation programs. Gibson says DeKalb offers professional development on standards if teachers wish.

Illinois State Senator Karina Villa said she grew up facing cultural communication challenges with white teachers. She co-sponsored the broad education and workforce equity bill introduced by the legislative black caucus amid the summer 2020 protests calling for racial justice.

Villa said students invited her to the stage to speak at one of those gatherings. The school’s former social worker says the energy of these students pushed her to work on the legislation.

“It was the youth voice that came out and said, ‘We want something different, we want something different for ourselves,'” Villa said.

Part of this plan is to expand education grants for minorities – to address teacher shortages and increase diversity.

For Rheon Gibson of DeKalb, workforce diversification is a critical issue.

“I noticed a trend. There was an overwhelming amount of referrals for African Americans and Hispanic men in particular. But all the referrals for these students weren’t physical altercations, not really violence – they were subjective things, ”he said. “So things that can easily be misunderstood if I don’t understand the culture. For example, disrespect: tone of voice, things of that nature that are just different when you have a different culture. “

He saw the problem play out with his own son. Gibson says that in kindergarten his child had a black teacher and had no office recommendations. The following year, with a white professor, it climbed to 30.

The litany of provisions in the law include the formation of a Whole Child Task Force to review trauma-informed support for students emerging from the pandemic. He also has policies to expand access to AP courses, reform development education, and expand the black history curriculum that the former DeKalb student mentioned last summer. It also changes the Aim High Grants program to reduce the amount of matching funds that universities with higher percentages of Pell Grants-eligible students must contribute.

“This is really going to help more students at less affluent colleges, like Chicago State University, qualify for the Aim High scholarships,” she said.

But, says Villa, if the state doesn’t fully fund education this year – and beyond – it will be much more difficult to deliver on efforts to make schools more equitable.

Peter Medlin is the WNIJ education reporter at DeKalb.

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