What happens to us also happens for us. The killing of George Floyd, among other situations, forced the conversation about how we are treating people of color in America. It became apparent that we must begin reflecting on how we interact, teach, and support our children if we want a better America. How can we experience such atrocities and become better teachers, educators, and human beings? In Chesapeake, VA, Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) took steps to address equity and social justice issues and found beauty from the ashes of a socially charged year.
Faculty and Staff
Immediately after schools closed due to COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, WBMS scrambled to brainstorm how we could serve students who were forced to learn from home. Of course, a primary need was providing professional development to help all educators learn how to conduct Zoom and Google Meet conferences; engage students in a remote learning world; and offer grace to children who were in need financially, emotionally, and academically. This sudden paradigm shift focused our attention on social-emotional learning (SEL) for staff and students, as we realized meeting basic needs was the key to adapting to this new normal.
Our staff quickly saw the value of addressing equity with our students. Teachers were offered the opportunity to join a “Leading Equity Through COVID and Beyond” council. This group of 23 staff members met on Mondays for five consecutive weeks. We embraced rich discussions and self-reflection as staff learned about their equity needs and were also able to share stories about the needs and unique situations of our students.
While much in the world was unknown at that time, conversations from this council quickly identified needs that we could meet, such as addressing learning gaps in the new remote learning environment, handling social needs for some of our nonverbal students, targeting the inequitable distribution of resources such as cellphones and laptops, managing technological struggles, and tackling SEL issues.
With needs identified, we put our motto, “relationships before rigor,” into practice. By November 2020, our 1:1 initiative had secured school-issued Chromebooks (and hotspots) for all students, which helped provide a level playing field. In addition to solving that need, the council had thorough discussions about extending grace to students regarding grades, collaborated on effective strategies for contacting parents who were difficult to reach, and brainstormed creative ways to help students feel engaged and connected to the school.
As the final session of the equity council concluded, teachers reported feeling grateful that they could collaborate more than ever with colleagues. They also expressed appreciation for their professional growth with technology, relationship-building, and understanding of equity-related issues with their students. On the heels of this powerful and impactful group of educators, we decided that the students’ greatest need was their social and emotional needs. Our new philosophy, “relationships before rigor,” played out as we spent our first six days addressing kindness, connections, and comfort for our students.
Social Justice Council
Following the success of that equity council, 17 staff members volunteered to be part of our first-ever Social Justice Council (SJC). The purpose of this group was to better understand staff members and people who do not look like us as individuals. We shared and discussed research about such topics as the disproportionately low number of students of color in advanced classes, the disproportionately high number of students of color involved with both in-school and out-of-school suspension, “the burden of acting white,” and the identification of social justice goals for our staff.
Upon concluding this five-week journey, staff reported being awakened to a new understanding of the need for equity and how to implement it. As one teacher noted, “On a personal level, the timing of the SJC was perfect. Everyone, whether they agreed or not, showed respect for other council members. Everyone listened—not just heard what other members were saying.”
In the end, 26 staff members volunteered to participate in a book study for Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Using the five-week model from the previous two groups, members learned about the research from the author, and opportunities for reflections and group discussions occurred each week. Many group members acknowledged that this was not comfortable but was necessary to have. This experience reminded us that if we can model equity and shut down old or accepted habits that are divisive, racist, and wrong, we will impact the way our students see and feel about all races.
In 2020, parents were placed into very difficult positions in the educational process as well. They had to shift to becoming more involved with the academic portion of their children’s lives—which included subject content and technological support—and paying attention to the SEL issues that were arising.
In March 2021, WBMS facilitated a book study with 15 parents similar to the one we had conducted with the staff just two months prior. Upon conclusion of this project, parents appeared to be overwhelmingly appreciative of the opportunity to work in partnership with the school. Parents said they participated in this project because they wanted to prepare their children for courageous conversations, raise good citizens, and be present for this particular conversation. All parents who attended stated that they wanted to continue doing this work in the future and that this experience was the most enjoyable and satisfying that they had had to date.
Each year, we facilitate multiple programs to cultivate student voice and help them become part of the decision-making process in Bruin Country. Of course, with the pandemic’s impact on face-to-face meetings, we had to make adjustments. For example, our monthly town hall meetings during lunches had to be extended to two days to ensure we gave all in-person students the chance to participate. We also had to delay the start of our Family Branch (SEL) groups until the Spring 2021 semester. This delay was further complicated by the fact that our at-home students were unable to participate because the remote learning environment was not conducive to an emotionally safe setting for all students involved.
Still, there were ways that we could reach all of our students and their SEL needs. For instance, it was clear that students would be returning to us in September with greater emotional needs than ever before. To address this need, we devoted the first six days of instruction to “student connection activities.” Our administrative team provided teachers with a dozen activities that they could use to connect with their students during these first days of school. During this time, no subject content was permitted to be taught; we grew to realize the importance of connecting with students before they would invest in participating in class. This new initiative went so well that parents, students, and staff alike agreed that we developed better relationships in September 2020 than we ever had previously. One parent even commented that this was the best school opening that her son ever experienced, and it happened during a pandemic!
A second way we continued addressing SEL needs was through our Student Advisory Council meetings. We provided opportunities for blended meetings, where students from both options had the chance to meet simultaneously to discuss relevant topics related to school culture. Some of the topics we addressed included their perceptions of our new morning announcement program (as we transitioned from audio-only announcements with our PA system to video announcements that were shown on their devices), our Morning Mindful Moments program (the first five minutes of bell one were devoted to students “checking in” emotionally with each other and their teachers), and the quality of their education in the current school year.
Finally, we planned to continue our service mindset with our feeder schools, but we had to make changes. Our Santa Claws for a Cause and Literacy for Little Bruins programs had to be prerecorded instead of occurring live at the schools, but we believed that these programs were important enough that we just had to pivot instead of canceling them altogether. Both programs continued to be well-received, and in the Santa project we were able to personalize the messages by reading students’ names for each class receiving the message.
Despite our best efforts, we still felt we were missing a need that students had. After all, if teachers and parents were significantly impacted by social justice issues, it stood to reason that students may have that same need. Forty seventh and eighth graders (20 per grade level, in person and remote) were carefully selected to participate in the first-ever Student Empowerment Task Force. The goal of this group was to uncover any issues regarding how people in WBMS treated each other. Students said they wanted to be accepted for who they were and not have to be fake to please a particular group of peers.
One action step that resulted was the start of a “Be ‘You’-nited” campaign, which included several morning announcements to explain this initiative, as well as students signing a pledge banner with the promise to be kind to and accepting of each other. In addition, students identified the need to change our existing cafeteria and dress code policies. Student representatives met with the faculty to share their views, and after approval was granted, they participated in the morning announcements to share the changes with the student body. These changes exemplified the power that student voice could have.
In addition to the SEL area, we needed to review the academic opportunities that students of color have with advanced classes. Looking through an equity lens, we found that nearly 30 students of color were earning A’s in average classes and not being recommended for honors-level classes. This trend was largely happening because we used the same historical criteria for entrance—such as state test scores, standardized reading scores, and teacher recommendations. After meeting with our various advisory councils, we decided to change this formula to one based more on student characteristics. Examples of the qualities that we now review include independent learning skills, work habits, and academic maturity. Another new strategy we use is gathering ratings on these criteria from all stakeholders instead of reports from teachers only.
Our growth as human beings happens in several ways. While we prefer results that make us feel good about our efforts, there is arguably even more learning that occurs through our failures. Our country has experienced this latter option more than we care to admit concerning how we treat one another. We must keep in mind that one small candle can pierce the darkness in a room. Schools are encouraged to be that candle in their communities as they push back against the darkness of intolerance, racism, and discrimination. Educators at WBMS took this opportunity for growth from the ashes of George Floyd’s murder and the global pandemic to find the beauty of who we could become. The WBMS students, parents, and staff participated in various social justice experiences to learn about cultures outside of their own. While this beautiful discovery is only the first step in the long walk of social justice, we are thrilled that the journey has begun.
Kambar Khoshaba is the principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.
Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections
Strategy 2: Diagnosing inequitable practices or structures. You can actively scrutinize your school practices for any instances in which practices have a negative influence on certain groups of students. The diagnostic process could include using data and conversations to examine formal school policies, deliberate levels or tracts for student learning, access to resources, and staff biases.
Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.
Sidebar: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Book Study Questions
- What are specific instances of how [your school] is showing value for all cultures?
- In what way might race, culture, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status impact how a student experiences instruction at [your school]?
- To whose culture is [your school] most responsive? How do well-intentioned leaders create inequities for students and families?
- What part of today’s book discussion could you most identify with or relate to? What part made you the most uncomfortable (if any)?
- What do you hope to get from this experience? How can we get “in the way” of racist or racially insensitive behaviors at [your school]?
- What suggestions do you have for our next step with social justice?