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Archive for Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Students teach administrators about racial issues in Lawrence schools

January 22, 2014

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Lawrence High school senior Makayla Bell, left, joins other high school students in a panel discussion on racial issues with district administrators Wednesday.

Lawrence High school senior Makayla Bell, left, joins other high school students in a panel discussion on racial issues with district administrators Wednesday.

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Contact Journal-World education reporter Elliot Hughes: ehughes@ljworld.com

A panel of students from Lawrence and Free State High schools told about 50 of the district's top administrators and principals today that they often feel racially disconnected from the classes they're required to take, that some teachers are overly sensitive to certain racial issues, and that they're often made to feel different at school simply because of their race.

“I feel like I haven't learned particularly about my race,” said Ariana Tubbs, a black student at Free State High School. I feel like I've just learned the surface, and everything else is left for the students and me to find ourselves — things that are positive about our race or our history.”

Tubbs was among eight students — including students of white, black, Asian and mixed-race backgrounds — who spent more than an hour Wednesday morning in a frank discussion with the district's top administrators about how race influences their school experiences.

Several noted that standard American history classes focus almost exclusively on the actions of white European figures and that discussion of black history focuses only on slavery and the Civil Rights movement. To learn more about that aspect of American history, they said, students have to take a separate elective course.

“I feel it shows favoritism, or like superiority, because (the school says) that's what we think is important, or what you need to know,” said David Balmilero, a sophomore of Asian-American descent at Lawrence High School.

Their discussion was part of an ongoing program that the Lawrence school district is using called “Courageous Conversations,” which is intended to bring racial issues out in the open so that faculty, staff and students can have honest conversations about them.

The program is part of the Lawrence school board's stated goal of achieving educational equity throughout the district. According to state data, the student body in the district is about 70 percent white and 30 percent minority.

But district officials acknowledge the teaching staff is overwhelmingly white, and there are wide differences in achievement levels between white and nonwhite students and, in some case, between male and female students.

Several students talked about uncomfortable moments in middle and high school when they read books like “Huckleberry Finn” or “Of Mice and Men” — books written by white authors that have strong racial themes and that use racial language that's considered offensive by today's standards.

“Every time (the teacher) would read and the word would come up, she would look up,” said Makayla Bell, a Lawrence High senior. “I just thought it was weird because there were probably three other black kids in the class. She would always look at us, like, 'Do either one of you want to say the word?' There was no need for that.”

During the conversation, the students were asked how they felt about the fact that minority students in Lawrence have a much lower graduation rate than white students.

For the class of 2013, according to state data, the overall four-year graduation rate in Lawrence was 84 percent. For whites, it was about 86 percent, but only 69 percent for black male students and 67 percent for Hispanic males.

Surprisingly, though, many of the students said the district puts perhaps too much emphasis on graduation rates and not enough on teaching the skills students will need after they leave high school.

“While school teaches me a lot of great things, what I'm not being taught in school is how to do your taxes, or like checkbooks, how to keep that up,” said Marilee Nuetel, a white senior at Free State. “I wish that someone would sit me down for a semesterlong and teach me the ins and outs of paying bills and everyday life that you're going to have to deal with, no matter what you do in high school.”

Asked what the schools could do to improve the racial climate in Lawrence, Garrett Swisher, a white sophomore at Free State, urged officials to work on equal discipline for students of different races. “Whatever race you are determines the level of punishment you get,” he said.

District administrators and school board members will continue discussing racial issues in Lawrence next week when they conduct a two-day workshop titled “Beyond Diversity” on Tuesday and Wednesday at the district administrative headquarters.

Comments

Scott Morgan 11 months ago

Must stand up and comment.........

Since the middle 1970s U.S. History textbooks have made an explicit point to include Black American history in the curriculum. Walk down the halls of either high school and you will see an inordinate number of classroom posters dedicated to Black America.

I count many U.S. history teachers as personal friends and know without a doubt they all, as in every one of them push the correction of one time inadequacy of Black History to involve the minority student they work with. All as in All.

Both high schools staff with outstanding instructors scheduling Black American History as a senior credit for graduation semester class. (well attended and well taught) Also taught as an elective for younger students.

Lawrence schools from the highest level administration to the lowest on the pay grade have made it a major concern to bring testing results of minority students up to equality of Asian and White students. Hundreds of staff are involved in Courageous Conversations, actively involved most often using free time to participate. Lawrence public schools actively recruit minority instructors.

If anything, LPS goes overboard in racial inclusion. Why not report on the wonderful efforts of a fine school system, instead of suggesting stale old inaccurate news.

Andrew Dufour 11 months ago

Did you miss where this was a discussion from a diverse group of students and their experiences in the classroom. They never said no efforts were made to include other history in the classroom, they commented on perceived favoritism. They referenced the elective course you mentioned and suggested perhaps it should be regular coursework rather than an elective. This article didn't have a tone to me as an indictment of Lawrence schools but rather a recognition that changes are still needed. The district wouldn't be having these conversations if it didn't think changes were necessary.

Scott Morgan 11 months ago

Andrew, did we read the same article? Public school are always an easy target, and I see a bit of popular bash the public schools intent here.

I do know many LPS English and other courses requiring essays or papers give the individual student the freedom and guidance to write on any topic. In short, a typical LPS student has dozens of opportunities to research any topic. Since they are teaching research, assistance is always available.

but folks will read......

.........“I feel like I haven't learned particularly about my race,

.........urged officials to work on equal discipline for students of different races. “Whatever race you are determines the level of punishment you get,” he said.

.... many of the students said the district puts perhaps too much emphasis on graduation rates and not enough on teaching the skills students will need after they leave high school

.......Several noted that standard American history classes focus almost exclusively on the actions of white European figures and that discussion of black history focuses only on slavery and the Civil Rights movement.

Clark Coan 11 months ago

I remember that in 1970 LHS Black students advocated for more Black teachers, Black history classes, and a Black homecoming queen. Some of the classes were even de facto segregated. I wonder if the cafeterias are still de facto segregated with Black students eating with Black students, etc.

The student who wants more practical life classes is totally on the mark. All students should be taught Personal Finance, Home Economics (budgeting, shopping, etc.), how to rent an apt. (and buy a house), and Job Search/Retention skills.

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