Burlington school district struggles at the racial “tipping point”

VIDEO: Cognitive Dissonance? Racism Talk in Burlington

Schools systems facing considerably greater challenges than Burlington’s have made “substantial strides in academic performance for their most vulnerable students,” according a new report from Diversity Now, a Vermont group formed in 2009 to address ethnic diversity issues.

The report says the local pace of change has been “torpid” and the administration’s attitude “laissez-faire.” Diversity Now examines achievement gaps, and charges that, at the root of the problem, is “the tendency for school district personnel to reproduce and reinforce social hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, and class than exist in our society.”

Such harsh conclusions came as no surprise to most parents, students and teachers who brought their complaints to a meeting of the Burlington School Board held at the high school on Tuesday night. During two hours of public comment, dozens of people described personal struggles and demanded immediate steps to address unequal treatment and harassment.

Many who attended want new school leadership, and specifically the replacement of Superintendent Jeanne Collins. Appointed in 2005 Collins has a contract that is supposed to continue until 2013, and, despite the recent drumbeat, says she has no plans to leave.

Tensions have been building since last October, when a school district task force released its strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, and especially since a pointed refutation of that document’s findings was issued by math teacher David Rome. Disputing much of the statistical analysis underlying the plan, Rome has argued that hiring more “culturally competent” teachers of color won’t solve academic problems.

For some students, particularly English language learners (ELL) from Africa, the resulting discussion of their academic performance was deeply offensive, and triggered protests outside the school. The teens charge that, in spite Burlington’s liberal reputation, they are frequently the targets of harassment, hate speech and unfair treatment.

“I know it takes time,” acknowledged 17-year-old Fama Abuka at the meeting. She quickly added, “But how much longer do you guys need? How much longer? It’s true we need to take baby steps. But we’re going to have to move faster, because this is not getting us anywhere.”

The latest report from Diversity Now makes a similar point, and adds a warning. “As minority groups increase their presence, a ‘tipping point’ is reached.” This can trigger a backlash, “the emergence of what had previously been dormant racial, cultural and class prejudice.” As an example it mentions one recent protest at the school by African students during which white students voiced “racial/cultural epithets many thought did not exist in our community.”

A less confrontational, but revealing reaction was expressed by Kevin Ryan on Truenorth Reports. Headlining his May 8 blog post “When the race card is played, Burlington needs a full house,” Ryan argued that the strategic plan makes excuses for non-white students who have academic or behavioral problems.

“Racism and bias must be assumed the causation, simply because white people run the show,” he wrote. “In fact, the school system which shows such disparities between students of color and those termed to be white must be ‘institutionally racist,’ even if the staff is not even aware that they themselves are racist.”

Differences over staffing

Few people deny that some progress has been made in addressing racial discrimination and disparities. According to UVM faculty member Denise Dunbar, who has attended recent student protests and addressed the School Board this week, a number of the recommendations in a 1999 report on racial harassment in Vermont’s public schools have been adopted.

A brutal incident sparked that initiative – the beating of a 13-year-old African American boy by several white teenagers on June 25, 1997. Witnesses said the teens were shouting racial remarks at the time. According to a subsequent statement by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Burlington was not doing enough to respond to “unprecedented increases in minority student population.”

After several community forums, a Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that racial harassment was “widespread and pervasive” in and around public schools throughout the state. The recommendations included state-level efforts to raise consciousness, full compliance with Vermont’s 1994 Anti-Harassment in Education Act, curriculum development that celebrates diversity, mandatory teacher training, and a coordinated system to deal with complaints.

More than a decade later many people continue to insist that experiences of racism “are some kind of fiction,” Dunbar charged. “When it comes to the issue of race and racism cognitive dissonance takes over.” The term refers to the discomfort that can result from attempting to reconcile conflicting values or ideas; for example, the image of Burlington as a progressive community and the persistence of institutional racism.

Since 2005 the school district has attempted to respond by creating an Equity Council to provide overall direction, as well as an Office of Recruitment and Retention to increase cultural competence and improve the hiring process. Staff and faculty receive annual anti-bullying training.

In 2010 the district hired six new teachers of color, according to a list of “diversity and equity actions” provided by Collins. But Diversity Now points out that when the district was recruiting two new principals that year, whites were selected and candidates of color were overlooked. The group argues that those decisions reproduced “past inequalities and obstructions” and “led to a perception of an unlevel playing field.”

Vince Brennan, a member of the Burlington City Council. Photo by Greg Guma

Vince Brennan, a member of the Burlington City Council. Photo by Greg Guma

One recent addition to the faculty roster has been Reuben Jackson, a National Public Radio commentator and former Smithsonian curator who teaches at the high school. Responding to an article about Vermont’s lack of teacher diversity in 2010, Jackson noted that he had “bumped heads with some of the most overtly patronizing and unabashedly — let’s call them provincial — administrators this side of Little Rock.”

On Tuesday several speakers questioned why Jackson, a popular substitute teacher, hasn’t been offered a full-time position. “He is one of the only African American teachers at BHS,” said UVM faculty member Nancy Walsh. Calling this decision a “serious failure of leadership,” she urged officials to offer Jackson a contract and replace Superintendent Collins.

Somali students protest at Burlington High School. Photo by Greg Guma

Somali students protest at Burlington High School. Photo by Greg Guma

The question of whether recruiting a more diverse staff, administration and faculty will improve educational performance and reduce racism is one of the key points in Rome’s rebuttal of the strategic plan. He argued that “hiring teachers of color has little, if any, correlation to student performance.”

Instead, he wrote, the district should focus on “improving the economic situation of lower socio-economic families and educating them about the link between academic success and their future.”

Understanding achievement gaps

Why do students of color tend to lag behind others in academic achievement? One argument has been that the root of the problem is socioeconomic status. But Diversity Now notes that “students from poor families may be white or black, new Americans or native English speakers, boys or girls.”

A largely unrecognized factor may be “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon identified by former Columbia University Provost Claude Steele. The idea, explains the report, is that when a group is negatively stereotyped “they are likely to become anxious about their performance, which will hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level.” In other words, the underlying problem may be the local climate rather than student ability.

In any case, gaps in achievement due to economic status may not be inevitable. Diversity Now suggests that professionals from school systems that have succeeded in narrowing such gaps should be invited to a “summit” in Burlington where best practices can be explored.

Local students who are recent immigrants to the United States question their segregation into English-as-a-second-language classes and argue that they should not be judged based on New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores, a mandatory standardized test.

Internal segregation, through tracking and in ELL classes, “perpetuates stereotypes that have made our schools a hostile environment, undermining achievement,” according the Diversity Now Steering Committee.

In a statement read during a protest outside the high school, 16-year-old Jacques Okuka explained, “Coming to America is hard enough! Sometimes a week later we were given a test to take in a language that we can’t understand.” Low scores also lead to “racist jokes” by white students, he added.

Another sign of discrimination identified by the students is unequal application of discipline. Abukar recounted an incident in which, after a student used “the N-word” and she responded by calling her attacker “white trash,” she was suspended for three days.

Statistical evidence backs up her contention that discipline policies may reflect a form of discrimination. In a 2011 report on “Ethnic Differences in Academics and Disciplinary Actions” Diversity Now noted that although minority students are 27 percent of the student body in Burlington, they represent 34 percent of those receiving in-school and 60 percent of those getting out-of school suspensions. Nationally, black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys. The disparity is even larger for black girls.

“I don’t see the big steps they (school leaders) are taking right now,” Abukar concluded. “We’ve been talking about it for days, weeks, even months now and no progress has shown up.”

Time for Transformation

In 1997, one of the 36 panelists who offered views and experiences about harassment to the Vermont Advisory Committee was Ayana Al-Faruk, who had four sons in Burlington schools at the time. After recounting incidents in which racist taunts were hurled at her children she concluded, “The Burlington school system and Vermont generally likes to pride itself on being liberal and progressive. Being progressive, however, does not mean being anti-racist?”

Fifteen years on, the city has become considerably more diverse. More than 60 languages are spoken by local families, additional evidence that a racial and ethnic “tipping point” has been reached. But critics of the school system claim that many of the problems identified in the 1990s persist – a culture of denial, a hostile learning environment, hate speech, unequally applied discipline, and what the 1999 harassment report called a “general insensitively to minority student safety concerns.”

The main difference today is that students, as well as adults, are prepared to speak up, protest and demand change. Burlington has reportedly taken more concrete steps than most other Vermont school districts – but not fast enough, according to those who have voiced their concerns and sentiments to the board.

District staff haven’t done nearly enough, charged UVM student David Buckingham. “Instead, the students have been told their demands are not valid” and that their protests have been provoked by “outside agitators.” He read a list of petition demands including integrating English-language learners into the rest of the school population, recruiting more minority faculty and counselors, adding black history to the curriculum, hiring an outside evaluator to assess student satisfaction, and replacing the local leadership.

“We’ve had enough time,” said Progressive Counselor Vince Brennan, who chaired the task force that produced the strategic plan and more recently called for Collins’ replacement. “It’s time for transformation,” he said.

Robert Appel, executive director of the State Human Rights Commission, also attended, and said that he and other members of the commission are following the situation with “great concern – and promise,” particularly since Burlington is the largest, most diverse district in the state. Appel argued that the problem is not primarily a matter of administrative leadership but rather true communication. “People seem to be talking by each other instead of with each other at this point,” he said.

Others were less conciliatory, however, calling the school district’s leadership “an abject failure” and warning that, unless things change dramatically and soon, the situation could “implode.”

“It’s shameful that we’re having this discussion today,” remarked Dr. Ken Palm, a black parent. “I feel frustrated and angry that the children of color in this school district attend school every single day in a hostile environment without protection and without advocates.”

Although he enjoys living in Vermont, Palm said he would “do everything I can to keep my grandchildren from going to school in this district.” The problem, he added, is that white administrators often don’t see students of color as their children, or even as human beings. In such cases, “the honorable thing to do is to step down.”

Burlington Rabbi Joshua Chasan agreed that bold actions will be required. “We need to be working together,” he counseled, “responding to the new racial and class realities.” Yet he found the tone of some comments on Tuesday, particularly angry calls for Superintendent Collins’ removal, a bit troubling.

“I thought there was a no bullying policy in this building,” the rabbi concluded, “and I’ve heard a lot of bullying tonight.”

Greg Guma

Comments

  1. Tom Licata :

    Jeanne Collins and Amy Mellencamp enable the inmates to storm the walls and conquer the village as they turn to eat their own. This parody of social justice to poetic justice is just too delicious.

    • Sojun Godfrey :

      So Tom, schools are prisons and the children protesting are cannibals?

  2. I am watching this with great interest as a school board member (and I’d add we do have open slots in Williamstown – a very positive school).

    The answers aren’t easy NOT because we can’t identify the issues – the answers aren’t easy because the background of contracts and policies and laws and perceptions have been (and still are) designed for decades old realities.

    Want to make some immediate inroads as to faculty and other staff makeup? Better read those master agreements closely because we’ve got big changes to make.

    Want to empower educators to be able to react better to (what was one time) emerging issues? Better review the relationships of control and authority that exist in our schools.

    Want to empower our school’s administrators to react better to (what was one time) emerging issues? Better review this tendency of the state government to want to centralize educational decision making.

    Want to change perceptions? Raise the expectation bar on community, parents and students – ALL community members, parents and students – especially those from the dominant culture.

    That’s just a mini-spoon full taste.

    (In the meantime Williamstown is open for families, and we’ve got that positive, inclusive, can do spirit.)

  3. Robert Roper :

    Way to embrace the school choice spirit, Rama. I love it.

  4. Ron Pulcer :

    I don’t know enough of the details in the Burlington situation, but my mother was an immigrant from Tuscany at age 10, and did not know English when she came to U.S. after WWII.

    Is there any way to pair these Somali students with other students who can speak both English and the mother-tongue? That was how my mother learned English, although it was not planned that way, but it did work out for her, eventually.

    My mother did not attend a public school until high school. She initially began at a Catholic school in Detroit. There was no such thing as ESL back then. Her teachers (nuns) were Irish Catholics, so they could not help her much, given the language barrier. But my mother did stay in same classroom with her peers and was not separated from the group. From what I read earlier, it sounds like the Somali students are gathered in a separate building from their American-born peers. So much for language immersion, if they are kept in a separate place.

    What really helped my mother learn English initially were two of her classmates, who were American-born, but also from Italian families. My mother learned English by sitting next to these other classmates, who could translate for my mother, what the teacher was saying. Eventually, my mother spoke fluent English, and lost whatever accent she may have had (unlike my grandparents who also learned English, albeit “broken English”.) These two classmates became life-long friends with my mother.

    I hope that the Burlington school district can come up with a workable solution.

Comments

*

Annual fundraising appeal: If we had a dollar for every comment, we could end this annual fund drive now. Donate now.
Comment policy Privacy policy
Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Burlington school district struggles at the racial “tipping poi..."