SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The School Committee took its first steps toward creating a more equitable curriculum and fair policies on Wednesday, with hopes of becoming an antiracist district.
Numerous motions — aimed at improving ethnic and cultural representation within the classroom, providing instruction that does not “whitewash” history and creating policies which do not disproportionately affect minority students — followed nearly two hours of community comment in which students, parents and teachers advocated for these changes.
The district needs to make strides toward improving curriculum, policies and professional development, according to South Kingstown High School sophomore Catrina Morin, who advocated in favor of teachers receiving more cultural and racial sensitivity training.
While her teachers seem to have no issue telling other students apart, Morin said they’ve frequently struggled to tell her apart from other Asian-American students.
“For them it might just be a mistake, but for us it can be very impactful,” Morin said. “In seventh grade I had this one teacher who would constantly mix up my name for another student — for a whole entire year. She may have not had bad intentions, but from my point of view, to her, it was just something so insignificant.”
“She would never really put effort into trying to change it,” she added tearfully.
Morin also made a case for young students needing to be more racially and culturally sensitive, recalling an instance of a classmate pulling back their eyelids and mocking her facial features in elementary school. Teaching students about different forms of racism and microaggressions, she said, is important at every grade level.
“At that time I was uncomfortable with it, but I felt like I couldn’t stand up for myself,” Morin said. “I didn’t know that was racism because that was never really taught to me.”
Recent South Kingstown High School graduate Ginger Mombelly told school committee members that she’d been excited to enroll in a course titled “The Black Experience” last year, but was sadly disappointed with the instruction.
“This was one of the most destructive classes I’ve ever taken,” Mombelly said, pointing out that her white teacher often showed graphic films of black people being torched, whipped and even lynched.
For black students like herself, Mombelly said watching these types of films can be traumatizing. At times, the images were so traumatizing that Mombelly said she had to get up and leave the classroom.
While taking this course, Mombelly said she was also deeply offended by her teacher using the “N-word” while reading from an article. She also noted that this teacher brought a white police officer in for a classroom discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement, whom Mombelly said she got into an argument with after he said all lives matter.
“May I remind you that saying Black Lives Matter does not mean other lives do not matter,” Mombelly told members of the school committee.
She heavily stressed the importance of hiring teachers of color, pointing out that recent studies have shown that minority students who have even just one black teacher during their early academic career have higher chances of graduating from high school and attending college.
Unfortunately, Mombelly said the only black teacher she’s ever had was disrespected by classmates who made fun of his strong Creole accent, yelled at him when they didn’t want to take tests and vaped in his classroom.
Other recent graduates and current students spoke about the need for courses that better represent the minority experience and history courses that aren’t solely taught from the white, male perspective. One grandparent, who attended South Kingstown High School in the 1960s, praised students for having the courage to speak out on issues that haven’t been greatly improved since she graduated.
Although most of the comments that night centered around discussions of racial equity and improvements toward curriculum, policy and professional development, concerns over students returning to in-person instruction were also raised.
For parent and school committee candidate Christie Fish, these two issues are parallel.
“The two big issues that we’re talking about right now — the antiracism and the pandemic — have all these huge parallels between them,” Fish said. “They both need our attention.”
While the pandemic is a more recent and looming issue with the start of the school year only several weeks away, antiracism “requires our ultimate attention and is something that our district has needed for decades.”
NEASK President and Curtis Corner Middle School teacher Brian Nelson voiced his thanks and respect for parents and students having the courage to highlight issues within the district, and his excitement to be part of the solutions.
“There’s no reason why South Kingstown shouldn’t be the absolute best school district in the state, in New England and in the country,” Nelson said. “I mean that, and I’m sure you all feel the same way. Until this issue of racism is addressed, we’re never going to be there.”
“This needs to be an absolute priority,” he added.
In all, the school committee passed eight action items that evening — all stemming from demands made by an organization of local residents dedicated to enacting antiracist policy changes within the community. Toward an Antiracist South Kingstown (T.A.S.K.) is composed of community members from a wide array of ages and races — ranging from students to parents, and even grandparents.
In response to demands made by T.A.S.K. and the comments shared by its members, the school committee has taken steps toward making improvements on several different fronts.
Curriculum and Graduation Requirements
Two of the motions passed on Wednesday night dealt specifically with changes to curriculum. The first was for the district to perform a culturally responsive curriculum audit to help determine the scope, sequence, content, resources and assessments of which students’ cultural references are incorporated into aspects of their learning. The second motion for an audit of equity and representation within the curriculum was also passed.
Superintendent Linda Savastano believes these audits can likely be completed within several months, though she and Curriculum Director Ginamarie Masiello suggested starting with the humanities.
“There are strengths and there are weaknesses,” Savastano said, citing multiple students who told committee members that a global studies course they’d taken in high school transformed the way they understood the world.
The committee also voted in favor of making an ethnic studies course a requirement of graduation, beginning with the Class of 2024.
School Committee Vice Chair Sarah Markey said this is an important course for all students, including students of color.
“This is an important component for me, but only if it goes hand-in-hand with the broader curriculum changes,” she said.
School Committee Chair Stephanie Canter said this is something she feels strongly about, and pointed to examples of other states already carrying similar requirements.
“It seems like the right thing to do, and something that we shouldn’t wait to be told to do,” Canter said. “We should just do it because it’s good for our students, it’s good for our students and good for raising global citizens.”
Ending Out-Of-School Suspension
The school committee also committed itself to improving the district’s suspension policy, which community members have flagged as highly problematic for the way it disproportionately affects minority students.
Though multiple community members have raised issues with the district’s suspension policy, Davis has now brought this to the attention of the school committee multiple times now this summer. It’s a form of systemic racism, according to Davis, and holding onto discipline policies actively work goals of educating and engaging students.
After looking at the district’s policy, school committee member Michelle Brousseau said it was evident that there needs to be “a complete and total overhaul.”
Policies need to be living documents, she said, and as an educator, she believes some of the current reasons for suspension, like insubordination, are too subjective.
Out-of-school suspension will be eliminated while this policy is reworked, with the exception for suspensions made because of physical violence.
The committee also passed a motion to ensure equity and antiracist language is embedded in all contracts, policies and guidance documents — a charge mostly directed toward Savastano.
Antiracist Professional Development
In line with T.A.S.K. demands, all staff members will be required to participate in antiracist professional development that’s grounded in professional learning community culture.
Multiple school committee members noted that this isn’t being done because teachers are racist, but to help them become actively antiracist.
“Our teachers are not the problem,” Markey said. “I don’t think anyone’s saying teachers are racist. I think what we’re saying is it’s hard work — it’s necessary, urgent hard work, to be actively anti-racist.”
School committee member Kate Macinanti said that missteps are glaring, but there are educators who are actively working to move in the right direction.
School committee member Emily Cummiskey echoed comments made by Markey, stating that “this is not an issue about our teachers, our staff, our administrators being racist — it’s an issue of a systemic and historical issue and that we’re moving towards being antiracist.”
Although this will be a heavy lift to start, Savastano assured committee members that their motion to publicly share data around discipline, the district’s workforce and programs, will be possible.
A push for transparent data sharing was made so community members can see how the discipline is being dealt among different ethnic and racial groups, how many persons of color are applying and being hired into the school district, and how many students of color are being placed into advanced placement and honors courses.
Establishing an Equity and Antiracist Advisory Board
In order to help oversee all of these other changes within the district, and to help ensure more equitable learning opportunities for all students, the committee voted to create an Equity and Antiracist Advisory Board.
This new advisory board will be created and charged by Robin Wildman and Jonathan “Globe” Lewis, both of who are Level 3 Kingian Nonviolence Trainers.
“We want to center this advisory board around the experience and expertise of the [black, indigenous, and other people of color] community,” Wildman said, expressing a desire to work with teachers, family members and students, especially. “I think they have a lot to teach us about ways we can do things better in the district, and I’m really interested in hearing what they’re looking for moving forward.”
Anyone who’s eager and willing to help take part in these efforts will not be turned away, though, according to Wildman.