YWCA Panel Talks Race: School culture, Curriculum, and Dropping the Term Headmaster at GHS

A panel discussion Wednesday on systemic racism in schools was organized by YWCA Greenwich, whose core mission includes eliminating racism. The conversation was inspired by the proliferation of “BlackAt” accounts on social media.

The middle of a pandemic would seem a curious time to talk about systemic racism in schools, given schools have been closed for months. But, in a panel discussion organized by the YWCA, whose core mission includes eliminating racism, it was precisely because students have switched to remote learning and are using social media to express themselves more than ever, that the topic was timely.

After Black Lives Matter protests against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, and after Black and Latino communities was disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, high school students of color, including alumni, from both public and independent schools, took to Instagram to post stories about incidents they witnessed or endured.

They called out their peers. They called out their teachers. And they have named names.

The number of followers of “BlackAt” accounts like @BlackAtGrace short for Grace Church School, which was included in a recent article in the New York Times, and, more close to home, Black at Staples, “@blackatshs,” and Black at Greens Farms Academy @blackatgfa, have all mushroomed.

On “BlackAt” accounts, students also chronicled micro-aggressions that cumulatively are painful, like being asked about their hair 50 times a day.

“Students took to social media to talk about all of that: comments about their hair, appearance, biased language used inside of and out of the classroom, a lot of experiences where they felt ‘other’ or secondary, and they didn’t belong in these institution,” said panelist Shanelle Henry, who is the director of Equity and Inclusion at Greens Farms Academy, a private school in Westport.

During the panel discussion, Greenwich native Ann Neary, an English teacher at Staples, said her school was shaken by a letter published in February by a senior, Niah Michel, in WestportNow.com, on behalf of Black students.

“We as a community feel as if we are nothing to this school. We are treated poorly from the rest of the students, and we are reminded everyday that we are not white,” Ms Michel wrote, adding that the hiring of a Black principal was to create the image of diversity. “Although some black people live in Westport, we are always asked ‘if we live in Bridgeport,’ ‘If this is our real hair,’ ‘If we can give out the Nia or Nier’ pass.'”

“It shook us to the core that it was so public and so verbal,” Neary said, adding that the letter might have had even more traction had it not been published the Friday before winter recess. Then, of course, schools shut down in March.

“I’m a little disappointed we didn’t do more action on it. It can’t just be a one day seminar….These little biases are so ingrained in our life. You just have lots of baggage you bring with you,” she said, adding that the school has yet to come up with a plan.

Neary said that 48% of students in Connecticut are of color, but, she said, “But we don’t necessarily see that here in Fairfield County, where less than 10% of teachers are. So they’re not even getting some role models or some mirrors of themselves.”

At the same time, she said, there is also the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline. “When you look at the data you see what students of color are being suspended or in trouble for – 67% of that is for willful disobedience, which could be chewing gum in the hall.”

“Kids of color are suspended more often than their white peers,” said moderator Antonia Thompson from the Stamford Mayor’s Youth Services Bureau, who also coordinates Stamford Restorative Justice Project, “We see that a lot. In Fairfield County there aren’t that many (students of color) but they have highest rate of those who are being suspended.”

Ms Henry talked about how school climate impacts the psyche of children of color, and that too often the child of color is assumed to be doing something bad. She said they may be singled out for discipline for a hoodie, wearing headphones or being disrespectful.

“Is it the child of color who becomes singled out for acting out or playing aggressively,” she added. “We saw that in the ‘Black At’ Instagram pages for students of color feeling attacked for doing something that their white peers also do.”

“On the one hand you’re made to feel invisible, but when it comes to discipline not all of a sudden you’re hyper visible, or you’re automatically assumed that you must be the one. There are many stories of students accused of theft when something is missing from a locker or a desk. Students of color say, ‘Why are you asking me?'”

At Greens Farms Academy, Ms Henry said, “We’re looking at lack of representation in curriculum, in faculty and student body, disparity in discipline, infractions in dress code, failure to address incidents, bias language that has happened in classrooms and on campus that has gone unaddressed either by faculty or administrators, and students are saying ENOUGH,” Ms Henry said. “We can’t say we don’t know any more. Now that we know, we are being called to the carpet to address it.”

Here in Greenwich, Nina Hirai, a member of the GHS class of 2019, wrote in an open letter at the end of June to GPS administration saying faculty must be diversified, curriculum must include narratives of struggles of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, especially Black communities.

Ms Hirai wrote that not only was at Greenwich Public Schools troubling, but neither students nor faculty are held accountable for discriminatory incidents.

“The amount of times the n-word would be shouted across the hall in a ~63% white school is absurd and quite frankly should have been a mathematical impossibility.”

In the panel discussion Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said the district had hired a consultant who starts next week to help look at curriculum with an eye to updating it.

She also said the district started a minority recruitment program in 2019. “Our young people have clearly stated they’d like to see that,” she said.

“We realized our faculty is predominantly Caucasion,” she continued. “We’re very fortunate that our HR chief officer, Shamain Johnson, is a woman of color. It is helpful for applicants to be able to see that in our district, we want to be more diverse, and our children to see teachers who do look like them.”

That said, Jones acknowledged the district has had “very few” applicants of color. “We’re analyzing why,” she said.

Jones said there is much work to be done to update the literature that is assigned to students.

“For many years the curriculum materials that supplement the curriculum we write were created by text book companies that were often not representative of the world in which we live,” she said, adding it was a step forward that the the state will require schools to add Latinx and Black studies to the curriculum.

In May 2019 a bill passed requiring Connecticut public high schools to add a course in African American and Latino Studies, beginning in 2021.

Neary said there is a lot of talk about teaching from “the old white man canons.”

“We’ve got literature that’s from only white authors,” said Neary who also teaches children’s literature. “If you’re a child of color you’ve never seen yourself in a book. You’re three times more likely to see a truck or an animal than a child of color in a children’s book.”

Dr. Jones also talked about how the district is planning more professional development for families, so, for example parents can understand Google Meets, and to translate Google’s short video tutorials into Spanish.

She said the Greenwich Alliance funded a to work with staff on how to better engage families to give them what they need to know to help their children be more successful in school.

“Technology is complex for people who use it every day, but if you’ve never seen the programs your children are using in school, it can be very hard for families,” she said, adding that the district had had a program to provide hot spots for children whose families lacked internet.

Since school shut in March, they’ve continued that effort, mobilizing at least 100 additional hot spots. Jones said many students stayed after school or went to the library to do homework and use the internet, but in March when all the buildings closed, they requested assistance.

“We are absolutely committed to making sure every student in Greenwich Schools has what they need to be successful. We have iPads for K-5 and Chrome Books in grades 6-12,” she said, adding that over 400 laptops that needed repairing. “We made sure it was done in 24 hours. So there was no gap in their learning.”

Another topic was the use of the term Headmaster and Headmistress. While the position at GHS has been held by men for many years, Elaine Bessette, served as GHS “Headmistress,” from 1999 to 2005.

Ms Henry noted that Harvard, MIT and Yale stopped using the term in 2016 and both colleges and high schools across the country have following suit.

Brunswick which dropped the term this summer. And at Greenwich Academy, GCDS, and Sacred Heart, the term is not used.

Jones said the discussion has just recently emerged in the past few weeks and there would be a conversation with the BOE about a change. She said there is no barrier to changing the term, but that the administration is busy planning the schools reopening.

“We realized we actually use Head of School and Head of House interchangeably with Headmaster…I don’t think anyone is averse to it.”

At the end of the discussion, Ms Thompson said the conversations need to continue, especially given there is an upcoming election and talk of defunding police.

Ms Henry said she was not optimistic. She noted that back to school was happening at a potentially contentious time. She noted earlier in the day as a Black woman was selected for the Democratic ticket and the campaign is heating up. “How we’re going to be talking about that with civil discourse – it remains to be seen.”

The YWCA Greenwich will host more Zoom panel discussions and events examining various forms of systemic racism as part of their new series “Towards Equity: A Series Examining Systemic Racism.”

Stay tuned…