They’re no longer high school students themselves, but three friends recently teamed up to try to change the Rochester School District’s stance on racial diversity for classes yet to come.
Together, the 2017 Century High School graduates Serena Shah, Ohemaa Kyei-Baffour, and Bella Ou released a petition last weekend, calling on Rochester Public Schools to take an active stance against racism by diversifying its teaching staff and broadening its curriculum to better reflect communities of color.
It’s less than a week old, but the petition has more than 1,000 names of people identifying themselves as graduates, parents, staff members of the district, and community members.
“As students, former students, and community members of Rochester Public Schools (RPS), we demand that RPS immediately implement anti-racist education reform into all K-12 schools and create an anti-racist school environment,” the statement at the top of the petition reads.
The petition includes a list of demands, one of which is a more racially diverse staff. It references the Minnesota Report Card saying that students of color comprise more than 40% of the student population, but that people of color comprise less than 5% of the teaching staff.
It says the district “at a minimum” should teach the “accurate history” of indigenous peoples, economic inequality and racial discrimination at the local, state and national levels. It says the district should promote anti-racist authors in English and literature classes, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
It also references racial disparity when it comes to discipline rates among the students in the district, which has been noted by the U.S. Department of Education.
Although their petition has started to gain some traction, the authors acknowledge they are not the first to bring the issue forward.
“I think there’s a lot of teachers within RPS who are working toward these things now and have been working toward these things already,” Shah said. “So a lot of this petition is also about (the question): ‘how is RPS going to support those teachers?’”
The petition is addressed to the school board members and administration of Rochester Public Schools. The petition authors are still trying to determine how long they want to wait before sending it to the RPS leadership.
Heather Nessler, director of communications for RPS, said the district would refrain from commenting on the petition since the document has not officially been presented to the administration yet.
Although the petition has received a fair amount of support in the short time it’s been available, it’s also encountered opposition. According to Shah and Kyei-Baffour, the petition was essentially defaced within the first couple of days it was available. Someone, or possibly a group of people, went into the document and filled it out with all sorts of racial slurs.
After that, the authors of the petition decided to make some changes to the document. They began requiring people to provide email addresses to add their names. They took down the original Excel document. They changed the document so that each person could only respond to it once.
They’ve kept the original document that was defaced, though. It’s something they are considering showing to the school board to support their claim that something needs to change in the system.
“They just bombarded our Excel spreadsheet with racial slurs and just demeaning words,” Kyei-Baffou said. “It kind of shook us for a bit, but then we regrouped and were like OK, this is why something needs to be done about the educational system because maybe if these people were educated then they wouldn’t have turned out the way they are.”