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We're headed in a more diverse direction

Mechelle Severson.jpg
Mechelle Severaon

A community meeting hosted by Rochester Public Schools officials was held Tuesday to address the disparities in discipline data and academic scores between majority white students and minority black and brown students as well as the barriers that exist for minority students that hold them back.

The catalyst for Tuesday's meeting at John Marshall High School was a report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that identified expulsion rates that disproportionately affected black and Hispanic students. As part of the measures agreed to by RPS leaders, OCR will continue to monitor the district for the next three years.

But Tuesday's meeting attended by a racially diverse group of 130 community members made clear that the focus of Rochester's efforts at improving outcomes for minority students will be altogether more sweeping and ambitious — not just in the area of discipline but in student achievement, enrollment into honor courses, and graduation and drop-out rates.

"This is a problem that the school district can't solve on its own," said John Edmonds, a co-facilitator of the Community Focus Team, a 35-member body that will work with the district in attempt to address some of these generation-old challenges. "This is a community issue. These are our kids."

Community members sat in smalls group around lunch tables and discussed questions that were presented to them. What barriers do you see black and brown students facing in the district? What are the root causes that give rise to such disparities in discipline data and other academic areas? The talks lasted about hour. Then group facilitators at each small gathering presented their findings to the larger group.

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Rochester has been dealing with achievement gaps and discipline disparities between white and black students for years, if not decades, yet participants expressed optimism that things could change, however incrementally.

'It takes small steps'

Thomas McLaurin, a Mayo Clinic clinical lab scientist, served as a facilitator at one of the small-group discussions. An African-American father of three children, two of whom attend the public schools, McLaurin noted that racial progress, from the civil rights movement to the abolition of slavery, didn't happen over night.

"It takes small steps for things to change," McLaurin said. "If we have a few people (attending these meetings) with a different frame of mind, then hopefully they'll be some changes. I think by creating this experience, people's eyes will be open."

Community members said that any discussion about such disparities must naturally to lead to questions of race and racism.

"How are we going to fix the problem." said Mechelle Severson a former school board member and a facilitator. "So we talked about systematic racism. Racism is something that affects everybody."

Edmonds, who is African-American, said he witnessed how attitudes and culture impacted expectations toward his own children while attending Rochester schools. He related how one of his sons, an honors middle school student, walked into an honors class one time and was asked by the teacher about whether he was in the right place.

"I have seen them have to deal with such micro-aggressions," Edmonds said.

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"It was heartbreaking, because I knew that he didn't know what that meant. My wife and I knew what that meant. But if you think about kids who have to endure that day in and day out, they are being made to feel that they don't belong."

In the report-out phase of Tuesday's meeting, people identified ways and measures that could address the racial inequities and imbalances in the schools. They included: earlier interventions at the pre-school level, more empathic listening, more teachers of color in the schools so minority students can be taught by teachers who look like them. One noted that, "there are different rules for people of color that are not known to them."

Another facilitator said that expectations for minority students need to be higher and that they should be required to take AP and honors courses. One person noted that people of color often don't see themselves in the history books that they are required to study. Another said that some black students simply behaved worse than their counterparts. The question was why.

Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis told the gathering near the end of the meeting that the Community Focus Team and district officials will pour over "every single piece of paper" and idea produced at the meeting and create a set of recommendations "where we need to make changes."

'The future only looks better'

And while no one seemed to have any illusions that there would be any quick fixes, some said they were pleased to be part of a process that would move the trend lines in more positive direction as it relates to minority students.

One of those was Abdi O. Ali. He was among the first waves of Somali-American students to arrive in Rochester. Now a Mayo Clinic employee, Ali said he has family members currently attending the public schools and he wanted to use Tuesday's meeting to voice his concerns and "share my experiences."

He said he noticed the gaps when he arrived at his Rochester middle school. His parents couldn't help him because they didn't speak English. He recalled being stuck taking basic courses and receiving little help even as his privileged peers took AP and honors courses and had greater access to resources. But he believe change — positive change — is coming.

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"Quite frankly, we're headed in a much more diverse direction right now than it was when I went through it," Ali said. "The future only looks better. I hope that it continues in that trajectory."

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