A Truly Diverse School

Sorry, a maintenance man, secretary, or vice principal in charge of discipline isn’t enough.
Billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith announces he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith announces he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a guidance counselor at the high school where I worked. I was planning to accompany a group of juniors and seniors to a Malcolm Bernard Historically Black Colleges and Universities College Fair. She thanked me for facilitating this opportunity for our students. She also commented along the lines of it being a great opportunity because our school was one of the most diverse schools around. I laughed. She asked why. I shook my head and told her that our school wasn’t diverse.

She asked me why. I told her flatly, “We don’t have any guidance counselors of color, hardly any teachers of color, our textbooks are devoid of perspectives from people of color and the curricula is Eurocentric.” She couldn’t believe what I said. However, she did think she was correcting me when she said, “Both of our vice principals are black.”

I smiled and answered, “There’s nothing more diverse than having black vice principals to discipline black children.”

Unfortunately, this colleague wasn’t the only person who ever said that a school was diverse when they should have said the student body was diverse. I’ve never heard an educator of color say this, perhaps because we understand better that a diverse student body alone doesn’t mean a school is diverse.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful for young people to attend school with people from different racial/ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds with different experiences, perspectives, gifts, and talents. Our differences, when forged together, make us stronger. But how much better would a school be as a community if faculty, counselors, administrators and district governing board members had as much diversity of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives as the students? Or if the students were assigned to read and discuss the literature of historically marginalized and oppressed peoples in the United States and throughout the world?

For schools to truly be diverse, there are areas where schools must have people of color proportionate to the population of students of color. The security, maintenance, custodial and secretarial staff aren’t any of the areas I am referring to. It’s funny how school districts have little to no problem hiring people of color for those positions.

Schools must have teachers of color. If your school has Black students, hire more black teachers. If your school has Latinx students, hire Latinx teachers. Evidence supports the idea that students, even white students, prefer teachers of color. Also, evidence indicates that students, especially black students, benefit academically (and with respect to discipline) when they have a same-race teacher. One of the most disheartening things that I’ve ever experienced as a teacher is when my students, black, white and Latinx, were unaware of some truth about history or some perspective about being a black man that I exposed them to that they were never exposed to in their previous classrooms. It wasn’t that I was better than who they had before. It’s that I had a different perspective and purpose for being in the classroom that influenced my pedagogy.

Schools must have guidance counselors of color. The guidance counselor I mentioned earlier had heard of historically black colleges and universities. So did the other counselors and the director of counseling. However, rarely did HBCUs make the list of colleges that these counselors gave to students. My guidance counselor when I was in high school didn’t include those institutions either. Too often, counselors neglect minority-serving institutions, including Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities, choosing instead to recommend only predominantly white institutions. It is disappointing when guidance counselors are unaware of these colleges and universities or when the counselors are unaware of the black college common application, unaware of scholarship opportunities, unaware of schools that don’t require standardized testing for entry.

Schools must have curricula that is non-Eurocentric. In a truly diverse school, students are assigned to read and study textbooks, primary source documents, and literature authored and created by people of color as well as by white people. Eurocentric curricula focus on the accomplishments and history of Europe and the English-speaking world while offering little to no room in acknowledging those of the non-Western world. Such curricula prevent students of color from seeing themselves. Yet research exists suggesting a relationship between positive racial identity and academic achievement for black girls, black boys, Native Americans, Latinos and other minority students. It’s not that schools shouldn’t teach Homer and Shakespeare. But it does students no favors when those are the only “classics” we teach them.

When these teachers, guidance counselors, and texts are all in place, a school won’t have to announce that it is diverse. It will be readily apparent and visible. Parents will be able to know it when their children tell them about their day. Students will be able to feel it when they walk in the building and in each classroom. Educators should know it because they are the initiators of it. Once a school achieves this level of diversity, it can start to feel like a true community.

Rann Miller directs an after-school learning program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden and is editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ.

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