This summer, Senator Tom Cotton introduced a bill banning federal funding from K–12 schools that teach critical race theory and codifying President Trump’s Executive Order on Race and Sex Discrimination, which sets limits on diversity and equity trainings.
This bill arrived as debates about teaching critical race theory in school have erupted across the country, from Texas to New York. Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical approach that seeks to understand how racism is entrenched within the law and public policy. Yet, CRT has been weaponized by parents and legislators alike to push back against any acknowledgement of race and racism within the school building.
Amidst this national pressure on schools, Boston Collegiate Charter School (BCCS), a fifth–twelfth grade charter school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, exemplifies many best practices for embedding racial equity in staff development, curriculum, and family engagement, which are all essential ingredients for integrated schools to successfully serve all students.
BCCS’s approach to institutionalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is supported by research. Studies have shown that educator bias may contribute to disparities in student achievement and school discipline between Black and white students, highlighting the necessity of anti-racist professional development training. Other studies have found that culturally responsive education, which is grounded in recognizing and engaging students’ backgrounds, has positive effects on student outcomes.
School integration cannot be limited to demographic diversity: requires acknowledging how pervasive systemic racism in the United States impacts the lived experiences of students of color.
Moreover, not only is teaching race and racism in the classroom beneficial for student academic success, but affirming students of color’s identities is essential to integration, even if it is politicized. School integration cannot be limited to demographic diversity: requires acknowledging how pervasive systemic racism in the United States impacts the lived experiences of students of color.
Institutional Investment for Embedding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
BCCS’s history makes its approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion unique. Boston Collegiate was not a diverse charter school by design and was over 93 percent white when it was founded in 1998 as South Boston Harbor Academy. In 2004, when BCCS moved to Dorchester and became Boston Collegiate, the school began to diversify. As of the 2019–2020 school year, 44 percent of BCCS’s students are white, 33 percent are Black, 18 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian. Students are selected through a random lottery, and their diversity reflects that of Boston’s neighborhoods.
With its diverse student makeup, BCCS had already taken steps towards equity, which included instituting a Principal’s Council for student discussions about race, holding racial dialogues among staff members, and diversifying English courses through reviews of protagonists. However, administrators recognized a need for more intentional DEI work when many students of color walked out of the school building in the fall of 2019 to protest racist policies and practices in the school, including a lack of teacher diversity and inclusivity.
Created in the wake of the walkout, the organization-wide DEI Task Force hired Noha Elmohands for a new role as the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I think where you allocate your resources really shows what your values are, and I think that’s important. It also means that there’s a meeting every week to talk about these issues. There is a way to handle them proactively instead of just when there’s a moment of crisis,” explained Shannah Varon, executive director at time of writing, about the decision.
Particularly in this political climate, school leaders may shy away from emphasizing a commitment to anti-racism, for example, by voicing their support for Black Lives Matter. BCCS leaders do not shy away from doing so, even as many of their white parents are police officers. “I think the most important thing is we are clear. We mean what we say, we stand by what we say, we don’t really waver in our conviction,” Varon asserted.
Elmohands and Varon said that much of the success they have had with DEI is because of this transparency. “There isn’t any single part of our organization that can honestly say that they have no idea what our goals are around DEI,” Elmohands maintained. DEI is one of the three core tenets of BCCS’s 2020–2023 strategic plan. Their DEI goals for 2023 include “More robust work on identity with families, more staff/teachers of color, and more voice in and accountability for data and decisions,” and are publicized on their website. By setting and publicizing specific goals, the community and the staff are able to hold BCCS accountable.
In order to equip staff with the ability to become anti-racist practitioners, Noha Elmohands created an anti-racist inventory to assess staff strengths and areas of growth in anti-racist practices and idealogies. Elmohands found that although there was a set of staff “who had been in trainings, who had done the work in their graduate program, who wrote theses,” when it came to practice, “that wasn’t consistently being seen.”
Training that focuses on areas of growth found by the inventory have empowered staff and equipped them to voice support for issues like BLM that affirm students’ identities, even if they are controversial among parents. Elmohands’ inventory found that four key areas of growth for the BCCS staff were misogynoir (racism and misogyny simultaneously experienced by black women), trauma-informed practice (tools used to recognize impacts of traumatic stress on student experience), colorism (prejudice against those with darker skin tones), and internalized dominance and oppression (members of dominant or oppressed groups believe their status is deserved consciously or unconsciously). From there, every staff member was required to pick one of the four competencies and develop an action plan to improve their practice. Staff are also assigned accountability partners with whom they check in to track progress. Elmohands organizes four to five staff professional development trainings a year, some of which focus on these areas of growth.
Elmohands’ inventory found that four key areas of growth for the BCCS staff were misogynoir (racism and misogyny simultaneously experienced by black women), trauma-informed practice (tools used to recognize impacts of traumatic stress on student experience), colorism (prejudice against those with darker skin tones), and internalized dominance and oppression (members of dominant or oppressed groups believe their status is deserved consciously or unconsciously)
Restorative justice is central to staff development as anti-racist practicioners. Elmohands defines restorative justice as a “a framework that focuses on building relationships and connection and repairing harms that may arise between individuals in the same community.” Restorative justice is rooted in Native culture and peacemaking practices. BCCS partners with the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University to organize trainings on restorative justice. They use a three-tiered approach to allow for staff acquisition of skills. Tier 1 focuses on the basics of restorative justice including circle training. Tier 2 offers theoretical and evidential information on how to address conflict and harm using restorative practices. Tier 3 equips staff with the ability to facilitate restorative justice circles. The majority of staff have already been trained, with the goal of training all staff by next year. Learning these practices aids staff in organizing dialogues on topics students raise such as Black Lives Matter, the Palestinian cause, and COVID-19 and its impacts. Restorative justice training ensures that staff members are equipped to facilitate these potentially delicate conversations.
After being trained, staff help facilitate conversations about restorative justice with students. BCCS has embraced restorative justice among students “as a way of doing our work in repairing harm. It is different from how we started, where we had merits and demerits, detentions, and suspensions,” Varon explained. When someone commits an act of harm, restorative justice does not mean that there are no consequences, but that the consequences are not punitive as traditional schooling often dictates. Instead, Elmohands explained, “Consequences usually means participating in conversations to emotionally process the harm, assignments for education about whatever was at the heart of the harm, and if genuine, an apology. Sometimes, we will pair a student with a staff person to work on their growth such as one of our counselors.” Next year, BCCS also intends to train students to become restorative justice leaders.
In addition to restorative justice circles, staff participate in community-based homegroups as well as race-based affinity circles. Elmohands described homegroups as “Groups of about twelve staff members across roles and grade levels who meet regularly to do self-work on DEI as part of the multi-layered approach at BCCS to self-work and accountability for DEI. Homegroups are facilitated by homegroup leaders, who have all been trained in facilitating circles through the Restorative Justice model.” Homegroups are organized across subject areas and offer the opportunity for discussing community-wide patterns and “to build relationships by unpacking our personal histories, current realities, and aspirations for the work,” Elmohands explained.
Amidst efforts to become more inclusive to students of color, school leaders have received pushback from some white families. After the English Language Arts team completed their curriculum shifts to include more works that center protagonists of color, some white families were unhappy with the changes. Executive Director Varon maintained that BCCS still has “more work to do with our white families to help them understand that their children do still see themselves. There are still plenty of white protagonists.”
Boston Collegiate’s families are incredibly diverse. It is home to families who were on opposite sides of the busing crisis in Boston and many immigrants who hail from Somalia to Cape Verde. This diversity is also apparent in their political views, which mirror the political fragmentation of the nation.
Yet, school leaders describe the environment as one of few spaces in the nation “where people of social and ideological differences share a common space.
Yet, school leaders describe the environment as one of few spaces in the nation “where people of social and ideological differences share a common space.” One way in which Boston Collegiate has fostered this environment while navigating concerns from parents is through their Family Advisory Council, which began six years ago. Executive Director Varon launched the Family Advisory Council as BCCS was trying to take affirming stances for their students of color, because they were finding it difficult to bring in all their families. The goal was to have “families dialogue directly, instead of everything going through the school administration,” Varon explained. Varon described the Family Advisory Council as a “community of trust” where people can ask questions and be vulnerable without fear of being judged. Unlike some other diverse schools, middle and upper class white families do not dominate BCCS’ Family Advisory Council which reflects the diversity of the school. Roughly half of the Council consists of families of color, while the other half is made up of white families.
As part of the Family Advisory Council, families have visited a mosque to learn more about being Muslim in Boston, participated in conversations about national crises after anti-Black violence, and have had conversations about racial incidents at BCCS. In the aftermath of the student walkout, the Family Advisory Council helped the staff devise a response.
When DEI Director Elmohands receives calls from parents with concerns, she begins by trying to understand the “core value” at the heart of their concern. In some cases, it may come from a belief that everyone should be treated equally or because they have police officers in their family. From there, she works on building trust and clarifying what is happening in the classroom. “What would it look like to offer [the idea during a classroom discussion or DEI training] that there are folks who are equity focused and who have police officers in their families, too?” Elmohands asked. “These issues are not flat but multidimensional.”
After asking those questions, Elmohands approaches the conversation with families by focusing on their shared values; both the school and the parents “want to protect their child and make sure that they have the emotional, social, and intellectual opportunity to be successful.” From there, Elmohands is able to emphasize how having conversations about equity and identity are essential for students to grow and succeed in college and the world.
While Elmohands finds that many families are receptive, especially those in the Council, there are a handful of families who have decided to leave BCCS. However, the school does not waver in its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversifying Curriculum and Detracking
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is also embedded in Boston Collegiate’s curriculum. Families of color have identified that the curriculum reflects their family backgrounds.
BCCS is currently working with a consultant on an audit for their history curriculum. As part of this process, they are taking a deep look at each grade’s curriculum to decolonize it by infusing the narratives of historically marginalized people and ensuring students can see historical events from multiple perspectives. They also offer a capstone course on race, identity, and equity that seniors can opt into.
For younger students in the fifth and sixth grades, they also offer a weekly class called IDLead, with the goal of allowing students to reflect on their personal experience. Students investigate what identities they hold, how their identities intersect, and how their identities intersect with other people. IDLead centers on what BCCS calls the Big Ten identities: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, beliefs and religion, family structure, native language, and socio-economic class.
BCCS has also worked to reduce achievement gaps for students of color through detracking. Research has shown that academic tracking, grouping students based on perceived ability, can perpetuate segregation at the classroom level, even within diverse schools. BCCS used data to identify gaps in enrollment and achievement in AP classes. They found that white students were overrepresented in AP and honors courses while students with disabilities and low-income students were underrepresented. To mitigate these gaps, they phased out ninth and tenth grade English honors classes, which had previously served as a barrier to AP English courses. They also allowed all students to take the equivalent of Algebra 1 in the eighth grade to create a path to AP Calculus for all students by senior year. While teachers had previously guided enrollment decisions in AP Classes, BCCS administrators worked in lockstep with teachers on each students’ course selection for the subsequent year. As part of this, BCCS shifted to an open enrollment process where teachers recommend preparation and offer student-led advising meetings, but students are given greater flexibility to enroll in AP classes.
As a result of these efforts, participation for eleventh and twelfth grade students in AP courses at BCCS increased from 55 percent in 2015 to 83 percent in the 2020–21 school year. During the same period, the participation gap between white students and students of color decreased from 19 percent to 2 percent, while the percentage of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) participating in AP courses quadrupled from 15 percent to 69 percent. During the five-year period where BCCS expanded access to AP classes and closed the participation gap for low-income students, students of color, and students with IEPs, the percentage of AP scorers with passing rates and the percentage of students with at least one passing score has fluctuated less than 10 percent.
Boston Collegiate Charter School’s Takeaways for Institutionalizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Boston Collegiate’s progress in diversity, equity and inclusion can serve as an example for many other schools and districts, especially those that serve communities with a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs. Executive Director Shannah Varon and DEI Director Noha Elmohands recommend that other schools take the following approaches to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, even in today’s contentious political climate.
- Invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion and not just in moments of crisis. DEI work requires a clear commitment to succeed. Schools should not shy away from being transparent about their values and illustrating those values by investing resources into a DEI staff and office.
- Build a community of staff who are equity practitioners. DEI is not just housed in one office. Instead, Elmohands contended that schools should have “Have a team of staff members who are equity practitioners be a part of your board of trustees, executive team, staff, family members, and students.” This allows for accountability and frequent pauses to assess your strategy for bias. Accountability also requires being “critical of the perfectionism and speed in which your team or administration moves to ‘fix’ issues,” Elmohands clarified.
- Set specific assessment and goals. Create an assessment tool, like BCCS’ anti-racist inventory, to integrate into your strategic plan. The strategic plan should be clear and include a timeline and specific goals.
- Institute intergroup circles and restorative practices. In order to heal after moments of crisis or when harm was caused, schools and districts must provide opportunities to build community. Restorative justice is a powerful tool for creating belonging and addressing concerns after moments of national or communal crisis.
- Connect with families over shared values. Understand what values and worldviews your students’ families hold and establish shared values. From there, you can work with them to “create an investment about where [you] want to go as a community,” Elmohands offered.
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