Student voices lead Black Lives Matter at Schools Week in Hackensack

By Raquel James-Goodman

During the third National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, Hackensack Education Association’s Pride in Public Education program held an intergenerational forum with students, educators and community members. It was a powerful evening of courageous conversations that focused on the impact that racial bias has on education.

Black Lives Matter at School is a national coalition of educators, parents and students organizing for racial justice in education. The goal of Black Lives Matter at School is to spark an ongoing movement of critical reflection and honest conversation in school communities for people of all ages to engage with issues of racial justice. The week supports a movement to address access and opportunity for all students, by highlighting inequities and increasing awareness, and organizing for change. Resources for the week, and throughout the year, can be found at blacklivesmatteratschool.com.

In January 2018, the NJEA Delegate Assembly, the association’s highest policy-making body, joined the call for a National Black Lives Matter at Schools Week, which began in Seattle in 2016. The National Education Association is one of many organizations and leaders that endorse the week. NEA also provides resources to initiate discussions of racial justice at neaedjustice.org/black-lives-matter-at-school. Additional resources for the week, and throughout the year, can be found at blacklivesmatteratschool.com.

Student, educator and community leader panel

Our students have lived experiences and intuition. They have stories and wisdom. They are leaders, uniquely equipped to expose and disrupt educational inequities. We need to listen and learn from our students, and reward them for demonstrating courage and taking risks for sharing their narratives. We also want our children to learn from those of us that have been where they are. It was with these insights in mind and with the support of staff, students, district administration and HEA leaders that we gathered at Hackensack Middle School on Feb. 6.

The program received funding from the NJEA Pride in Public Education program. From left: Amiya Hutchinson, Alyssa Cavallo, Julia Thompson, James Vargas, Rafeeat Bishi, Denyce Balcacer, Tedra Andrews and Ryan Cobb.

Jeff Carter, president of the Bergen County branch of the NAACP, Hackensack alumni Ryan Cobb, and Hackensack educators Caseen Gaines, Heather Mecka, and Griselda Almonte-Delgado joined a panel of seven students from seventh through 12th grades to launch the conversation between generations.

Eighth-grader Tedra Andrews shared recent headlines from New Jersey news that highlighted some of the challenges Black and Latinx students face. The headlines included:

  • N.J. Schools among most segregated in the nation, suit says (bit.ly/njsegregation)
  • Black kids in N.J. schools are suspended at a higher rate than white kids, data shows (bit.ly/njsuspend)
  • N.J. wrestler forced to cut dreadlocks still targeted over hair, lawyer says (nbcnews.to/2HSP0AL)

Andrews expressed personal connections to the headlines and said that in her four years at Hackensack Middle School, she has only had four Black teachers, none of whom have been male.

Eighth-grader James Vargas read his poem, “I’m Hispanic,” which listed the many stereotypes he has combated in school. The first stanza of Vargas’ poem reads:

I’m Hispanic so I’m not legal,
Disrespected by Americans,
looked down on by the bald eagle
Discrimination is prohibited,
but we’re still not treated equal

Denyce Balcacer, a senior at Hackensack High School currently taking an elective called Race and Representation, spoke about the intersection of race and culture as a Dominican American woman. She recalls straightening her hair because she thought her curly hair did not meet the standard of beauty she had internalized. Today, she rocks her curls with pride, countering the “ideal” of Western beauty standards. Gaines, who also served on the panel, teaches the elective.

Balcacer also expressed the need for educators to see the whole child. She is a talented artist who, “never took an art class in school.” She advised that educators need to help students explore their talents and areas of interest instead of focusing on testing.

Rafeeat Bishi, another senior in Gaines’ Race and Representation class, described the impact of implicit bias of her teachers’ expectations for her.

“Stereotypes have affected me in a way that people assume I’m not meant to achieve,” Bishi said. “When they see me, they don’t see the typical high GPA honors student.”

Bishi further explained the importance of the Black Lives Matter at School events.

“In order to create equity in our schools, we must encourage those who feel neglected,” Bishi continued. “Students who have been historically underserved or who are not taught in a way that connects to their identity may not feel included at school. Conversations are necessary because if we don’t talk about these situations, they won’t change. I guess my goal is to see more people who look like me represented in spaces that aren’t typically made for us.”

Julia Thompson, a seventh-grade student at Hackensack Middle School, believes more conversations are necessary. Julia expressed pride in the diversity of Hackensack, saying she has friends from many backgrounds, and open conversations bridge greater understanding between cultures.

Another seventh-grade student, Amiya Hutchinson, spoke about her personal journey to maintain high academic standards while staying engaged and at times feeling disconnected from the curriculum. She suggested appealing to students by giving them choices in class and teaching them about Black history and ethnic studies.

Alyssa Cavallo further emphasized the importance of youth voice.

“I come from a family rooted in immigration and the hope for a better future,” Cavallo said. “The subject of race and education holds a special place in my heart, and I strongly believe that student voice is the key in solving this long-time issue of inequality in our schools.”

Audience participation

Throughout the panel discussion, attendees participated by posting comments through an app providing real-time feedback. Audience members shared common concerns over curricula. One wrote, “I was educated in the ‘50s and ‘60s in New Jersey and did not learn about the breadths of black and brown history,” while another attendee noted, “The curriculum did not represent me or hold my culture in high esteem.”

Some attendees recalled how bias affected their schooling.

“Bias impacted my schooling tremendously,” and attendee wrote “I was never pushed, because my teachers thought average was, ‘good enough’ for me. Looking back, I believe I could have done more if my teachers believed I could do more.”

The evening ended with attendees gathering for a post-discussion reception sponsored by the PRIDE program of the Hackensack Education Association that included refreshments, book giveaways, and a book signing by author Nathaniel Sojourner Truth.

As the event coordinator, I was encouraged by the turnout. More than 120 people from across Bergen County were in attendance. I proposed a panel discussion with students because not only are they leaders, adults can’t simply silence their experiences.

Culturally relevant teaching

According to the 2017-18 New Jersey School Performance Report, the percentage of students of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous and multiracial) is growing each year and make up nearly than 60% of public school students in the state, yet 84% of teachers and 78% of administrators are white.

The students are sitting in our classrooms that are disproportionately taught by educators with little to no cultural literacy. Even scarier, many educators are unaware of their implicit bias and are ill equipped to service diverse student bodies and, consequently, maintain and promote systems of oppression and inequity. For educators  to respond to their students’ needs, they must understand the community in which they serve, and further understand the historical context of student circumstances and their privilege as the teacher.

The audience seemed to agree. When asked, “What must we do first to create equity for all students?” over 50% of the audience chose, “Train staff in culturally responsive teaching.”

As a profession, we need to wake up. The students are our clients, and we are losing them because we fail to honor them and their identities. It is our responsibility to create a learning community in which all students feel comfortable, challenged and valued. My role is to meet students where they are and move them closer to self-actualization so that they understand their creative, intellectual and social power.

To facilitate this enrichment process, culturally responsive teaching is necessary. As education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings notes in The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, culturally responsive teaching recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.

In Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, educator Geneva Gay writes that “Culturally responsive teaching can be defined as using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them.”

The evening ended with attendees gathering for a post-discussion reception sponsored by the PRIDE program of the Hackensack Education Association that included refreshments, book giveaways, and a book signing by author Nathaniel Sojourner Truth.

The students have spoken. What next?

“As educators, it’s important to create spaces for students to share their truths, and even more important that we listen,” said Hackensack High School teacher Caseen Gaines. “Teaching Race and Representation reminds me daily that students are aware of racial bias, and we can’t improve our institutions until we encourage them to speak up and support when they do.”

The consensus is in—students want to be seen, heard and celebrated. They want culturally responsive teaching. Educators need to build on this momentum and create authentic partnerships with students and community members, key stakeholders in school reform. In line with the Black Lives Movement at School, we must demand that policy makers and school leaders invest in:

  • Ongoing professional development on culturally responsive teaching.
  • The development of a culturally responsive curriculum across disciplines.
  • Restorative justice training and discipline policies centered around opportunities to reflect and grow.
  • Ongoing recruitment and support of diverse teachers and administrators that reflect the student body

This work is urgent. Deficit-oriented teaching must be replaced with culturally responsive teaching if public schools are going to survive. Priorities are determined by time and resources. It is my hope that children, above all, will be the priority.

Raquel James-Goodman is a language arts teacher at Hackensack Middle School. She can be reached at mdajamesgoodman@gmail.com.

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