Grade school principal leads anti-racism initiative

By Sarah CR Clark

The educators at Saint Anthony Park Elementary School are approaching teaching differently this year.

And it’s not just because of distance learning.

This summer, Principal Karen Duke invited the staff to read the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.

While Duke said racial justice always has been important to her, she confessed, “The killing of George Floyd reiterated to me that I hadn’t been doing enough at work. The book “How to Be an Antiracist” pushed me to be beyond racist.”

About 20 staff members joined Duke, meeting twice over the summer to talk about the book. While she says she and her staff have always been focused and done very well in serving the needs of all students, reviewing Kendi’s book has given them the opportunity to take even deeper look at racism and ways to combat it.

As a result of the book, they are examining their own racial biases, building “authentic” relationships with the students and using books and resources that mirror students of all colors.

“We began making plans for incorporating anti-racist practices at school,” Duke said. “We need to see each child as an individual and as capable of success, meeting the kids wherever they are.”

Another way the school is addressing the subject is by continually examining whether it is providing services that are useful to families; what the best methods and languages might be to send out communications; which practices must be changed to more inclusively serve students and how the staff can better facilitate learning in students so they become anti-racist adults.

Kendi’s book made an impact on Nancy Hausman, a fourth-grade teacher. “I connected with the simple language the author used (that) ‘something is racist or it isn’t,’ she said. “It let me remove confusing language around race and gave me the freedom to move forward and acknowledge ‘this isn’t working for everyone so it must be racist.’”

School counselor Beth Davies said the book’s focus on the history of racism in America and how it has affected our institutions reminded her that all people should examine their implicit biases even if that is uncomfortable.

“As a white educator, my learning is not done,” Davies added. “White educators must engage in the uncomfortable practice of naming racism when it happens and learn to enter into dialogue to bring about change. This is how systemic racism can begin to unravel (release) its hold in our schools.”

The anti-racist work occurring this semester at SAP Elementary focuses on building authentic relationships with students, which is especially challenging since distance learning is in effect.

“Building relationships with students is key to creating a safe learning environment for students,” Hausman said. “I want them to know that I care about them first as people and then we can get to learning.”

Counselor Davies said that it’s important to find “window-and-mirror-like” resources that resonate with students of all skin colors.

“Using books or materials that are mirrors of our students of color and windows to the lives of other students is an intentional way to be an anti-racist educator,” she said. “These books enhance identity exploration and develop empathy for others.”

Hausman said, “I try to provide ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’ so students can see themselves in my class and in the world. I try to talk about issues that the students feel strongly about, even when they are difficult for me.”

And apparently the teachers’ efforts are already producing positive results. Both Hausman and Davies reported being able to have significant conversations recently with students of color who felt fearful as a direct result of current affairs.

As for Principal Duke, she sees her role as a facilitator in the anti-racism initiative.

“My biggest hope, in this moment, is to just open the door to anti-racism,” she said. “I don’t want to claim that I’ve done some great initiative. But I know this is important (work). I just need to show up and keep pushing, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

Sarah CR Clark  a resident of St. Anthony Park and a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

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