Everybody Wants to Do Something: How Two Leaders are Hoping to Address Systemic Racism in Schools
“Everybody wants to do something. And they want to do something now,” observes Dallas Lee, New Leaders alum and principal of Drew-Freeman Middle School in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In response to the national outcry for civil rights and racial justice, Lee is hearing this call for urgency from students, families, teachers and district leaders. “We need to look at systems and structures,” he adds, “in order for the narrative to be changed in our own school.”
“It’s challenging right now,” echoes Greg Dohmann, New Leaders alum and principal of Jefferson Academy, a middle school in the District of Columbia Public Schools. “I think our role as school leaders right now is setting the course for the summer and the school year ahead. How do we ensure that we are putting systems in place that prevent this conversation from dissipating over time?”
Lee and Dohmann agree that this moment in time is overwhelming, layered on top of the unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also agree that this moment is an opportunity to rethink the systems and structures that disproportionately impact Black students, including discipline policies, access to advanced coursework, and high-quality instruction. How they choose to fuel that momentum and address racism in their schools is now their top priority.
In the orbit of our nation’s capital, Lee and Dohmann share their thoughts on how to support and move each of their school communities forward, engaging everyone in their call to action. Read on to learn more about their immediate actions and longer-term plans. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Can you share what this experience has been like for you as you witness this watershed moment for racial justice in our country?
It's been overwhelming to a certain extent because when I saw the video of George Floyd, I still hadn't gotten over the last [death] two weeks prior. It's a lot to process. You want to lend a voice and a helping hand to change.
It's been overwhelming and at the same time it's been exciting because the young people who are leading this charge want to see change and stick with change. It also leaves me with a little bit of curiosity. We're getting ready to end the school year and my students will enter the school year with questions and so will staff members.
I definitely echo being overwhelmed. We already had a global pandemic thrown at us. We had to redefine what school is. We had to stay engaged with our students and families and make sure that above everything else their basic needs are being met. A lot was put on the schools and we stepped to the plate and owned that challenge. But it was stressful. And, it was hard and exhausting. People are ready for a break.
But I think as a white man who's leading a school community that is over 90 percent Black, which does not reflect what I look like or my experience growing up, it is my responsibility to make sure that we don't slow down. That we tell our staff, students, and families that this is too important to let it fade back in the ether. This is an opportunity and a priority.
What are you hearing from your students, families in the faculty around their needs?
I'm hearing from various stakeholders – from central office, parents, kids, teachers – everybody wants to do something.
I totally respect the urgency, but I did tell my staff that I'm going to take some time to create systemic learning. We need to have an anchor text that guides our learning. We have our own biases and “isms” that we need to address that keep us from reaching our fullest potential as a school. I don't want to set the children out to talk about something without having great depth to the conversation.
Without depth to these conversations, they dissipate. And we end up forgetting that it's a priority, which is sad… people's lives are being taken away.
I definitely echo Dallas’ sentiment. I think it's challenging because you want to immediately dive right in and let your school community know that we're going to do something about this. But people are in an emotional place right now. People are exhausted.
I think our role as school leaders right now is more setting the course for the summer and the school year ahead. How do we ensure that we put some things in place that prevents this conversation from dissipating?
I told my staff today that I failed as a leader in that I didn't make sure that our conversation on courageous conversations continued throughout the past school year. It reminds me that just because it's not in my face in the way that it's in the face of every person of color right now, doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue talking about it with the level of importance that we are right now.
People don't mind having tough conversations about race and equity and bias. People get to get things off their chest and we put things out in the air. But when you start talking about systems and structures, where you ask folks to look at disproportionate suspensions or students passing classes versus those who are not passing classes and the support we offer them, then the actions don't quite match the conversations.
We have an opportunity to add on with the adaptive changes that need to happen. We need to look at systems and structures in order for the narratives to be changed within our own school.
At New Leaders, we understand that breaking down inequitable systems and building the schools children need and deserve requires all of us working together. How are you all engaging your Black, white, Asian, or Latinx students and families as you work to engage them in racial justice work?
So, we ended the school year on May 29. We have two weeks of professional development (PD), some of which is district-run. My first school-based session was on this topic and we have already put some things into motion. I imagine there will be more.
Our entire staff is doing a summer book club reading of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, which the DC Public Library now has the eBook version for free online. We're having different virtual meetups throughout the summer so that we can make sure that all of our staff members and particularly our white staff members are using the next couple months to own the fact that they need to educate themselves. This week, we're doing staff affinity groups tied to an article on how to talk to students about the deaths that we've seen recently. We’re creating some space where staff are comfortable to process.
With our students, we're also going to be doing a summer book club reading. We're trying to procure enough copies of a particular book to send it to every student. We're looking at a Jason Reynolds book, All American Boys, which is super relevant and will allow us to engage students and families in this conversation throughout the summer.
I would like to start off with creating a framework for what it looks like in the building. I want to make sure the work is grounded in something that we can see evolve over time. Once the framework has been created for what the learning needs to look like in our specific building, I plan to solicit assistance from everyone within the school, which is different for me. I'd like to keep the momentum going. They don’t have to serve in an official leadership capacity. I have so many people who just want to make sure they are doing something to support the cause of educating others.
So, at this point, right now, we are taking a pause to step back, breathe, and then we get into planning mode. I want to make sure that we’re addressing what we’re seeing on a macro level and specifically micro level within our specific school. That’s very important to me.
At the macro level, I am about the quality of instruction and how it is uneven at times in different spaces of the building. I want to talk to staff members when I've organized the learning and have questions prepared. Questions such as, “Why does instruction look different throughout the building with these groups of children?” Which could lead us to understanding that perhaps our biases inform what we offer children before we even get to the outputs of grades and suspensions.
What is your hope right now? How do you think we might do school differently in efforts to promote a more racially just society?
My hope is that we will begin to operationalize the work, whatever the work is when it comes to addressing racial justice in schools. But not operationalize it to a point where it loses the heart of the work, which is what we tend to do in education.
I am hopeful that there will be systemic changes for children and not just children of color – poor white children, children living in rural communities. Perhaps things might be on a more even playing field without even thinking of where one goes to school. That is my hope.
The next few months are such a unique opportunity for school leaders and districts to rethink and dismantle systems that are not serving kids and families. And then put something in place that does that better. It's a little challenging right now in that I think the summer is still going to be a time of uncertainty, at least around COVID-19, and knowing exactly what school will look like in the fall. But I see it as an opportunity. I feel really hopeful about that.
I also want to add that the power of relationships has never been more important. It's not only relationships with students and families, but relationships between staff. We are at a point in time where we’re seeking to understand each other and each other's perspectives and letting down any type of defensiveness.
We discussed this today in PD. Staff members who had the highest level of student engagement during distance learning are the same teachers who had the best relationships in the building. There's no coincidence. It all comes down to relationships. Strong, trusting, positive, empathetic relationships with everyone in your community. That has to be the priority.
Any advice for leaders around the country?
Don't forsake the importance of humility throughout this process. Like I said, we all have our biases. We all have work to do. I love the energy of everyone at my school. I love how they're always willing to learn. I have to keep that in the back of my mind to make sure I keep that same spirit and same energy. It’s a lot on our shoulders… it is the school's responsibility to shape understanding around this topic. We need to do the work with humility.
Listen to your people, your students, your staff, your families. All feedback is relevant. Even when it hurts to get it or you may not necessarily agree with that, it's giving you a more complete picture of where people are at.
Recognize that leadership is a lifelong learning process. You're never going to figure everything out. There's always going to be opportunities to learn more.