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Teachers learn how to teach children about race

Macy Senestraro knows the story of her own family’s journey to the U.S. The special education teacher at Bellview Elementary School is the granddaughter of immigrants who she said faced discrimination upon arriving in California from Mexico.

After spending the morning of Oct. 10 learning how to address that kind of prejudice in the classroom, Senestraro said she hopes to be able to better support students from different backgrounds and teach them to build a society amongst themselves.

“As our world is evolving, we need to evolve as teachers,” she said. “We really need to be able to teach our children that we’re all diverse and we all have different cultures and our differences make us stronger, not weaker.”

The trainers at the front of the room Thursday morning in Bellview’s library know how to navigate those kinds of differences. Emily Green, who has a background in social work, and her husband, Mike, an economist and former journalist, weave their experiences as a blended, biracial family into trainings for families and professionals to talk and teach about the topic of race in American society.

“We have always had conversations,” said Emily Green, “and we have normalized our children’s questions, because kids do see skin color, they do see differences. And as parents, we just have responded with information and facts, and not avoided.”

Both trainers such as the Greens and the school employees who hire them see teachers as playing a pivotal role alongside parents in shaping how children approach their peers and learn to cooperate in an increasingly multicultural America.

“Parents and teachers are the primary influencers of our children,” Emily Green said. “So as teachers are better equipped with a broader understanding of history and our current realities ... they’re better equipped to be teachers.”

A growing number of local school districts seem to agree with that assertion, as they adopt varying combinations of trainings and community outreach around the triad of equity, diversity and inclusion. Those efforts tie into larger goals of closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates and making school environments more welcoming for students of color to thrive.

The Greens’ consulting initiative, Inclusive America, aims to prepare people to recognize persistent segregation in society and to work toward equitable practices.

“We inherited a deeply flawed society,” read one slide in the presentation the couple delivered at Bellview. “But we now have power to change it and empower our kids to redesign it.”

To break up the three-and-a-half-hour presentation, staff were invited to participate in various interactive portions. One of those involved role-playing: half of the staff assumed the role of teachers, and the other half were students.

The hypothetical scenario was easily recognizable to any adult spending time with children: tough questions.

One example: “Why has there only been one black president?”

Senestraro said the question “kind of stumped the educators on the other side.”

“How do you answer something like that to a child who’s 8 years old?” Senestraro said. “You have to not only talk to them as an 8-year-old with terms that they can understand, but also they have their family outside of school.”

Re-examining oft-repeated but incomplete historical narratives features heavily in the Greens’ training, which is common among equity, diversity and inclusion trainings. The presentation included perspective from Wampanoag historians on the earliest interactions between white colonizers and the indigenous nations whose land they took over, for example.

The historical examination moved up through the origins and expansion of the slave trade to emancipation, segregation and Jim Crow up before what the Greens call the “Negro Revolution” of the 1960s.

“There are stories, perspectives, narratives, historical events that are just completely omitted from the vast educational experience of Americans,” Emily Green said. “Without those, we really miss out on important knowledge and information, and we want our children to have that. And teachers continue to confirm with us their desire for that and their interest.”

Christine McCollom, principal of Bellview, said that staff are examining curriculum to identify bias and are considering parent outreach to continue discussion on the topic.

“We will work to find ways to make sure that the content we teach is historically sound and is considering the viewpoints of people of color, not just the dominant narrative,” she said in an email. “All students deserve to be taught the truth, and to learn about their historical backgrounds.”

Principals typically have discretion to guide their schools’ efforts to implement equity measures. At Crater Renaissance Academy in Central Point, for example, staff read a book together, usually by an author of color, on race and society.

“It’s necessary because we live in an inclusive society, and this is maybe the best example where a rising tide raises all boats,” said Adrienne Hillman, principal at Crater Renaissance Academy. “Research backs this up: the more we make sure that we are making more opportunities and successes available for students considered special status or minorities, the more we are also improving our culture in general.”

Some local school districts have incorporated the values into their goals and metrics.

Equity and inclusion strategies are wrapped into goals in Medford’s Vision 2020 plan, as well as Ashland’s strategic plan, which was implemented in 2018.

Those include reducing achievement gaps in graduation rates and test scores. Students of color, students with disabilities and children from poorer families, for example, all have historically achieved proficiency and graduated at lower rates than white students or students without disabilities.

New report card data released this week by the Oregon Department of Education show that though gaps persist across districts, some shrunk last year.

Medford, for example, highlighted that its migrant students in kindergarten through second grade had higher attendance than its overall student population. At Crater Renaissance Academy, Hispanic and Latino students had a higher graduation rate than the overall school population last year.

The state is supposed to exercise oversight of districts and schools, targeting them for extra support if their achievement among diverse student groups begins to slip.

Students and educators continue to call for improvement in school culture, however, which trainings such as the Greens’ are also meant to help with.

A more comprehensive grasp of history and incorporating a wider range of voices, the trainers believe, will prepare students to equitably approach their roles as future leaders.

“It helps immeasurably in the way that they can ... teach and educate all of these people who are then going to grow up to be the adults in our society,” said Emily Green.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Emily and Mike Green speak with Macy Senestraro after a seminar at Bellview Elementary in Ashland Thursday.