Incident is a learning experience in a district where students of color are now the majority
Achieving racial equity in a suburban school district where over half of the student population is of color is an ongoing process, say school officials. Osseo Area Schools, Minnesota’s fifth-largest public school district, has 52 percent students of color, Superintendent Kate Maguire told us in an MSR interview. “I’ve been in the district for 30 years,” she said, and the district’s top administrator since 2010.
“We have primarily Caucasian staff members serving 52 percent students of color,” explained Maguire, adding that the district’s racial equity work includes “culturally relevant teaching,” leadership development, and community engagement “in ways that we’ve not done before. From my perspective as a White female leader, we are doing work in a way that we haven’t done before. We have to think differently because our experiences are different than many of the kids that we serve.”
The superintendent also pointed out that as a result of this work, the district’s Black graduation rates have increased 26 percent, and Black student suspensions have dropped almost by half since 2009. “We have to be conscious of our own racial background and the impact it has had on us…to know and learn differently than I ever had to learn before as a teacher and a leader, in order to serve our students differently.
“We are going to fall down, stumble and bump into each other occasionally,” continued Maguire. “And then we’ve got to decide now how we are going to treat each other when we stumble.”
Such a “stumble” occurred during a Park Center High School staff meeting in October, where several school teachers reported that they were disturbed after they watched a Comedy Central video shown by first-year principal John Groenke.
“It showed a Black male teacher out of control,” explained Special Education Teacher Sharon Booth. “He mispronounces Black kids names, and the White kids look like they are [his] victims. I thought it was very offensive.”
“It was inappropriate since there are [only] two Black male teachers [in the school] and five Black teachers overall. I was uncomfortable,” added Special Education Teacher Mykuhi Cade.
“I was very uncomfortable, and that’s what I told my colleagues at the table,” said Spanish Teacher Sara Schreiner.
Groenke, who said that he has been “a racially conscious leader” at other schools he has served, explained why he showed the video. “We have students of color — Black children — whose names have been mispronounced” by White teachers, he points out. He added that he had showed it before but [on those occasions] had also discussed it beforehand with several Black male teachers.
“I should’ve have sat down with some of my Black teachers here [to]…get their perspective,” admitted the principal.
Booth said that after she told Groenke in the meeting that she didn’t like the video, “He says, ‘Thank you for sharing that. You and I will have a further discussion.’ But we never did.”
“I met with that person and apologized,” said Groenke. “As I reflect…I can totally see that point of view. I wished that the two or three people would have felt safe and comfortable in coming to me to share their concerns. I believe I am open to listen…and open to other perspectives.”
“Our responsibility is when we mess up to repair relationships…and that is how I felt,” said Maguire.
Asked what he’d do if he could start over, Groenke responded, “I wouldn’t [have shown the video]. The students are my focal point every day I come to school. I am committed to ensuring that 100 percent of our students graduate.”
Racial equity also includes more diversity among teachers and staff, said Astein Osei, the district’s educational equity director. “There are a lot of people who can serve as secretaries, education support staff, and all of these other positions. We are going to figure out how to go find those teachers, but we also are going to utilize the resources in our community.
“The culture I want to set in the organization is that we are going to recognize it, address it, talk about it and change behavior. We are moving in that direction — that is the direction we want to move. We have plenty of learning to do.”
“I don’t pretend it is going to be easy,” said Maguire. “It starts with me.”
See the Comedy Central clip in question here. (Warning: the video contains explicit language).
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.