‘Good trouble’ school principals vow to push back

University of St. Thomas Marui Friestleben, North High principal

They see pandemic as opportunity to challenge inequities

In August, a group of Minnesota Metro Area school principals and assistant principals led by Minneapolis North High principal Mauri Friestleben, pledged to engage in more equitable educational practices by de-centering Whiteness in learning systems, among several other directives.

They call themselves the “Good Trouble” principals, inspired by the late John Lewis. “Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” said Lewis. “Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“What’s going to be harder than organizing them is holding them mutually accountable,” explained Friestleben. “We are looking to see their fruit. It’s one thing to sign your name to a document its another thing to do the work it calls for.”

Principles and directives

The group has outlined its principles and directives, which can be found on its online platform. They include:

“De-centering Whiteness. Understanding that traditional organized whiteness ensures domination through forms like PTAs and unions. We purposefully call out and lift up historically non-represented voices of color in our spaces to hold weight and power.

“Dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority like bias in testing and the labeling, tracking and clustering that reflect an Americanized version of a caste system in our schools.

“Reconstructing ‘school’ upon our full in-person returns where business-as-usual, like schedules and staffing, are open to drastic changes, and engaging in that preparatory work now.

“Speaking truth to power. Where our commitment to holding ourselves and those who serve under us accountable to this work is just as importantly extended to those who serve over us.”

Speaking truth in all directions

Minneapolis North Community High School Assistant Principal Steve White, who is a part of the group, explained what this pushback against racial inequities in educational systems can look like and some of the “good trouble” that they are making.

“The first tenet of our group is to speak truth to those who report to us and to those we report to,” White said. “Speaking truth in all directions within an organization.”

This includes calling out racial inequities in school practices even when it makes the situation uncomfortable. “We have systems that are underserving Black, Brown, and Indigenous kids and have been doing so for a very long time, and we’re going to push on that,” White said.

One concrete example of “good trouble” pushback, White explained, looks at how honors courses are designed in schools and how those systems can segregate students.

“If a kid is in an honors science class, for instance, and that student is also in the band or in orchestra, there’s only so many times that sixth-grade orchestra is offered during a school day. There’s only a couple ways to get through the rest of their classes, and then for all intents and purposes they are separated from the other kids.”

Standardized bias

Initial access to these classes also contains inherent biases. “Standardized tests have a history of bias that shows up especially on Black, Brown and Indigenous people,” White explained. “And so disproportionally those tests will overreport White kids as academically performing and being ready for those classes,  and [they will] disproportionately show Black, Brown and Indigenous kids not being ready.

“Because we’re taking a standardized test that has bias in it and then acting on it, even acting on it in a way that on the surface feels benign and objective, it actually turns out to have these lasting consequences of schools fully separated, and sometimes separated within the school walls itself,” said White.

No slipping back

The more than 200 ‘Good Trouble’ principals and assistant principals in the group who have signed the pledge discuss their shared experiences surrounding racial inequities in the education system. Where one person may have had trouble in a specific area, another may have had success, and sharing these ideas is an important part of their process.

“Being a building principal is a unique spot with power and also not having power,” White noted. “But we can change a lot as building leaders, so that’s where we’re choosing to put our energy, is to operate in the places and spaces that we can impact.”

These efforts come amidst a COVID-19 backdrop with Minneapolis schools operating under full distance learning models. These educators are pushing forward despite a more-than-complicated 2020 school year.

“We’re not going to accept slipping back into the settings and practices that underserved our Students of Color for generations,” White attested. “We’re trying to make use of this opportunity. As much as this pandemic is a shock and a horror to so many, it is also, from an educational standpoint, an opportunity to pause, hit reset, and reexamine how we do our practices.”

Friestleben anticipates that the work will involve risks as it moves forward. She noted that one principal has received quite a bit of push back from their school board.