When Abington students were last in class on March 12, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were both alive. American cities weren’t experiencing clashes between protestors and law enforcement.
Even without the shadow of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, the nation has changed dramatically over the past six months. Sparked by the recorded killing of Floyd in May and the earlier deaths of Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and fueled by the subsequent deaths of Rayshard Brooks and Elijah McClain, among others — civil rights protests, counter-protests, and police crackdowns have rattled the nation at a ferocity not seen since the late 1960’s.
It would be hard for Abington’s students to not take note of what’s happening, between nightly coverage of it on the news, omnipresent social media streams, and their neighbors standing out on street corners holding signs. And Abington’s school leaders are anticipating those conversations are going to make their way into the town’s classrooms.
This is why dozens of Abington teachers and administrators gathered remotely once a week this past summer to discuss race and racial issues.
“The discussions that happen in society get brought to the schoolhouse. Schools are a reflection of society,” said Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer. “It’s about how to best do our job in a public school around having these conversations and discussing the facts and information in a way that does not create a bias, and that there’s a comfort level where these discussions can take place.”
The involuntary weekly gatherings were part professional training, part literary review, said Jason Scott, who heads the history and business departments for grades 7-12. The group, which numbered as many as 50, discussed books they’ve read, shared articles, asked questions, and discussed the best way to foster productive conversations in school.
“From an emotional standpoint…it’s been exteremely beneficial and helpful to me to have a space to share my thoughts and concerns,” Scott said. “These are difficult and delicate conversations. To have a space to practice gives us more and better ways to talk about it when we ultimately talk about it with our students.”
The conversations focused more on when and how to have these conversations when they come up, and less on specific curriculum. Curriculum changes must undergo a deliberate and sometimes lengthy vetting and approval process. (“We anticipate that this work will continue during school year as we review our selection of curriulum materials or materials used now,” said Assistant Superintendent Felicia Moschella.)
For teachers who may not be prepared to discuss racism the moment it comes up, the summer discussions gave them ways to this respect the topic while delaying the conversation.
“It helps them say this is a really important conversation and it can get hot, so let’s pause it so we can get the information straight and revisit it tomorrow,” Scott said.
“We want to increase our knowledge and provide our professionals with the tools they need to have critical and meaningful conversations around race and equity,” said Schafer. “We also want to have the opportunity to be reflective of our own practices around bias and race and how they impact aspects of our personal and professional lives.”
Abington Public Schools are becoming more diverse. The number of non-white students making up the Abington student population has increased from 8.4 percent to 18 percent over the past five years. In 1992-93, the earliest year state data is available, Abington schools were 98.2 percent white. Schafer said the conversations were not specifically prompted by these changing demographics.
“Even if our population was 100 percent white, these conversations would be happening,” he said. “All institutions need to talk about bias. Even good people have biases, whether conscience of them or not.”
Discussing sensitive political and social issues, including race, comes with challenges, particularly in today’s super-charged climate. Abington schools ran into some blowback last year when an Election Day lecture given by then-Principal Theresa Sullivan to a history class was recorded and then posted on a town Facebook site. A number of parents were upset, feeling Sullivan, a former chair of the history department, crossed the line into liberal advocacy.
“When it comes to conversations about race in America, the conversation is never an easy one, but one that must be had,” said Joe LaPointe, an Abington High alum, and one of those who voiced his concerns about the lecture last November. “The key word is ‘conversation’ and today people tend to forget what that means. Meaning a conversation is two sided, and both sides are required to listen.
LaPointe feels schools are more worried about optics and being protested than education, and hopes discussions will be more balanced.
“Administrations want to erase certain parts of history and emphasize others, just to appease Ken and Karen Smith, and if they don’t, their 20,000 Facebook friends will be picketing the principal’s house on Sundays,” he said.
“Is our history ugly? Of course it is. There are many aspects of our country’s short history that no one should celebrate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught. We grow as a country and as a people by the mistakes we make. If a conversation about race in America happens in schools, everything needs to be discussed, the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Schafer and Scott said the goal isn’t to force a sole opinion on students, but make them better critical thinkers.
“When [these conversations] happen, the best practice with children and students is to answer questions openly, honestly, and thoughtfully, in a way that isn’t political,” Schafer said.
“As teachers it’s our job to educate kids about how to access accurate information,” Scott said. “It’s not our job to tell kids what is right and wrong, it’s about to make better informed opinions….Here are the perspectives, and here are the tools needed to evaluate what beliefs mean and how that fits with your belief system.”