DECATUR — Work is progressing toward implementation of a racial equity policy for the Decatur School District that will eventually cover everything from changes in curriculum to hiring practices to recruitment of staff.
Among the changes being considered are making African-American history, now an elective course, a required course; changing graduation requirements so that high school students would take a course either in inequality and social change or dual-credit African-American history; designing community service projects that could replace some of the service-learning hours now required; expanding the world history course to make it less western-focused; and requiring an introductory African-American history course in middle school.
The development of policy, which the Decatur Board of Education approved in August, is being undertaken by committees that include members of the board and district staff.
The curriculum committee, which includes several teachers at different grade levels, set out to examine the existing curriculum and determine how to make subjects multicultural and inclusive, said Ron Lybarger, an English teacher at Eisenhower High School.
“We are in need of equity as it pertains to people of color,” Lybarger said. “In some cases, entire curriculums might need to be revisited and modified to be more multicultural and reflective of the students we serve. In other cases, small minor adjustments, such as companion texts or multi-modal opportunities will create equity and broaden our students' comfort zones when it comes to issues of race.”
Megan Flanigan, a social studies teacher, said that means using materials that are primary sources, written by the people rather than about them by someone else: books and articles in the voices of those who are underrepresented.
Decatur schools' racial makeup is 54% African-American, 35.8% white, and the remainder a mix of other races and students who are two or more races.
“Ultimately, it is our recommendation that our (professional learning community) work ongoing in this district should be to evaluate our curriculum,” Lybarger said.
With the understanding that the COVID-19 pandemic could force changes to those plans, the goal is to have content-specific rubrics prepared by January, with final revisions in May.
“One of my biggest things was, I wanted this to be board-driven,” Beth Creighton, a member of the school board, said of the process. “So I spoke to the board and asked them which sections of the resolution spoke to them and where they thought they could be most helpful.”
The board members worked with the committees, and the plan contains 13 sections.
“In addition to just finding that this work is really meaningful and can create lasting change for the district, I was excited to have direct interaction with the staff,” said board President Beth Nolan. “When (Assistant Superintendent Jeff) Dase and I first met, we had ideas, but they were so much more meaningful coming from educators on the front lines.”
Social/emotional learning should also focus on making changes, specifically in social studies classes, Flanigan said. Questions while considering materials should include: Does the curriculum build students' and educators' awareness of their implicit biases, and does it focus on inclusiveness and acceptance of all students and families?
Other pieces of the overall plan: the district calendar should include important cultural observances for populations in the community not now included, such as changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and adding Juneteenth as a holiday; expanding materials in district libraries to include indigenous people's music and history; examine the art and imagery in classrooms and district buildings to remove anything deemed offensive or insensitive; training for district employees in diversity, equity and inclusion; aggressively recruit and develop teachers and staff to reflect the community.
The Decatur plan was modeled on the plan used in Champaign and in Akron, Ohio, schools, which are on those districts' websites (champaignschools.org and akronschools.com). Most of the components in the plans are similar, with a focus on training employees, changing curriculum, checking on progress every six months and making changes as needed. Both school boards adopted their resolutions in June. The Akron plan was developed by board member N.J. Akbar.
"Professionally and academically, I am an educational equity scholar," Akbar said. "We were already beginning some of this work with the board, however, the dual crisis this country was facing this late spring (and) early summer heightened the need for more direct action against racism.
"As the pandemic continued to worsen, we were noticing many inequities becoming more visible. It is not that they weren't there, it is the fact that the pandemic exacerbated them to levels undeniably. The board was talking about (the subject) more often and so was our community. This led to the decision to write a resolution to declare our district not only acknowledges the existence of racism as a crisis but intends to take direct more immediate action."
Akbar said the board has requested information and action steps recommendations from district employees, while Akbar is leading the Legal Contracts and Board Policy Committee.
"Department heads across our district will be identifying unique and specific actions related to Dr. Akbar’s resolution,” said communications director Carla Chapman. “We are right now coordinating efforts around plans and strategies.”
Decatur's plans also include quarterly reports on complaints received regarding racial bias with the status of the resolution of each, and a thorough review of the discipline and safety protocols with an emphasis on restorative justice practices.
Decatur's full plan is on the district website, dps61.org in the Aug. 4 board packet.
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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter