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Bridging the gap: When the teachers are white, but the students are not

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Students in class at John F. Kennedy High.
Students in class at John F. Kennedy High School on the first day of school, Sept. 1, 2015 in Bloomington.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

In a state where the vast majority of teachers are white and a growing number of kids are not, schools are trying to figure out the best way to bridge that divide.

Teachers and school officials are confronting their own racial prejudices and scouring the system for bias — all in hopes of chipping away at the state's educational achievement gap between white students and their peers of color. 

Full coverage: How did we get here? What's at stake? And what will it take to find a solution? 

But what do those efforts look like? Bloomington's Kennedy High School has been tackling the issue of race head-on.

  On Kennedy's staff development day this year, educators were asked to explore their own racial bias. In one classroom, four teachers — all of them white — huddled for a breakout session on white privilege. They talked about a time when they first recognized the concept of race.

  They go around the room, telling similar stories. They agree that white privilege means not having to see racism because they, as white people, have had success within that system. Critics say when it comes to schools, the system teaches a white-centric curriculum, doesn't have enough teachers of color, and doles out disparate treatment according to the student's race.

But what can teachers do about it? English teacher Jess Whitcomb, 29, says that's where she falls short.

Bloomington Kennedy High School graduation rates
Graduation rates of Bloomington's Kennedy High School, 2011-2015
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Department of Education/Minnesota Report Card

"How do I use that knowledge within the classroom?" she asks. "Because I'm not going to change — I am still going to be white. I read all this research that says it would be helpful if they have teachers that look like them. That, to me, is demoralizing because, well, I can't be that. So how do I be the best version of me?"

  Whitcomb, who recently took a new job, may sound stuck. But she was a passionate supporter of Kennedy's equity push that is examining race in various aspects of how the school operates.

  For example, teachers from time to time receive printouts from the principal of all the students they've failed in a given year. The list includes the student's race or ethnicity, along with other markers.

Kennedy High School enrollment, 2015-16
Bloomington Kennedy High School enrollment, by race, for the 2015-2016 school year
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Department of Education/Minnesota Report Card

  For English teacher Bryan Legrand, the list's not-so-subtle message is that he needs to do a better job teaching his students of color.

  "It feels a bit insulting because it suggests I am somehow deliberately targeting individuals for failure," he said. "I and my colleagues, we work to reach every kid in the classroom. To suggest that somehow there's a specific group that we are intentionally letting down or we aren't striving to reach is ludicrous."  

But principal Andy Beaton said he's not trying to accuse teachers of being racist. He's hoping they'll react with a sense of awareness and problem-solving.

"And there have been some teachers who say, 'Wow, I never saw it all down on paper of what that actually looked like like. Out all the students I failed, I only failed one white student last year. All the other students were black or Hispanic,'" Beaton said.  "So it was very eye-opening."  

Andy Beaton, principal of JFK High School
Andy Beaton, principal of John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, MN, surveys they cafeteria during lunch on Feb. 3 in Bloomington.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

So what's it like for a student of color in a state where more than 96 percent of the teachers are white?   

Student Michael Boone, who's black, readily admitted he goofs off in class. But so do a lot of other kids, he said. And he said teachers perceive that behavior differently, depending on the students' race.   

"I'll be talking. And I'll be sent out," he said. "A white kid will be talking. 'Be quiet, do your work.' Come on, now. I get sent out. And he's [told] to be quiet. It's not fair."  

There's research to back up what Michael is saying  —  teachers are more likely to view a child's repeated misbehavior as more troubling if the student is black, rather than white. A study from Stanford University researchers asked teachers to read two instances of relatively mild infractions by a student. The researchers assigned different names to the files — "DeShawn" or "Darnell," implying the student was black, or "Greg" or "Jake," implying the student was white.  

Jason Okonofua, one of the researchers, said that the racial stereotypes shaped the teachers' responses — not after the first infraction, but after the second. The stereotype that black boys were "troublemakers" was powerful, he said.  

"It serves as a glue that sticks to independent infractions together to make them seem more like a pattern," he said. "One day, a child is walking around the classroom in a disruptive way, and another day, a child is sleeping and doesn't wake up when the teacher asks him to. These are two infractions, but it seems like what stereotypes are doing is making these infractions seem like they are stuck together, and that in turn leads to the more severe discipline.

Okonofua cautioned that his study didn't set out to determine whether the school discipline disparities could be explained by differences in how students of different races behave in school. That could be part of it, he said. But when he was able to keep student behavior equal in his experiments, teachers were perceiving the same behavior differently according to the student's race.   

The study could not draw any conclusions about whether the race of the teacher made any difference; his pool of participants were overwhelmingly white, which is reflective of the overall teaching ranks in the United States.   

Groups including the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership are pushing to diversify Minnesota's teachers. Research director Jonathan Hamilton, who is African-American, remembers growing up in Ohio and not seeing his culture reflected in the curriculum or in the people leading the classroom.  

"I had one teacher of color from K through 12 — and that one teacher was my father," Hamilton said.   

Hamilton saw how his father, a history teacher, was able to easily build relationships with other students of color. After all, they often attended the same church and played basketball at the same parks. His father also knew the students' parents from the community.   

"To have that sense of somebody who can relate, who can connect, who knows your community or family members — sometimes it's a relational thing as well," he said.