As schools promise racial equity, the path forward is often met with resistance

K-12 leaders vowed to make their schools more inclusive after the police killing of George Floyd. But an effort by one suburban Minnesota district shows how difficult change can be.

A Black man and a white woman stand beside each other.
Donta Hughes and Julie Peplinski both have children who are students in the Eastern Carver County School District. Hughes and Peplinski share the same concerns over racist incidents that occurred in the school district but have differing opinions about its racial equity plan.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

This spring, Eastern Carver County School District officials acknowledged its struggle with racism over the years. They said the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd was a troubling sign of how much work there is to be done and vowed to keep pushing for racial equity.

For Donta Hughes, statements like these are encouraging but not nearly enough. He’s a parent in the district and has long been troubled by racism at his kids’ schools.

Hughes is an advocate of long-term planning for racial equity. But he’s been disappointed by the district’s slow implementation, which he said lacks a sense of urgency that would help students of color feel more welcome. When he hears board members talk about Black parents’ concerns, it feels condescending.

“It was a statement that they used to say when everything first started happening is that they need to ‘meet the community where it is,’” said Hughes, who is Black and has twin daughters at Chaska High School. “It was basically telling us that we weren’t a part of the community no matter if our kids went there, we weren’t a part of the community, they needed to focus on the people that matter.”

After Floyd’s killing, school leaders all over the state released statements of support for African American students and their families. But promising equity and achieving equity are different things. And if the example in Eastern Carver County is any indication, the process of dismantling barriers between students and the education opportunities they’re entitled to is often fraught with pushback, tension and stalled efforts. 

Jim Hilbert, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, chairs the St. Paul NAACP education committee, where he’s fielded complaints on education inequalities. He’s not surprised to see districts struggling to resolve racial inequalities for their students.

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“The districts aren’t sure how to do it, and we know that because they haven’t,” Hilbert said. “We’ve seen year after year after year of plenty of information that the districts fail to educate students of color. And yet here we are, it’s 2020 and we’re still having the same conversations about how do we bring equitable results to our schools.” 

Community divisions

Last year, Eastern Carver County school officials released an equity audit to try to better understand how its district, whose student body is about 76 percent white, is failing students of color. The audit found “deeply institutionalized inequities,” leading to disparate education outcomes for low-income students and students of color, as well as disproportionate discipline rates for students of color.

District leaders have since said they are committed to education equity and to dismantling barriers so that students have “every opportunity to achieve.” But efforts to make the district more equal have met with opposition.

Equity was the focus of several school board meetings last year ahead of a November ballot question that asked voters for additional funding for a new elementary school among other expenses. 

The district failed to gain the support of voters, with many community members saying they lacked trust in the district to use the money for those intended purposes. Some believed funding would go to an equity plan that favors students of color at the expense of white students.

Some in the district have also raised concerns about the district’s new director of equity, Keith Brooks, after seeing an EdTalks training of him discussing critical race theory.

For Julie Peplinski, a white parent with children who attend middle and elementary schools in the Eastern Carver County district, the term “critical race theory” sets off alarm bells. She says she’s ready to condemn individual acts of racism — like the time white students wore blackface and an Afro wig to a football game. She wants students involved in those incidents to face consequences. But she’s less sure that racism is a historic, systemic problem. And she’s concerned her district’s focus on equity will lead to division. 

“My biggest complaint through all of this racial equity and equity in general, is that people are being split off into groups, and segregated essentially,” she said.

Peplinski wants more parental and district control of the curriculum, and sees efforts to teach the concept of white privilege as divisive.

“I don't feel like racism is all just whites against everyone else,” she said. “I feel like there’s all sorts of different kinds of hate in this world.”

For Donta Hughes, however, diversifying the curriculum is a key priority for making Eastern Carver County a more inclusive district. When he recalls the objections school leaders raised over Black History Month posters last year, he thinks a more accurate curriculum will lead to inclusion, not division.

“[The school] felt like those pictures were too controversial,” Hughes said. “Malcolm X is absolutely amazing to me and a lot of people don’t feel that way because they don’t know his real history because our history books are so watered down that there’s not much truth in them now.”

A largely white teaching force

A 2019 report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that opportunity gaps between white students and students of color have persisted in Minnesota. The report found that graduation rates overall have increased in recent years, while college readiness indicators have declined, which means Minnesota is graduating more students who are unprepared for college.

A woman and teenager look at a laptop as they sit in a classroom.
Principal Crystal Ballard answers interview question as she sits in on a distance learning class with student Leo Carlson, 17, Sept. 30 at Hopkins High School.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Minnesota has struggled to build a diverse teaching force to meet a growing population of students of color. The percentage of teachers of color is 4 percent, while the percentage of students who identify as students of color and American Indian students is 34 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

“If [districts] don’t address the underlying structural issues, if they’re not talking about the disparities in suspension rates, or whether or not they’re offering a full curriculum that tells the stories of the wide range of students in their classrooms,” Hilbert said, “anything they do to talk about racial equity sounds like lip service and covering their behinds.”

Eastern Carver County is not the only district where parents or school leaders have responded to calls for equity with condemnation. 

In Lakeville, district officials banned Black Lives Matter signs because they say the movement is tied to proposals like defunding the police, an issue they find too political for the classroom.

In some places, however, school leaders have encouraged teachers to talk openly and directly with their students about the killing of George Floyd, police brutality and racism. 

Kaia Hirt, a Korean American English teacher at Champlin Park High School, thinks her principal may be the exception in encouraging teachers to discuss the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by police officers during a raid in Louisville, Ky. 

Hirt mentioned the incident in one of her classes this year after news broke that the officers involved in Taylor’s death would not face charges for shooting her, and that instead, one would be indicted on charges of endangering neighbors.

“As a person of color and as a local activist, I was appalled by that news and I knew that my students would also be really hurting about that,” Hirt said. “I was just extremely grateful that our principal sent out an all-staff email letting people know that we should be addressing that.”

It was an unfamiliar move that Hirt said doesn’t happen in Minnesota classrooms because Minnesotans tend to shy away from sensitive, and often personal, conversations around race. 

“A teacher shouldn’t be indoctrinating students, I agree with that absolutely,” Hirt said. “But we should be giving students an opportunity to discuss difficult things. That’s why we're having a problem in this country, is because we’ve never been taught how to discuss difficult things with one another.”

Hirt is committed to discussing racism openly with her students, but she worries this approach isn’t widespread in Minnesota classrooms. 

“There was a huge surge in support for Black Lives Matter right after George Floyd was killed,” Hirt said. “It has slowly dwindled and I think we’re seeing that in education, too.”

Hopkins High School Principal Crystal Ballard doesn’t want discussions of racism to be a passing trend in her school. At the start of the year, she invited students to optional discussions about racial justice. 

A Black woman stands in a school hallway.
Crystal Ballard is principal at Hopkins High School. On the first day of school, Ballard offered optional virtual sessions for students to engage in discussions about racial justice.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“I just felt like I cannot start the school year as if everything was fine and we’re just excited to be back in school, and we’re going to have this amazing year without creating space to address things that have happened,” she said. “It’s so important for [students] to have that safe space as they’re learning, they’re growing and developing so they can say things, frankly, that may be offensive.”

Ballard plans to offer those sessions monthly and said students overwhelmingly support them. 

However, she said some parents feel like their children aren’t ready to be a part of those conversations where they would want to be present. 

“Throughout our system, and beyond our system, there are people who don’t necessarily believe that systemic oppression exists and that if you start to talk about systemic oppression, that you’re teaching a false truth,” Ballard said. “If we wait for 100 percent of the people to agree on that detail, we will be stalling the work.”

For Ballard and other leaders in Hopkins, making their schools equal and welcoming places where all students can thrive goes far beyond classroom discussions. 

District leaders have focused on hiring more staff of color, including school principals like Ballard. And they’re experimenting with other ideas too, like making changes to the traditional letter grading system.

At Hopkins North Junior High, leaders are implementing an International Baccalaureate (IB) grading model this year, which allows students to improve their work and demonstrate growth overtime. 

The district saw the traditional letter grade system as inequitable for students of color. The IB metric grades students based on where they end up at the end of the course, rather than their average scores.

Angela Wilcox, the IB coordinator for the school, said the traditional grading system is connected to characteristics of “dominant white culture.”

“So it’s about perfectionism, urgency, like you have to turn things in on the certain date or you lose points for it,” she said. “It wasn’t measuring student learning as much as it was measuring compliance.”

When taking that compliance piece away, educators found that Black students still learn as much and have better grades in the end, Wilcox added.

Hilbert, the Mitchell Hamline law professor, said changes start with talking about racism, but need to go much further to address underlying systemic problems that negatively affect students of color.

“The challenge now for teachers and districts is that our young people have a very keen sense of hypocrisy,” he said.