‘All we are asking for is change!’ How schools are taking steps toward justice-centered learning

The two Brownsville students knew things needed to change. February was arriving yet again, and their school had no real plan to acknowledge Black History Month.

After more than three years of high school, these two seniors had been taught little about Black history and nothing about Black excellence. What they had learned was laid out in the broadest and quickest of strokes. They agreed: An occasional, brief mention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t enough for them — or for the other Black students at their school.

They’d seen white kids drop racist comments in the hallways and walk away without punishment. When those same kids wore Confederate flag T-shirts and belt buckles, none of the adults seemed to object.

But these young women did have a feeling — or at least a degree of hope — that if they laid out these facts, they might get heard. So, on the morning of Feb. 8, Royona Lewis and Keena Thomas sent a carefully constructed, beautifully written, 13-slide PowerPoint presentation to their district’s superintendent, Dr. Keith Hartbauer, and to their high school principal.

“How we feel should not be something to fear,” Lewis and Thomas wrote. “School is a place where we come to learn, express ourselves, and it’s a place where people learn about diversity. All we are asking for is change!”

They wasted no time on vague language, asking. “Why hasn’t our school prioritized Black History Month? Why does our school ignore the racism?”

Lewis hit “send” on the email at 8:20 that Monday morning. Exactly 30 minutes later, a reply popped up in her inbox.

“I 100% agree with you that we need to make significant changes in the way we teach, provide factual information, and understand the inequalities surrounding all races, genders, and disabilities,” Hartbauer wrote.

He thanked the students, praised their hard work on the presentation and invited them to join the diversity and inclusion committee that the school was creating. They enthusiastically accepted and are now key members of the committee alongside teachers and administrators.

These steps toward a more just future are only a beginning. But they offer a path forward — one that educators and learners can start walking today, together.

These steps toward a more just future are just a beginning, but they show us a path forward—one educators and learners can start walking today, together.

Listening and learning

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to problems as complex and deeply ingrained in American culture as racism, sexism and the many other types of discrimination that have lingered in silence for generations. Each school district has different issues to confront and a different population to serve.

But the thinking and choices unfolding in Brownsville offer insight that could help any community: When students believe they will be heard, they can offer up wisdom that points to the next steps. And when administrators and teachers are willing to look honestly at what’s not working and commit publicly to leading change, progress becomes possible.

Dr. Caroline Johns, superintendent at Northgate School District, is taking this same kind of multipronged approach. Her leadership team has created a study group to educate themselves about social justice, rather than jumping to top-down solutions based solely on their perspectives.

Something similar is happening at Brentwood Borough School District. Superintendent Dr. Amy Burch says Brentwood has learned through the process of welcoming Bhutanese and Nepali families into the community that diversity and inclusion work involves listening and learning.

Just one example: Through discussions with parents and students, Burch’s team found that within Nepali and Bhutanese families, schooling is seen as an independent responsibility of children. Rather than engaging with a school, the parents focus mainly on their own responsibilities. Children are trusted to report back about how their education is going.

“That was one of those eye-opening moments,” Burch says. 

The work of truly understanding and welcoming the entire school community takes time, she says, and schools must “designate one person to lead the charge in that area.”

Helping students lead

At South Fayette Township School District, that leader is Dr. Chuck Herring, who serves as the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Along with a team of high school students, he has launched the SHOUT: Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment initiative in his district and spread the program to other Pittsburgh-area schools.

SHOUT is based on the idea that although a problem like racism or sexism can feel insurmountable, many small efforts can add up to progress. The students in a SHOUT group choose manageable projects that they believe will make their community more equitable.

One key to supporting this work, Herring says, is helping teens train their replacements. Student-led programs like SHOUT can fade when their most involved students graduate. By teaching upperclassmen to mentor younger students, a club can keep thriving even as the original leaders leave.

Embracing representation and equity of all kinds

At Northgate, artist Bernie Wilke is collaborating with students, teachers and members of the wider community to create a permanent mural for the school’s entrance – a bold and bright message that Northgate is a place where all are welcome.

The images will honor the history of the community and celebrate the diversity of its residents. The school currently has smaller signs posted with the same message, but the mural will be a permanent, community-created statement.

While the district is focusing actively on anti-racism, the mural will include representation of all kinds. The importance of this hit home to Johns when she met with a group of young students, and one of the young girls asked Johns what her job was at Northgate.

“I’m the superintendent,” Johns said.

“Oh,” the young girl replied. “I didn’t know girls could be superintendents.”

This article is part of a series for “Tomorrow” powered by Remake Learning. “Tomorrow” will explore – through virtual events, grantmaking, and storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Follow along or share your hopes for today’s young people using the hashtag #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Learn more about Remake Learning here. And read more “Tomorrow” articles published on Kidsburgh.