I reached out to one of the organizers of the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest by emailing the address printed on a poster. The young man, Hudson, who replied was gracious enough to answer my questions in detail, because, as he told me, “my little brother goes to Gunn, so I’m trying.”
As an educator I asked Hudson what we could do to make our schools more equitable for students of color. He said he had “a lot of experiences that were less than pleasant and quite problematic” over his 12 years in our Palo Alto schools. “These ranged between racial slurs from administration to the erasure of support systems for BIPOC within the school.” (Email Aug 13, 2020)
Hudson wrote detailed answers to questions I asked in email and then agreed to a follow up interview, which I have included in this blog post. Here, I will also summarize what, I believe, are his suggestions to Palo Alto Educators.
Deepen Our Curriculum
Many of his suggestions centered around more inclusion in all areas of our curriculum. He mentioned he did not learn about East Palo Alto history. “I wish I learned about systems of oppression within the everyday lives of people. Such as Education Discrimination, Job Discrimination, Housing Discrimination, Redlining, The School-To-Prison-Pipeline, The Prison-Industrial-Complex, just to name a few.” He would have liked to hear stories from more perspectives.
Which leads me to his second suggestion, which I will quote.
Connect with our Students, Personally
“Something I think teachers could do in Palo Alto would be to always be aware of the socio-economic disadvantages that the people of color typically face in their classroom given that national housing discrimination, job discrimination other things like that force most of the kids of color in our area into East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park. I think that can affect a child’s ability to learn and thrive in the classroom and I think if a teacher is self aware and aware of that, then they’ll be able to maneuver and help that student in the ways that they would need. Which would then create equitable solutions for the classroom.”
Those words spilled from him, as you will hear if you listen to the video. I am taking time to process their meaning myself. I believe what he was so diplomatically telling me was that I may have been teaching callously. He said, “You may not be aware, yes, but I think some people are aware and think that it does not affect their students. They still expect the same output from that student as another that doesn’t not face the same challenges in their day to day life.”
As a Teacher Librarian, I know I fail my students. I hope that I can build a strong enough relationship with each of them that they can tell me, honestly, when I do. I need to listen so I can do better. Hudson’s words challenge me to reach out. And to stop and listen – not react defensively – when a student trusts me enough to tell me a way I can improve.
Put Our Money Where our Mouths Are
His third suggestion revolved around creating and sustaining systems of support for our students of color. When I asked him for specifics, he mentioned a program he participated in at Gunn called College Pathways. It was “a system of support for students of color in order to try to orchestrate them staying on track and getting accepted into two year and four year colleges. It’s success rate my year was like 94%. So it was effective.” Hudson mentioned the Program was on the list to be cut and students had to fight for it. “A lot of Seniors and Juniors that came before me fought hard to try to make sure it stayed because they had older siblings that succeeded through the program. And I saw it work with my own eyes. That’s why I was like you can’t really take that away.”
Hire and Retain More Teachers of Color
A fourth area for improvement in Palo Alto schools Hudson brought up was recruitment and retainment of teachers of color. “And then – not to mention – there’s only like…at Gunn there’s not a single Black teacher. There was one Kenyan teacher, although, you know, he is of African descent, he cannot exactly relate to all the nuances of growing up in America for sure.”
We can reform our curriculum to include more perspectives. We can reach out to our students of color personally. We can ask them what they need to succeed. We can invest in systems of support – including College Pathways – for our Black and Brown students. And, we can ask our District – and ourselves – why don’t we have more teachers of color?
We all want our schools to improve. I hope we can all follow Hudson’s example and take a few brave steps in a new direction. Our schools – our students – are worth it. If you have specific suggestions for – or experiences in – doing this work, contact me at KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom to share them.