WESTFIELD, NJ — The school board’s president last week touted a slate of offerings aimed at improving education on racial justice — measures that a student protest organizer said are long overdue.
With a focus on summer programming, Board of Education President Peggy Oster on July 9 detailed for the school board organized discussions on race for high school students, a book club for teachers and educational resources posted to the school district’s website.
Oster provided the extensive detail on race education programming and said the board may establish a committee to hear from the public on the topic. She had made public the idea last month just after Westfield students at a Black Lives Matter protest detailed specific incidents of racism they had experienced in the schools. Oster anticipates the convening that group later in the summer.
“Due to the coronavirus situation, many families are all over the place,” Oster said. “I really want to get a good group of engaged people who are willing to give us the time and the effort to get us some good information.”
Nala Scott, a main organizer of the June protest held in Westfield, told TAPinto Westfield the discussions on racial justice are long overdue in the district, and she wants them to be required for students.
“Instead of putting kids who want to talk about this in one place, let’s make the conversation open to everyone,” Scott told TAPinto Westfield. “I don’t think that it should be an option on whether it’s something we want to talk about or not.”
She added: “I didn’t get the opportunity to opt out of U.S. History, and other people’s history and origins in America are just as important as any other American history.”
Oster had detailed some programs organized by the schools No Place for Hate committees — part of a self-directed program designed by the Anti-Defamation League to help school districts improve school climate. These include two virtual discussion series taking place over the summer.
“One is for incoming ninth through twelfth graders who are meeting on Tuesday mornings for six weeks to discuss texts related to race, while applying those texts to themselves and the world,” Oster said. “The materials include articles, podcasts, films and books.”
“The second discussion series is for the staff,” Oster added. “They will meet for three evenings over the summer to also talk about books related to race and how they apply to their lives and work as educators.”
The committee is also considering facilitating a similar discussion series for parents, Oster said, noting that additional resources, as well as the committee’s statement on race, can be found on the high school’s webpage.
“The committees — whose members include students, parents and educators — will also discuss classroom lessons, both past and future, that examine issues of race, policing, bias, hate and other aspects of the overall conversation,” she said.
Oster said several of the district’s elementary school teachers are participating in a statewide book club to discuss “So You Want to Talk About Race,” a 2018 book by Ijeoma Oluo that addresses several race-related topics in contemporary America.
Fifth-grade students and families, she added, have also participated in virtual forums to learn about these topics.
“Discussions of fairness, character, tolerance, kindness, equity and other age-appropriate ways of discussing the topic have been and will continue to be a focus in our elementary school classrooms through social studies and language arts curriculum and other school-wide opportunities,” Oster said.
These initiatives come in addition to an elective course on understanding the barriers encountered by ethnic minorities, which the district will offer to high school juniors and seniors beginning in the fall.
Scott believes that course — called “Power, Privilege, and Imbalance in American Society” — is a step in the right direction.
“That class is a big step towards change,” Scott said. “If people could realize their privilege, then that is where real change can be done.”
Oster encouraged anyone who is interested in learning more to visit their school’s webpage or reach out to their building principal. Click here to visit the district’s staff directory. Oster said the board is hoping to hear from school representatives on what is working and what else can be done.
“I look forward to, in one of our meetings in September, to be able to bring in some of the people who are on committees give us a report and let us hear some of the thoughts that have been provided by our teachers, our students and parents,” she said.
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