Dr. Rodney Trice, Chief Equity & Engagement Officer for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, opened the Color of Education District Leader panel by asking why it is important to create equity in educational systems. Dr. Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools, replied that transforming learning transforms life outcomes and pointed out that these inequities have life and death implications for students and families of color. Durham County School Board Vice-Chair Jovonia Lewis added that equity is important for everything from workforce development to economic growth and a productive life, and that the burden of solving these complex issues cannot rest on the backs of educators alone.
Panelists repeatedly highlighted the intersectionality of inequities, as disparities in health, economic and educational outcomes overlap with and reinforce one another, all undergirded by policies and laws that affect everything from voting rights to school discipline practices. Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School, discussed the need to disrupt the current “incarceration model of school discipline,” asking what restorative, in-school opportunities we are providing students. He and Jovonia Lewis both stressed the importance of reexamining school codes of conduct with an equity lens. Further solutions to educational inequity include funding the Leandro ruling, which calls for every NC student to receive a sound, basic education; opposing House Bill 324, which would limit teachers’ ability to discuss racism in classrooms; and providing teachers with anti-racism and anti-bias training.
Diversifying the teaching workforce so students of color see themselves reflected in their teachers, including in advanced classes, was another area of discussion. When asked how we successfully recruit and retain more educators of color, Chatham County school superintendent Dr. Tony Jackson stressed that, while partnerships with HBCUs are important, the issue is not solely theirs to solve. He instead recommended building alternate pathways to the teaching profession, such as recruiting those ready for a second career or talking with TAs, bus drivers, and custodians about entering the profession. He also asked, “How many of us encourage the best and brightest in our families to pursue education as an honorable and noble profession?” Dr. Contreras added that we need to better support our teachers of color when they do enter the profession. Burnout is common, and teachers of color are sometimes unable to fulfill their calling, with Latina teachers frequently used as translators or Black teachers being pushed out of majority white schools for pointing out inequities.
The need for allies and broad-based community action was underscored at every turn, with panelists calling for school and government leaders, faith communities, and members of the public to collaborate, immediately and urgently in order to address these critical needs. Jovonia Lewis urged people come out of their silos and work with their neighbors. Several panelists stressed the importance of leaders focusing on equity when drafting vision statements and examining policies for unintended consequences. As Dr. Jackson stated, “It’s better to build stronger kids than to keep fixing adults,” adding that we need to stop building systems to fix things after they’re broken. To accomplish this, the message of this panel was clear: we need everyone to act, and to act now.