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Shameful disrespect of students, communities of color

Image of sticker saying "defend our students" in Spanish

The reprehensible scene that played itself out in front of Worcester’s City Hall before the May 2 School Committee meeting was emblematic of the ongoing fight around racial equity within the schools. As a group of young people – both children and teenagers – held signs and chanted their message, that the public school system needs to confront its generations-old race issue, a group of middle-aged and older supporters of the current superintendent chanted loudly, purposely trying to drown out the sound of the youth. They even mocked the youths’ slogans.

How grotesque! Watching the spectacle, one couldn’t help but to think of G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote that “Children are innocent and love justice, while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.” The fact that the adults demonstrating in favor of the status quo were all white, while the young people were nearly all Black and brown, only added to the ugliness of the scene.

What kind of adults, at least one of whom is a teacher, are these, who work in such an ugly fashion to diminish the voices of youth? As the young people, members of the Youth Civics Union and other local youth organizations, met with members of the Worcester Coalition for Educational Equity to begin a brief set of speeches before going to make their case at the School Committee meeting, a couple of these adults were led over to hear what the young people had to say. Rev. Jose Encarnacion and Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, leaders of the WCEE, said that the students were going to speak, and that the coalition would appreciate it if people would stay and listen. However, as the first young person came to the microphone, these two women, both of whom had walked over mouthing platitudes about the need to listen to each other, left.

It’s a familiar and ongoing dynamic in the City of Worcester: Black and brown people, especially young people, begin to raise problems that they are having. They’re immediately told to be more constructive, and then, before they’re even heard, they’re tuned out. As city council member Sarai Rivera said of the response to the kids, they’ve been “they’ve been accused, they’ve been attacked, they’ve been demonized.”

Inside the meeting

The same thing happened inside the school committee meeting, and this sentiment wasn’t even coming from Superintendent Maureen Binienda or the school committee members themselves. They didn’t speak on the issue. This time, the message was coming from other speakers.

The students spoke before the committee, asking the body not to renew the superintendent’s contract. The young speakers discussed individual instances of racism that they had experienced in the schools themselves. One young woman told a story of her own brother being mistreated.

Incident at the Mayor’s Commission meeting

Most of the students spoke about an incident at the Mayor’s Commission on Latino Education and Advancement. There, they had presented the the preliminary results of research they had done on the effects of the lack of teacher diversity in Worcester. This presentation was excellent, and they spoke in the language of the social sciences, saying things like, “the data suggests” and “we infer that”. More than just the language, the used the methodology: they had done a quantitative study with an N of more than 600, and had created graphs and charts analyzing their data. The students were invited to present their findings at Harvard’s School of Education, as well as at other conferences.

One might think that the whole school system would be proud of the work these kids did, regardless of what the inferences were. Unfortunately, they said, the superintendent was dismissive of their work and made rude comments, including one about Asian students wanting to be doctors. They noted, also, that there were repercussions for their work and presentation, with some of the presenters being called to their principal’s office, and the superintendent saying that the kids shouldn’t have conducted the study at all.

Nonsensical advice for kids

And when the youth brought their concerns to the city, and May 2 to the School Committee, the response was ridiculous. White adults held signs saying things as juvenile as “Our Superintendent Rocks.” Two people even told the youth – and this would make sense only to people who’ve paid no attention to the issue whatsoever and who haven’t thought critically even for a moment – that the kids should be bringing solutions, and not just problems.

This is a nonsensical thing to say. The first, and most obvious, reason is that it is not the job of the students to solve the problems of the school system. If there are inequities, it is the job of the adults – the school committee and the administration – to fix them. If the schools served rotted meat for lunch, the students wouldn’t be told, one would hope, that they shouldn’t be complaining but instead trying to find a better meat vendor for the school. And they shouldn’t be told, when they’re raising the issue of racial inequities that they need to figure out how to fix them.

The second reason this idea, that the the kids should be bringing solutions, is piffle is that the city can’t even agree that there is a problem. Of course, there is data that shows that Worcester accounts for 60 percent of all emergency removals in Massachusetts (most of them Black or Latinx students – and most of them in kindergarten or first grade), and of course the data shows that Latinx students are suspended at twice the rate that white students are, and that this disparity has grown. And, of course there is data that shows Worcester ranks near the last place of all the gateway cities for English and math proficiency for Latinos. But even with all this, we can’t agree that there’s a problem at all. City Council member Sarai Rivera, School Committee member Dante Comparetto, to some extent Mayor Joe Petty, and a few others have acknowledged them, but a shocking number of others pretend they don’t exist at all. How are the youth supposed to be bringing solutions when many of the adults can’t even agree that there’s a problem? How are they supposed to be suggesting a solution to racial inequities, when more than one city leader has said that they haven’t seen any racism in the schools – in more than four decades!

Another reason to ridicule the notion – as Thomas Jefferson said, “ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions” – that the youth should be bringing forward solutions is simple: they already have been. While the most controversial demand coming from the students is that a new superintendent, with experience in change management and eliminating structural racism, be brought in after Superintendent Binienda’s contract expires, they, along with the rest of the WCEE, have suggested many solutions, including hiring a chief diversity officer, bringing community groups (like African Community Education, Latino Education Institute, Southeast Asian Coalition, etc.) back into the schools, an aggressive campaign to hire more teachers of color to replace retiring teachers, looking at other cities that have been more successful in handling discipline, rebuilding the English Language Learning department at least to its level before the current administration, and so on.

Anyone care what the Black and brown communities have to say?

Instead of listening to what the students, and the Latinx and Black communities generally, have been saying, many have misinterpreted – seemingly willfully – what is being said. When people are calling to find a superintendent with a specific skill set, it’s portrayed as a demonization of Maureen Binienda, or a way to diminish the many good things she’s done over the years. When people raise the issue of structural racism, they are interpreted – absurdly – as calling all teachers racists. As Kweku Nyarko, the school committee’s student representative said, students can experience discrimination without having racist teachers.

As Nyarko, noted, there was a big racial divide in the room that he found, to use his word, frightening. The people who’d come out to say that things were just fine were almost all white, while those supporting the students and calling for change were mostly not.

What the normally good Mayor Joe Petty and the school committee will do remains to be seen.

For years, people of color in this city have been saying – to those who will take the time to hear – that whenever they raise their concerns no one listens. This time, from a certain section of the community especially, the response was much more brutal, and much more direct:

Shut up.

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