When Westerville South High School science teacher Aislynn Valentine covers lessons on the environmental concerns in impoverished countries, she talks to her students about the idea that unless you address social change, people won’t address environmental changes.
As her school leaders rolled out training around implicit bias and racial equity this year, Valentine realized those connections can be made in communities in the U.S. as well.
“Environmental education has to include a social justice component; otherwise it’s not going to go anywhere,” said Valentine, who teaches Advanced Placement Environmental Science and Ecology classes.
Since the start of the school year, the entire Westerville school community has taken steps to better understand the racial climate in their buildings and examine the barriers that prevent underrepresented students from access to opportunities. Across the district, school leaders, educators, staff members and parents have dived into the Be the Change!: Implicit and Institutional Bias training which explores implicit bias and racial equity in schools.
“What we’re ultimately trying to do is change the way students experience schools so they don’t feel marginalized or invisible when they are at school,” said Dr. Nicole Luthy, Chief of Staff and Director of Strategic Operations in Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology (EHE).
Luthy and a team from OSU’s EHE developed the Be the Change! training, adapting the implicit bias training module created by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity to center on school experiences. They pulled in excerpts from students’ social media posts describing how they’ve experienced racism in school, added interactive activities such as writing prompts and an implicit bias assessment and created more opportunities for discussions. They also provided an opportunity for educators to create action plans based on the needs of their school.
“If we know our biases can harm students unintentionally, it is our responsibility to do everything we can so that doesn’t occur,” said Sheri Chaffin, an instructional coach at Robert Frost Elementary and Educational Equity Specialist who also facilitates the Be the Change! training in the district. “Training will help us identify these biases so we can start taking action to eliminate the harm.”
Westerville is among six school districts in Central Ohio that worked with Luthy and the College of Education and Human Ecology to bring the Be the Change! training to their school communities.
At Westerville, the implicit bias training is part of the district’s comprehensive strategy to address equity this year. Professional development is one of the district’s 10 key targets in its equity work and is an action item outlined by district and building equity teams.
District and building equity teams are required to complete five sessions in the training this year while schools can determine how they want to roll out it to their staff. All schools must invite parents to join them.
Michelle Allen, whose son attends Blendon Middle School, was thrilled to learn alongside teachers and staff and engage in honest, candid conversations. She hopes the conversations will extend beyond this school year.
“With all human endeavors, it takes time,” she said. “We need to think about concepts that question or counter our perception of the world. We need time to do that en masse. The community really feels like it’s willing to do that. Some of us will get there, some of us won’t but if history taught us anything, it’s if we each one, reach one, we will all get there eventually.”
At WSHS, staff members have completed three training sessions so far with another session slated before the end of the school year. They will complete the final two sessions next school year.
Assistant Principal Dr. Garrett Carter said building leaders wanted to continue the momentum gained by the training, discussions and work into next year.
“We’ve had several staff members that are getting the itch to really want to get to the implementation phase,” he said.
The building’s equity team recently developed their action plan to address areas of equity, looking at discipline disparities among students, the numbers of underrepresented students in advanced courses and additional professional development tailored to their staff’s needs.
Tyler Rutledge, a biology teacher at WSHS who also advises the school’s student equity group, Our Voices Matter, said the training has inspired discussions with his students as they map out their plans for making a difference in their school and community.
“As a teacher, it’s helped me recognize and embrace those differences in our students and what is around us,” he said.
Valentine said she looks at her students and their stress levels differently and with an understanding that some of their anxiety stems from racism they have faced.
“That’s something I’d never thought of before,” she said. “It impacts them at school when we’re not looking.”
She said the training has helped her approach uncomfortable topics with her students in hopes of offering support and help.
Carter applauds the staff’s efforts on this work, especially during an unpredictable school year brought on by a pandemic.
“With COVID and so much going on, I think it would be easy for some to say, ‘Gosh, this equity thing has to wait,’” he said. “But it can’t wait because guess what, with this pandemic, some of the inequities are getting worse. This is the time. It may be an inconvenience for some, but now it’s even more important to tackle equity. I just applaud our staff for their willingness to go into this work with everything they have going on — some weeks they have their students here, other weeks their students are remote — to still take this effort and run with it.”