Westerville Central’s All 4 One group brings students and faculty together to discuss race, equity
The students in Westerville Central High School’s (WCHS) All 4 One group wanted to know why they were reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The book, which includes racial slurs and profanity, has long been a source of controversy since being the subject of classroom study as early as 1963. Many black students at Central, including those part of the All 4 One group, have harbored concerns about the Harper Lee novel and how it marked their first encounter with “the N-word” in a classroom setting. They said there was little to no discussion about the racial epithet, its history and how it has been used.
The topic was among several issues All 4 One -- a newly-formed group at WCHS that brings faculty and black student leaders together to discuss issues of race and equity -- have addressed since its formation this summer.
“It makes you uncomfortable,” said senior and All 4 One student member Yavian Webster about reading the novel in her sophomore year. “There are kids who are excited to say the N-word because it’s in the text and they are allowed to say it. But there is no lesson about the word. What are you teaching them by letting them say it?”
During the group’s July 30 virtual meeting, Webster and several students shared their concerns and offered suggestions for alternative readings with Principal Tom Lanier and representatives from the school and district including an English teacher, counselor and social worker. Cynthia DeVese, coordinator of Minority Student Achievement in the district, also attended the meeting.
“We understand and value the importance of offering culturally-relevant literature for all students,” DeVese said. “We want our students to see themselves positively reflected in the curriculum and throughout their school.”
The All 4 One’s conversation is among multiple discussions about culturally-appropriate literature in the classroom. The Westerville Student Education Foundation, which includes students from all three high schools, has also been working on the subject as well. They are meeting with district leaders to address issues and concerns about the topic.
“I love that these students are lending their voices to shape their school experience,” DeVese said. “It's up to the adults to listen and to work with our students to get it right. That's what we see happening with All 4 One and the WSEF.”
The All 4 One group is an extension of WCHS’s work towards the district’s strategic goals surrounding equity and access such as the Equal Opportunity Schools Lead Higher initiative, Lanier said. The district’s partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools is designed to increase the number of low-income and underrepresented students who enroll in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes across Westerville’s high schools.
As part of that work, WCHS administrators learned that students wanted a consistent way to discuss issues surrounding race at their school. The school started developing ideas, but the protests for racial justice following the death of George Floyd in May prompted Lanier to accelerate those plans. He reached out to black student leaders on campus who would be willing to have candid conversations that could help shape school culture and the classroom experience for all students moving forward. Members of All 4 One met for the first time virtually in June.
“Our goal from the start is to provide our students with a platform where their voices can be heard. The meetings this summer have been fantastic and I couldn’t be more proud of our students,” Lanier said. “The students are excited to expand the group to include more voices from different backgrounds as the year progresses. The one thing I’ve learned in my twenty-nine years in education is that you can’t go wrong when you listen to your students. They are wise beyond their years.”
He said the school has had opportunities for students to share their thoughts and concerns. When he first came to WCHS, Lanier started GLIMPSE (Gratitude, Leadership, Improvement, Maturity, Perseverance, Success and Enthusiasm) to build connections and provide mentoring opportunities for black male students. He said starting All 4 One has allowed the school to bring all the student voices together.
Junior Rugie Kabia said being part of a group that includes school leadership, teachers and staff, makes her feel like her voice matters.
“I feel like we’re advocating for people,” she said. “We can talk about things that are going on and make a difference.”
For Webster, the discussion about culturally-relevant literature is an important one. In her Advanced Placement English Literature class last year, she read “Beloved,” a novel by Toni Morrison. The book was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio after the Civil War.
“It was an uncomfortable book to read, but I felt comfortable learning about my history in this class,” she said.
By sharing her experiences with “To Kill A Mockingbird,” she hopes educators consider other texts to discuss race and injustice. During the July 30 All 4 One meeting, she offered an alternative: “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” by Douglas A. Blackmon.
Lanier said WCHS’ ninth-grade English teachers have been receptive to their feedback and have been meeting with students as part of an ongoing dialogue.
“It was great to have a conversation,” Webster said. “It’s great that students that come after us won’t have that same experience.”
- Westerville Central High School
- Westerville City Schools