INDIANAPOLIS — After decades of segregation, of failing to educate and serve all students equally, of “privileging the prejudice of white parents over the well-being of Black students,” a new era has begun in Indianapolis Public Schools.
The IPS Board of School Commissioners unanimously adopted a new racial equity policy and resolution affirming that Black lives matter last week, naming the ways in which the district has failed its Black and brown students in the past and committing to doing better in the future.
It will be wide-ranging, affecting everything from how students are taught and disciplined to how teachers are hired and trained.
The policy has been in the works for the past 18 months and wasn’t due out until later this summer, but Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said timing its adoption with the current momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement felt right.
Creating and adopting what she calls a “racial equity mindset” was one of Johnson’s top priorities when interviewing to lead the district. The first Black woman to lead the district, she served as interim starting in January 2019 and was officially hired into the position last June.
“With the current climate, it felt right to bring it now, in June, and amplify this message and our commitment to racial equity and the work we have ahead,” Johnson said after the vote.
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This month's board meeting was the first the district held in person since schools were closed statewide in March. Most board members were present, though at least one participated electronically as concerns persist about the spread of the coronavirus.
Attendance at the meeting was capped at 50, including board members and district staff, but only 25 people were physically present. The district livestreamed the meeting online for those who could not be there.
Several board members commented on the weight of the moment. Commissioner Susan Collins called it a "historic night."
The school district is the largest in Indiana. Eighty percent of the students it serves identify as Black, Hispanic, multiracial or an ethnicity other than white. Still, white students far outpace their Black and brown counterparts on state tests, and the vast majority of the district’s teachers are white. And despite the racial makeup of the district, some of its highest-performing schools are majority-white and inequities in access and opportunity persist.
That needs to change, said school board president Michael O’Connor.
“We must address the reality of the knee of the white community on the neck of the Black community,” O’Connor said, “a knee that may not always extinguish the precious gift of life but certainly has been used to limit the oxygen of fair and equitable access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“What those of us in the white community must now recognize is this: Simply removing our knee from the neck of the Black community isn’t enough. We must extend a hand and the warm embrace of equity, that we must assure and provide equitable access to education, economic opportunity and all the tools that allowed so many of us – people like me – to succeed. That is, indeed, what we are starting to say.”
It’s work the district has begun, Johnson said, but will continue. By adopting the policy, the district “will continue and expand ongoing efforts to identify and address racial disparities and disproportionalities in discipline and academic outcomes, expand equitable access to educational and programmatic opportunities, and examine policies and practices to ensure that their burdens and benefits do not reinforce existing inequalities."
As part of the new commitment, Johnson will regularly report to the board on students' academic performance and the district's progress on closing achievement gaps. The district will work to create more diverse candidate pools when hiring, in recognition of the importance of representation in its teaching force.
And the district committed to supporting and advocating for legislation to address inequities.
"I am proud of this moment, but we must remember this is just the start," O’Connor said. "All we have done is put words on paper – good, powerful and meaningful words. But, if we don’t follow that up with action, that meaning will all be lost. We must have uncomfortable conversations, make difficult decisions and demand the equity we are spelling out."
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The resolution included several guiding principles:
Black lives matter. Every student is capable of success, deserving of respect and valuable to our community.
All students – of every race – benefit from Black teachers and Black leaders.
Representation and recognition matter.
Understanding the ugly truth of our past is necessary to building a beautiful vision of our future.
The district will also recognize Juneteenth as a district holiday. June 19 is celebrated as a day of liberation, commemorating the day the last enslaved people in the United States were freed, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Read the resolution below.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Black Lives Matter: How 1 school district is pushing for racial equity