November/December 2020 Issue
October 18, 2020

Racial equality work continues in districts with extended NEA grant

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Kingston teacher Lauri Naccarato has been part of a team of educators actively working to examine and change racial inequity in her school district. Their work began in earnest after the school was flagged by the state for having a disproportionate number of students of color who were suspended or in detention.

“We took it to heart,” said Naccarato, president of the Kingston Teachers Federation. Black and brown students “were getting school referrals at four times the rate of white students.”

The Kingston group is one of three districts around the state, including Amsterdam and Schenectady, leading early educators and mentors in examining racial injustice.

A National Education Association grant to the districts has been extended due to COVID-19, allowing the important work to continue for the fourth year. It is administered through NYSUT’s Education & Learning Trust programs, providing workshops, readings, and professional development to early career educators and labor-management teams about systemic racism, discipline and suspension rates and their impact on students of color and racial justice.

Teachers in the three districts — different by region and size — have specifically been examining what NYSUT ELT’s Bernice Rivera calls “systemic racism within the American historical context, and translating the new learning to the existing systems in their district.”

How that plays out is evidenced in places such as Kingston, where the program has now reached 100 educators.

“Our goal for this grant is to get all of our teachers trained in the mindset that racial equity is social justice,” Naccarato said. “We’re all part of it.”

Although the student population mix is about 50 percent white and 50 percent Black and brown, the Kingston faculty is not diverse. Naccarato said the district has been working to recruit teachers, reaching out to historically Black colleges among other efforts.

Educators in the grant program are learning about redlining, micro aggressions, and about institutional racism affecting the financial, educational and social foundations of people of color.

As recently as 2017, Naccarato said a local bank was flagged for not lending money equitably to people of color.

The interactive training has been led by UAlbany professor Alex Pieterse and ELT site liaison Rita Floess. UAlbany professor Katy Schiller and doctoral grad student Beth Anne Horning are gathering qualitative data on the grant’s impact.

“He’s raising people’s consciousness,” Naccarato said of Pieterse, a member of United University Professions. “Many of us didn’t think we had biases. People want to do better. We’re often not aware of what we don’t know.”

Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto said the NEA/NYSUT grant work has provided needed inquiry in a district with about 65 percent Asian, brown and Black students.

While Schenectady schools have been working on improving racial equity for quite some time through professional development programs provided by the district, “We’ve had, as a district, some moments that I’d say we didn’t quite take the right approach or we’ve taken a misstep.

“What I’ve loved about the work throughout this NEA grant is that it has felt like a safe place for members to tackle racial inequality in a thoughtful way so that as members we can listen and learn from each other,” she said.

The work has included seminars for new members and the start of “train the trainers” so that examinations of racial inequity can continue once the grant is completed.

“A goal for us as a district is to engage more of our faculty beyond our newer members,” Benaquisto said. “It is very personal for everyone who engages in the necessary, honest discussions. Members need to be willing to be vulnerable and as such need to feel safe in the discussions.”

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