This year has been a busy one for schools. On top of trying to manage COVID-19’s effects on teaching and learning, many public school districts across the country, including in Williamson County, have been looking into ways to make positive changes to its polices, practices and culture to create a better and safer environment for all students, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities.
This year, Williamson County Schools and the Franklin Special School District have received quite a bit of attention from parents, students and the greater community, asking the district to address race-related issues within its schools. As a result, race has become a consistent topic of conversation at board of education meetings for both districts — at nearly every monthly meeting for WCS.
On a macro level, both districts have been looking into contracting culture consultants for diversity and inclusion. In January, FSSD had a four-hour professional learning opportunity with Derek Young Culture Strategies during its board retreat, where the board, administrators and staff discussed antiracism, avoiding microaggressions and uncovering unconscious bias.
FSSD Superintendent David Snowden said the district is seeking further opportunities with a diversity professional, whether with David Young or someone else, but does not yet have a set plan.
“You just can’t have a four-hour professional development and think that, without doing anything further, that you’re going to continue to improve. It has to be ongoing,” Snowden said.
WCS Superintendent Jason Golden has realized the need to dig deeper into these issues after having numerous conversations with students, parents, alumni and people in the community about race-related incidents in the schools over the last few years — he was deputy superintendent with the district prior to his promotion in 2019.
“We’ve had particular items and issues come up where we’ve done some corrective things, and we’ve done some training, but over the course of those conversations, … it became very apparent to me that we needed to do more than just respond to issues as they happen, that we needed to think about how can we really grow ourselves and do it in a sustainable way rather than just responding or reacting to particular issues as they come up," he said.
This week, the WCS Board of Education approved a contract with Fostering Healthy Solutions, a diversity and inclusion firm that will work with the district through July. At that point, the district may choose to enter into an additional yearlong contract for the 2021–2022 school year.
In the meantime, since the summer, Golden has underscored his desire to see negative racial comments appropriately handled within the schools and not just treated as a “class management issue” or any other behavioral issue. He emphasized that every reported incident deserves an investigation.
Sometimes schools cannot take disciplinary action, such as when an event happens off campus and outside of school-related activities, but Golden said these incidents should still be investigated to find out ways students and staff may have been impacted. He said WCS, as an educational body, can use other tools and methods other than punishment to look out for student wellbeing in these cases.
“If you think about the term ‘discipline,’ it includes decision-making and helping students start making better decisions as they grow,” he said. “I worry about social media and the permanency of that because we know that children grow over the course of their career in so many ways, not just in school, but at home. So, part of it includes teaching students the impact of social media that could affect their lives in the long run.”
He explained how schools can also have conversations with parents about the impacts of their students’ off-campus actions. The school board and district leadership further discussed discipline as it updated its bullying, discrimination and harassment policies this year.
However, these are all ways to deal with reported incidents, and Golden said he realizes that sometimes people are not comfortable even reporting a negative experience they had in school.
While the district does have an anonymous tip line in its app for reporting concerning incidents of any kind and has been instructing teachers to report all discriminatory behavior and take it seriously, Golden said he wants diversity professionals to advise the district on how to foster a culture that makes people more comfortable reporting such incidents.
Of course, the education process contributes to school culture, as well, and members of the community have been outspoken this year about wanting to see more training for teachers, inclusive teaching materials, culturally sensitive school projects and more.
Teachers in both WCS and FSSD receive professional development training, and a diversity consultant would further advise the districts on improvements in this area. Both districts also recruit teachers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Tennessee State University and Fisk University, in an attempt to diversify their teaching staff.
Golden said students need teachers who look like them, while Snowden explained FSSD is working on reflecting the district’s diversity in its promotional materials.
“Sometimes, when you think of Williamson County, you don’t think of diversity,” Snowden said. “We think diversity is a strength of ours, and we are working to do a better job of making sure people understand, our prospective teachers understand, that we are diverse.”
While textbooks and teaching standards are approved at the state level, teachers do have some control over additional materials used in the classroom. FSSD educators try to reflect diversity in reading materials year round, according to Snowden.
“All of our schools participate in Black History Month. Also, our schools participate in Hispanic [Heritage] Month,” he said. “Those are important, but it’s not just for those months.”
Golden also mentioned WCS will offer an African American history class in the 2021–2022 school year, both on campus and online.
The districts will continue to discuss this topic and seek improvement to make school a safe and welcoming place for kids to learn.
“I’m convinced that our community is good and they want to be good and want to make sure students are comfortable,” Golden said. “And the more we talk about it, I think, the better off we’re going to be.”