PORTLAND — NAACP representatives are scheduled to meet with the School Committee on Wednesday to discuss racism and the need to provide equal education to all students.
The meeting is intended to break the ice about issues of institutional racism and classism, including hiring practices, the class ranking system, diversity in scholarships and curriculum, and the difficulty of mainstreaming English language learners.
NAACP President Rachel Talbot-Ross said it’s the first time the two groups have met to discuss matters of race and education, but hopefully not the last.
“We want to begin to build a framework where we’re not afraid to talk about issues of race in our school system,” Talbot-Ross said.
Talbot-Ross said the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has weighed in on school issues in the past, but has never met directly with the elected school policy makers. Additionally, the timing seemed right since Portland will be welcoming James Morse as the new superintendent of schools in July.
“I think this is a great opportunity for (Morse),” she said. “We are committed to meeting with him periodically to ensure we have an open, transparent relationship and that we don’t get afraid to tackle the serious issues within the system.”
A past issues that attracted the NAACP’s attention was the distribution of racist fliers near Deering High School several years ago. Talbot-Ross said elected school leaders were largely silent about the incident and never addressed the lingering emotional effect the fliers may have had on students. She said it was up to the NAACP to organize a community meeting, which was embraced by DHS Principal Ken Kunin.
Meanwhile, the issue of weighted grades and class rank is considered by the NAACP to be an example of institutional racism. That system rewards students who take advanced placement classes with additional points towards their grade point average, which is used to determine class rank.
NAACP Education Chairwoman Regina Phillips said the ranking system is weighted toward white students, because students of color tend to come from lower-income families and haven’t necessarily had the same educational opportunities.
School officials have wrestled with revising that system in several meetings over the past couple of years, but have yet to make any changes.
School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he is excited about the meeting, especially since Portland’s school system is the largest and most diverse in the state.
“The rich diversity of Portland’s student population presents great opportunities and challenges,” Eglinton said. “The workshop is an important step towards fully recognizing the issues we face in achieving educational equity and better preparing us to make better decisions as a School Committee.”
The workshop will center around the presentation of Jane Elliott’s 1984 film, “A Class Divided.”
Elliott was a third-grade school teacher in Iowa when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in April 1968. The class had just named King its “Hero of the Month” and couldn’t understand why someone would want to kill the civil rights leader, so Elliott decided to give the students a provocative lesson about discrimination.
That lesson involved dividing the class into two groups, based only on eye color. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were told they were superior to brown-eyed students in all aspects. Blue-eyed students were effusively praised and allowed extra privileges, while the brown-eyed students, who wore collars around their necks, were admonished.
On the second day, the roles were reversed.
“A Class Divided” follows-up with those students 14 years after their experiment. Those who were considered to be inferior began to behave as though they were inferior and actually performed worse on their homework assignments and test. Meanwhile, the students in the superior group, who were otherwise pleasant and welcoming, became mean-spirited and seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing the other students.
Talbot-Ross said the film is designed to allow School Committee members to connect with issues of racism and power on an emotional level, and hopefully use that experience in their policy-making.