July 23, 2020

Building Safe, Inclusive Schools Where All Students Can Thrive

Creating an anti-racist learning environment where all students can thrive doesn’t happen overnight. Educators around the country have been calling on school and district leaders to invest in school safety strategies that don’t include than employing school resources officers (SROs). Teachers know that’s just one of many steps, of course, to creating a safe, inclusive environment for all.

So what needs to come next? Building the capacity of the school community to engage with the work — starting with adults. And we owe it to our students, according to E4E-Minnesota member Gwyn Burnett, to do the work — and do it well.

Gwyn Burnett, a seventh-grade English teacher, teaches at Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis. With a predominately white staff and diverse student population — about 50% of students identifying as students of color or other, and 50% white — it’s important to recognize that race places a role in shaping students’ and teachers’ identities and how they see others.

And at Justice Page, students and staff actively work to do just that by ensuring that differences are celebrated and understood. With a racial demographic gap between students and staff, the school prioritizes deconstructing whiteness — or understanding how white identity can come to be seen as “the norm,” while nonwhite identities are seen as “other” — so this doesn’t happen in their classrooms and student-teacher interactions, and students feel comfortable being their full selves at school.

The school has built this culture based on equity and social justice by first looking inward. Staff members follow a 12-step model to recondition from whiteness, which engages teachers in activities where they deconstruct biases and where white teachers understand how they can use their white privilege to help others.

As the only Black woman teacher in the building, Gwyn always reminds her white peers: “You shouldn’t take the blame for what your ancestors did to mine. Rather, we need to sit down and make sure racism does not perpetuate in this school building.”

Because of the ongoing work orchestrated by the school’s administration, Gwyn says that it’s really changed how staff sees each other. “It bridges the gap to have honest conversations, so we’re like a family,” she says. 

Trust becomes a building block for student safety

That culture of trust among adults is a building block for that type of trust among students. Each school year is kicked off with community meetings to discuss what acceptance means for different kinds of people: from recognizing different linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds among students, and respecting students’ gender, race, learning styles and the like.

“Kids don’t feel safe to learn if they don’t feel safe as human beings, so we teach them what safety feels like,” Gwyn says. “We create spaces where kids talk about real-world issues.”

“Kids don’t feel safe to learn if they don’t feel safe as humans, so we teach them what safety feels like." -Gwyn Burnett, #E4EMN member on school safety and an inclusive culture

For example, Gwyn describes, if students are using a hurtful word or racial slur, staff teaches them the history of the word — and how words can be powerful but also painful. By making teaching moments out of every act of bullying — intentional or not — staff is able to meet student’s social-emotional needs. That also means fostering social-emotional growth for those who may have participated in bullying.

Prioritizing student needs and leadership

And the equity and social justice work does not stop with teachers. Students lead from the bottom up — by participating in discussions on social justice topics, to even campaigning to rename their school. 

In 2017, the school was called Alexander Ramsey Middle School, named after a former Minnesota governor who had once called for the extermination of the Sioux (now called Dakota) people. After a series of discussions and rounds of research, students decided to rename the school to Justice Page Middle School after Alan Page, Minnesota’s first Black Supreme Court justice.

What our curriculum includes — and leaves out — matters

When it comes to the classroom, texts students read and activities they engage in matter just as much, and staff diligently chooses culturally-responsive texts for their Black and Latinx students. “We want all our students to see themselves in readings and texts,” explains Gwyn. “Not all students learn from reading traditional texts like Romeo and Juliet.”

Currently, Gwyn, along with other Minneapolis-based educators, are working with the school district to revamp the English curriculum with equity serving as a focal point, which is something she thinks all districts should do.

“This curriculum will focus on how we can talk about real-world issues, especially since the death of George Floyd,” she says. “His death, like many other deaths, has led to a lot of conversations about Black life and how it is undervalued in so many places.”

When you boil down what the definition of “school safety” looks like for Gwyn, it’s all about the groundwork to meet students’ socio-emotional needs, amplify their voices, and make them feel represented in every way possible. 

“It’s not just us teachers that build this culture — it’s leadership, parents, community members, school board members, and our curriculum,” says Gwyn. “It takes commitment. And ultimately, that’s how we create a safe environment where everyone succeeds.”

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