In the days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests broke out around the country and world, calling for police reform. In the weeks following, the impact of protests and the conversations about racial injustice reached schools, and educators began to examine their own policies and their effects on students of color. Many Texas school districts issued statements following the death of Floyd or announced working groups to assess their own practices.

In San Antonio, trustees in Judson Independent School District examined what role they could play to ensure equity. Board President Renée Paschall and other trustees learned Judson serves the highest population of Black students in the city and felt compelled to take action.

“We wanted our students, teachers of color, our community of color to know that this board recognizes the urgency for change,” Paschall said. “We recognize that we need to have an honest and courageous conversation.”

Trustees and Judson staff began researching what other Texas districts and schools nationwide had done to remedy racial injustice. The result: a resolution on the district’s commitment to Black students passed last week with full support of the board.

Typically, resolutions passed by school boards are honorary – they announce a week to commemorate a group of employees or resolve to support a cause. Judson’s resolution recognized the district’s shortcomings and pledged to commit to the success of Black students by “continuing to address systemic racism towards Black students” and prioritizing academic achievements.

The board recognized the disparity that exists in the achievement of Black and non-Black students “even though these [Black] students have the same academic potential and all bring unique, valuable perspectives and experiences to our classrooms.”

In 2018-19, African American students in the San Antonio and surrounding area approached grade level in all grades and subjects at the lowest rate of 70 percent in comparison to 72 percent of Hispanic students, 87 percent of white students, 75 percent of American Indian students, 91 percent of Asian students, 81 percent of Pacific Islander students, and 86 percent of students identifying as two or more races.

That same year, the State deemed less than 49 percent of the area’s African American students college, career, and military ready. In comparison, 72 percent of white students and 58.4 percent of Hispanic students received the same distinction. Both trends remain true for Judson ISD students, according to data submitted by local districts to the Texas Education Agency.

To address these patterns, the resolution identified a trend of disproportionate disciplining and assignment to special education of Black students and called attention to the underrepresentation of Black students in rigorous academic classes like Advanced Placement or gifted and talented programs.

Trustee Rafa Diaz felt the conversations that led to last week’s resolution were necessary to have in the grander conversation about racial injustice. This wasn’t just a policing issue, he said.

“It has become a situation where, from my vantage point as a public servant, a statement needs to be made – I need to acknowledge – the hurt, the systemic oppression, and biases that are baked into every level of government systems, including education systems,” Diaz said.

Teachers who look like their students

Trustees and district staff felt one solution that could impact both problems was a greater effort to hire staff that reflected the demographics of the student body.

Judson’s staff comes close to representing its students, but doesn’t completely mirror the racial or ethnic demographics, said Marco Garcia, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Whereas the district’s staff is 43.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 37.3 percent white, and 18.4 percent African American, the district’s student body is 57.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 14.8 percent white, and 21.4 percent African American.

The board plans to examine these demographics, outlined in an annual Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, to hold themselves accountable in this area.

“We always strive to hire the best applicant for the job but in placing personnel, it is always ideal to try to mirror what we have in our district and what we have on our campus,” Garcia said. “It matters because a lot of the research tells us that if we are going to close equity gaps it is important that students see that their leadership or administrative team and their teachers look like them, resemble them, and that they have commonalities.”

In recent years, hiring practices moved employee demographics in directions more reflective of student demographics, but Garcia said he will continue to work with principals, who make the majority of hiring decisions, to be cognizant of why reflecting the student body is important.

If there isn’t enough interest from candidates possessing a needed skillset or a desired background, Judson ISD will have to search in new places for job candidates, Garcia said.

“The big answer would be if we don’t feel we have the right applicant, we just continue looking and continue recruiting,” Garcia said.

Busting the school-to-prison pipeline

Research shows the benefits of schools employing teachers who look like their students. A 2017 EducationNext study followed a number of students in North Carolina elementary schools over several years and found consistently that students were less likely to be removed from school as punishment when their teacher was the same race.

Judson trustees wanted to examine their own discipline rates and find ways to lower the disproportionate punishment of their students of color. In 2018-19, the district issued 4,167 out-of-school suspension orders. A school can suspend one student multiple times. Of those out-of-school suspensions, Black or African American students received 40.7 percent and Hispanic or Latino students received 45.6 percent.

The district issued 6,679 in-school suspensions to 2,685 students that same year. Black or African American students accounted for 37.3 percent and Hispanic or Latino students accounted for 47.6 percent of the in-school suspensions.

The trend continues for other exclusionary discipline methods, which take students off of their regular campus and place them into alternative education programs. Last school year, the district ordered students removed to the district’s disciplinary alternative education program, or DAEP, 882 times – Black or African American students received 39.5 percent of these orders and Hispanic or Latino students received 47.1 percent of the orders.

This is an area where Judson can make some real change, Superintendent Jeanette Ball said.

“It’s a paradigm shift for the teachers and for the adults,” Ball said. “Kids don’t come to school because they want to get in trouble. They are going through some things that we probably can’t relate to and we don’t understand.”

Ball described a typical scenario: a student gets in trouble and a school assigns them to Judson’s DAEP. Instead of sending them there, the student should have received help getting to the root of the problem and the district should have engaged a counselor to talk through the reason the student acted out.

In the future, Ball wants to see her staff limit the number of students sent to the DAEP to only students who are mandated by the State to be sent there. Instead, she wants the district to rely on tactics like restorative justice practices that focus more on counseling a student than punishing them.

Milton Fields, Judson’s Deputy Superintendent of Administration and Operations, oversees the district’s discipline and plans to ensure DAEP numbers decline.

TEA mandates students be sent to the disciplinary program for certain offenses, including being under the influence of an illegal substance at school or bringing an illegal weapon to campus.

In cases when DAEP placement is not mandated, Fields said he plans to consult with administrators about the steps taken to remediate behavior.

“Even with persistent misbehavior, have you met with parents? Have you met with the student? Have you let the student contact that social worker? All things that are likely to decrease the behavior,” he said.

At the beginning of a school year, campuses usually only send students committing mandatory offenses to the DAEP, but by Christmas that boundary slackens, Fields said. To address this, he plans to look at placements over the last three years and look at why they were turned away from their campus. He also suggested he could play a direct role in determining if a student gets sent to DAEP outside mandatory reasons.

This more tedious work on the campus level matters long after students graduate, Fields emphasized. Research details the school-to-prison pipeline, a concept that describes how discipline in schools often leads to incarceration later on in life.

“Is there a lack of understanding on how to deal with a certain group or population?” Fields asked. “Or is there a lack of understanding of the social situations of our Black and brown students when they come into class so [teachers] just prefer to remove them from the classroom setting?

“What is it that’s the issue and then how can we start coaching those teachers on how to relate and develop meaningful relationships with students?”

This work – reframing existing biases or systems that disproportionately impact students of color – will be the most challenging part, trustees and district staff said.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.