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Baltimore County students call for diverse curriculum, staffing during school district discussion on race

Catonsville H.S. student organizers lead a BlackLives Matter protest rally at their high school.

Baltimore County Public Schools needs to diversify its hiring, curriculum and training to properly educate students for society, according to more than a dozen panelists during the first of a series of discussions on race organized by the school system.

County school leaders and students participated last week in the “Conversation on Race and Racism in America and Baltimore County Public Schools” following weeks of protests worldwide after George Floyd’s death May 25 during an arrest in Minneapolis; four officers are charged with killing him.

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The student panelists said educators must learn how to address racism, which includes understanding the effects of school discipline and the need to provide a space for students to safely discuss current events.

“I hope as a [school] board and as a county that we’re going to push toward the decriminalization of African Americans even within our own schools,” said Bethlehem Wolde, a Catonsville High School student who organized Black Lives Matter protests in the county. “We all carry our own biases and we all have a lot of learning and unlearning to do.”

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Wolde and her peers were joined June 8 by a dozen county educators who shared their own experiences with race in the school system.

William Burke, the school system’s chief of organizational effectiveness, said he “never contemplated race” during the start of his career as an elementary school teacher in 1993.

Burke said it was almost a matter of pride to say “I don’t see race,” only to realize later how that “nullifies the culture and experience” of Black and brown people in a manner that “takes away” their voice.

The county’s student body is 40% Black, but Milford Mill Academy principal Kyria Joseph said Black people make up only 23% of the school system’s workforce.

Burke said the system has tried several recruiting methods, but it still struggles to improve the county’s “racially segregated” school staff.

Yasmine Stokes, a county school principal, said she realized the county’s school system required change in 1986, when one of her white colleagues called a biracial student “dirty.” Stokes said the system needs to do more recruiting from the nation’s historically Black colleges or universities.

“How are we being culturally responsive to our students if we don’t know our students?” Stokes said, “so it’s important that they have representation that looks like them and possibly lives like them.”

Lyons Mill Elementary teacher Brendan Penn said teacher preparation programs must be held accountable. Penn and others argued teaching materials need to be more diverse.

Omer Reshid, a former student board of education member, agreed and said he didn’t even learn about Juneteenth until last year.

“There’s no way in American history you can talk about history without talking about the influence that Black people have had ever since they set foot [in America],” said Abeer Shinnawi, a county educator.

County school board member Moalie Jose said educators cannot teach students to assimilate into society in a manner that makes students and their culture “invisible.”

Students are intuitive, Mars Estates Elementary principal Kelly O’Connell said, so she urged white educators to avoid “hollow” attempts at connecting with students from different backgrounds. Instead, she encouraged them to sincerely listen to the concerns shared by students.

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The county school system plans to host another virtual meeting in a few months, said Mychael Dickerson, the county schools chief of staff. Until then, Dickerson said, administrators are being encouraged to host similar conversations at the school level.

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