Confronting and Combatting Bias in Schools
- Expertise: Cultural Proficiency
- Position: Supervisor of Race and Equity Programs
- District: Austin Independent School District, Austin, Texas
Many residents of Austin see their city as a quirky beacon of inclusivity, where people from different backgrounds live together peacefully.
But, amid a period of growth and change buoyed by cultural attractions and technology jobs, some of Austin’s residents say they haven’t always felt included in its story.
Texas’ capital is not immune from the persistent patterns of residential segregation and the churn of gentrification that quickly shifts the makeup of neighborhoods in cities around the country. Those patterns can create social tensions and leave longtime residents scrambling to keep up with the change.
Claiming a city—or a school—is inclusive doesn’t make it so, said Angela Ward, the supervisor of race and equity programs in the Austin Independent school district. Building environments where everyone feels valued and supported takes a commitment to challenging, thoughtful work, she believes.
“If our big goal is to create an environment that is safe and welcoming and inclusive for students and staff, then we need to get on the same page,” Ward said. “What does that goal look like for you? What does it look like for you? How do we get there together?”
Ward, a Texas native and former teacher, offers professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators, helping them to understand the way their own identities affect how they teach, interact with students, and lead schools. And she works with community organizations interested in equity to represent the interests of students and to build cooperative programs. And her work complements and enhances the district’s efforts to promote social-emotional learning.
Ward, 46, also oversees the district’s restorative practices, an alternative to traditional forms of discipline that teaches students to talk through their problems and experiences. The aim is to build stronger relationships in classrooms and to lessen the use of exclusionary discipline, like suspensions, which are issued to black students at disproportionately high rates. That program recently won a $3.5 million federal grant, which will allow researchers to evaluate its effects.
Lessons from the Leader
- Race Matters: Understand the socio-political impacts of institutional racism on your ability to shift the outcomes of marginalized students. Awareness is consciousness and a critical consciousness creates opportunity for reflective dialogue.
- Listen to Students: Acknowledge the authenticity of youth and value their perspective on their schooling experiences. Create opportunities for them to use their voice to inform school and district-level decisionmaking.
- Collaboration Is Key: Recognize the wealth of knowledge through collaborative networks. Collaborative planning and problem solving creates the opportunity for rich dialogue and opens each person to new perspectives and growth opportunities.
Austin is also the largest No Place for Hate district in the country. The Anti-Defamation League program gives schools resources and strategies for combatting bullying and bias.
Addressing Race Head-On
Some 56 percent of Austin’s 80,000 students are Latino, 7 percent are black, and about 30 percent are white.
But, like the country as a whole, the district’s teachers don’t reflect those demographics, a dynamic that can create hurdles for students of color that sometimes go unrecognized, Ward said.
“Overwhelmingly, our teachers are white, female, middle class,” Ward said. “Many of them have grown up inside that bubble and have not experienced the world outside of that bubble.”
Ward’s colleagues describe her role as one of fostering difficult conversations, challenging norms, building community collaboration, and giving educators the tools they need to be more culturally proficient in their classrooms.
“She is an unwavering voice for equity,” said Richard Reddick, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas.
In conversations about equity, Ward calls out “weasel words,” or the coded ways people talk around race instead of addressing it directly, Reddick said. When people talk about “at-risk students,” for example, Ward asks them to be more specific and directly mention race or ethnicity if that’s what they intended, he said.
In cities like Austin, where many residents view themselves as progressive, people “can kind of get caught up in, ‘Isn’t it great we are talking about this issue when so many cities are not?’ ” Reddick said. But Ward doesn’t let the conversation stop there.
“Angela is really good at saying, ‘Look at the data. … Look at the outcomes. We’ve got work to do,’ ” said Reddick, who has interacted with Ward as a student at the University of Texas, where she is pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, focusing her studies on race and professional learning in urban school districts.
The child of a black single mother raised in Houston, Ward earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with the aim of becoming a lawyer. Though she had done well in college, she didn’t earn a high enough LSAT score to win admission to her choice of law schools. She later earned a 4.0 in graduate school, proof that test scores aren’t necessarily predictive of success, she said.
Ward, whose mother graduated from college the same year she graduated from high school, didn’t know her classmates were taking costly prep courses to prepare for the high-stakes test.
“I knew being a black girl growing up in Texas about differences, but that level of difference had escaped me,” she said.
So she opted instead to become an elementary school teacher. And her background motivated her drive toward equity. “I understood that if I don’t get these black boys reading before they leave my classroom, they’re going to be doomed.”
She later worked in building and district-level administration before she became the first to fill her current role in 2011.
Ward is still working on measuring the effects of her cultural proficiency work. She wants to probe more deeply about what practices adults have changed and how they’ve affected students’ sense of safety and inclusion. In surveys, a majority of teachers and staff agreed with questions about issues like whether the district has made efforts to reach out to “culturally and linguistically diverse families,” and if the historical experiences and contributions of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups are evident in public displays and school materials.
Like most urban districts, Austin suspends fewer students than it did in the past, but a gap between black and white student discipline rates persists.
There’s no endpoint to equity work, and Ward said she still sees the urgent need for it every day.
In some cases, she has had to help administrators navigate the fallout from scary, overt acts of racism that have disrupted their schools. At one high school, Ward worked with a community organization to hold feedback sessions with black students last year after a video of a classmate using the n-word spread online.
Adults in the room quickly learned that students’ hurt extended beyond that one incident. Some felt like they weren’t heard at school. Others felt like they were treated differently. For example, a curvy black girl received a dress-code violation for wearing the same outfit as a petite white girl, who faced no consequences, Ward said.
“Adults have to understand what their values are … and how that affects how they are engaging with their students,” Ward said.
While Ward is direct and unwavering, she’s also relational, helping teachers feel empowered to make changes rather than defensive about problems, said Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.
“Even though she calls it like it is, it’s not about getting in a room and blaming white people,” said Hammond, who’s led professional development for the district. “But she’s also saying we can’t ignore the past structural inequities and the structural through line.”
Austin educators say Ward is focused on giving them tools to improve.
“The first time I met her, within the first 30 minutes, she offered to extend my learning” through professional development, said Sarah Stone, a social-emotional-learning specialist for the district. “She wanted to invest in me immediately.”
Inclusive Social-Emotional Learning
Austin is one of a growing number of urban districts that have embraced social-emotional learning, which focuses on developing students’ interpersonal and problem-solving skills and helping them build supportive relationships with their peers and adults.
It’s impossible to do that work well without acknowledging cultural differences, Stone said. And that requires some humility from educators, who must pause and acknowledge what they don’t know.
“How you behave, how you show respect to someone, how someone shows respect to you … how you feel seen, how you feel heard, how you feel celebrated are all very much informed by culture,” Stone said.
Informed by their collaboration with Ward, Stone and a group of educators on eight predominately Hispanic campuses are developing ways to make their social-emotional-learning work more culturally responsive. To help inform what they’re doing, they’ve interviewed students to get feedback on their schools.
“They want to talk about real things,” like ongoing national immigration debates and a U.S. travel ban from predominately Muslim countries, Stone said.
Such issues provide an opportunity for great class discussions and writing projects, but they also hit close to home for many students who have a recent family history of immigration, requiring teachers to sensitively navigate the resulting emotions.
“We have to build our capacity to engage in more real-world conversations our students want to have,” Stone said.
That requires careful classroom coordination to help students talk about personal and sometimes tense subjects. And it also requires educators to explore—and question—their own assumptions.
Adults have to understand what their values are… and how that affects how they are engaging with their students.
Ward connects educators from around the district with programs that help them do that. For example, a group might discuss a common experience like buying a car and dissect how their identities—their race, gender, or income—affect that experience. They then better understand how such circumstances would play out in their students’ lives.
Fourth grade teacher Sarah Freund said her participation in one of Ward’s professional-development cohorts has helped her be less intimidated about acknowledging differences in her classroom.
She sought out the experience after noticing a fear among some teachers of even mentioning data broken down by subgroups, like black students, when discussing test scores.
“The people who are most scared about having these conversations are the adults,” Freund said. “In talking with kids about it, it’s perfectly natural for them. They are already talking about it. They are already picking up on subtle hints and cues about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s not.”
Recently, Ward helped the district partner with Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art and the Anti-Defamation League to give students more structured ways to have such conversations by exploring works of art.
Through the program, teachers can request posters that feature paintings from the museum’s collection, along with reflection questions. A poster in Freund’s classroom asks students to describe their ideal community.
The Blanton also hosts Austin students for gallery talks that center on identity. Freund recently worked with a group of high school students to reflect on an exhibit by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez, who blends modern imagery with drawings of the Ku Klux Klan.
Talking about art gives students “a level of safety” in discussing sometimes sensitive and personal issues, Freund said. “It’s far enough away from you that you can talk about it, but it reveals so much about your own self and your own thinking.”
Giving students opportunities to address their differences and openly counter negative messages they hear in society helps them feel safer in the classroom, more engaged with their work, and more connected to their classmates, Freund said.
And when she needs a reminder, she looks to a sticky note on the wall of her classroom with a quote from Ward: “Every classroom is culturally responsive, but to whom?”
This article has been updated to clarify details about Ward’s experience applying to law school.