By Zachary Horner
News + Record Staff
The opening pages of Karen Katz’s “The Colors of Us” show a young girl with cinnamon-colored skin, grasping paintbrushes in her right hand and a …
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The opening pages of Karen Katz’s “The Colors of Us” show a young girl with cinnamon-colored skin, grasping paintbrushes in her right hand and a slight smile creeping across her face.
“My name is Lena, and I am seven,” she says. “I am the color of cinnamon. Mom says she could eat me up.”
In the ensuing pages, Lena and her mother talk about friends and family and examine skin color. The message of the book: although we may be different colors, we are all united. We aren’t individuals, but we are “us.”
“The Colors of Us” is just one of the books Chatham County Schools has put in classrooms this year as part of an initiative to educate students from the kindergarten level on up about race.
Amanda Hartness, the district’s assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support, says the initiative came out of the district’s Equity and Excellence for Everyone (E3) team, which started in 2015. The committee’s mission statement says its goal is to “support students in reaching their potential by advocating for social justice, eliminating barriers for diverse populations and utilizing culturally relevant resources while ensuring equity is embedded in all areas of our district’s culture.”
It’s that latter step, focusing on the resources teachers use, that has gotten a lot of the committee’s attention over the last year. Research shows, Hartness said, that students who feel more comfortable in their own skin and are exposed to different cultures have improved self-esteem and connection to their school, which generally lead to better academic achievement.
“A lot of kids aren’t really exposed to anyone outside their own race,” Hartness said. “The idea is educating students early helps them have acceptance (of others), acceptance of themselves, which in turn creates a more positive school environment.”
This type of multicultural education is also part of the state’s requirement for schools and teachers. Educators are graded yearly on their ability to “embrace diversity in the school community and in the world,” among other benchmarks on the official evaluation form. So while Chatham County is doing nothing new, the district has taken specific steps in all its schools.
It started last year with a series of focus groups featuring students from local high schools. Will Dudenhausen, the training coordinator with the Dispute Settlement Center in Carrboro, was part of organizing the groups and said the questions focused on matters of race and equity.
“As educators, I think there’s long been too much of a focus on the adults in the room, in a well-meaning way really, trying to tell young people what they need instead of really listening to them,” Dudenhausen said. “Just having that venue, having that space for young people to advocate for what they want, was a really profound experience.”
District officials and others learned, they report, that their students are experiencing things a lot of the world is seeing.
“Young people don’t need a lot of statistics to know what their schools are reflecting,” Dudenhausen said. “When the greater society is struggling with an issue of social justice and equity, our schools aren’t immune to that, and students see that every day.”
Tripp Crayton, the principal at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, said his heart dropped when he read transcripts of the focus groups.
“In my mind, if there’s one kid that doesn’t feel like they’re part of anything, that’s something we need to work towards to getting the kid to feel part of the school,” Crayton said. “‘You’d have that occasional student that at one time or another throughout their schooling felt like they couldn’t get along with somebody else or they felt their identity was dismissed.”
It was those focus groups that helped lead to more of a focus on cultural education.
At the beginning of the year, the district received money for literacy from the state which equated to about $200 per teacher at the kindergarten through third grade levels. Examining classroom libraries, Hartness said, there were a lot of “one-sided texts,” which focused on themes or characters that were explicitly white. She said that about 85 percent of books nationally follow that pattern.
So the district worked with independent book publisher Lee & Low Books to buy books for all K-3 teachers that incorporate characters and themes of diversity. Along with “The Colors of Us,” books included “Hidden Figures,” the story of four black women who made significant impacts on U.S. space travel, and “Dreamers,” a true tale of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. who found comfort in a local public library.
Schools have also taken individual focuses on diversity. At Jordan-Matthews, Crayton said, staff have been speaking about students’ individual life stories and how they affect their day-to-day.
“Some of our students, when they come to school, we might be the only smiling face they see,” he said. “We’re trying to get to know the kid and what they need from us.”
Sarah Chicchi, the principal of Virginia Cross Elementary in Siler City, is a member of the district’s E3 team and has been using the year at her school to “provide students with a balanced perspective of heroes and holidays,” she said. Students have learned about community members like District Superintendent Derrick Jordan, who is black, and national leaders like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Latinx.
“I think it is vital in closing the achievement gap,” Chicchi said of learning about identity and diversity head-on. “When we, as educators, value what every student brings to the table and their identity, students are more likely to learn academically and thrive social-emotionally.”
The district is a few years into its five-year plan from the E3 team. While many of its goals are accomplished, there are still some boxes to be checked off.
One question has been asked several times, Hartness said. Why not just teach that we shouldn’t see skin color and treat everyone the same?
“The reality of our world is that it doesn’t always work that way,” she said. “Our students have an identity. How they are received and perceived in the world, it is sometimes based on that color. If we don’t see that, then we’re not really seeing the authentic student.”