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Sussex Tech
Virginia Forcucci speaks to students in her 10th grade English class at Sussex Tech High School. Credit: Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report

GEORGETOWN, Del. — On a recent Thursday morning, when most of their peers were busy prepping for the day, a dozen teachers and staff at Delaware’s Sussex Tech High School sat down to talk about race.

The group was discussing Chapter 2 of scholar Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.”

Lynne Banning, an administrative assistant to the principal, said she was surprised to read that racial biases begin in preschool. At the elementary school she worked at before Sussex Tech, kids of all races played together, she said. “I don’t see racism at that age,” said Banning, who is white.

More than a third of the students at Sussex Tech are students of color, but close to 90 percent of its teachers are white, a mismatch evident in many high schools today.

“It absolutely happens,” said Spanish teacher Valarie Dacius, who is biracial. “I think it’s because you’re white.” Dacius then told her own story about growing up in predominantly white Bel Air, Maryland, one of three kids of color. “We were made very aware we were different,” she said. “We were excluded.”

Each of the women was speaking her truth, and that was the point. By sharing their experiences and perspectives, even when it’s awkward, the members of the school’s “equity team” hope to better understand one another — and their students. More than a third of the students at Sussex Tech are students of color, but close to 90 percent of its teachers are white, a mismatch evident in many high schools today.

In the long run, the group hopes to persuade the administration to hire more faculty and staff of color, said Dontez Collins, a math teacher and the group’s co-leader. But for now, it’s focused on training existing educators to become more “culturally responsive,” representing diverse cultures and frames of reference in their teaching.

There’s an urgency to the equity team’s work: Sussex Tech’s students of color have lagged behind their white peers on multiple measures of academic achievement. And the team’s efforts have gotten some traction: The school district just approved a strategic plan that calls on staff to “ensure a learning environment that respects cultural diversity.” The new superintendent, Stephen Guthrie, has tasked the equity group with reviewing the district’s policies, procedures and practices, with an eye toward equity.

“Teachers need to understand how students’ perspectives may be radically different than their own, and how that affects their learning,” said Guthrie. “It’s our responsibility to students.”

As schools seek to better serve an increasingly diverse student population and close racial achievement gaps, Sussex Tech offers a case study in culturally responsive practice. Its experience shows how committed educators can create classrooms where all students feel respected and included. But it also shows how hard it can be to change the culture of a school — and the mindsets of its teachers.

“Some people don’t think we have an issue with race at all.”

When the school held a mandatory seminar last fall to discuss the impact of race on student learning, some teachers and staff walked out, accusing the school of sowing division between teachers.

“Some people don’t think we have an issue with race at all,” said Deangello Eley, a 1999 graduate of Sussex Tech who now teaches criminal justice at the school.

Challenged to confront their cultural biases, some teachers and staff got defensive, attendees said. Others questioned the purpose of the exercise, according to school principal John Demby, who said he wishes he’d done a better job of explaining the “why” ahead of time.

After the training erupted into controversy, some teachers requested a follow-up conversation. When it didn’t materialize, misperceptions and resentments festered, those teachers said.

Related: We need more black and brown teachers but not for the reasons you think

Sussex Tech isn’t the first school to wrestle with the challenges of becoming more inclusive. The theory behind culturally responsive teaching — that students learn best in schools that honor and reflect their cultures and worldviews — has been around for at least a couple of decades.

But there’s still not much agreement about what constitutes culturally responsive teaching. In practice, it can be as complex as conversations about white privilege or as simple as hanging up posters of black scientists and including Hispanic names in test questions.

“Teachers need to understand how students’ perspectives may be radically different than their own, and how that affects their learning. It’s our responsibility to students.”

There’s more consensus about what it is not: a checklist, or an annual celebration, like Black History Month. It has to be woven into the curriculum, across the subjects.

To Virginia Forcucci, an English teacher and the equity team’s other co-leader, culturally responsive teaching starts with knowing your students — and yourself. You have to understand where your students are coming from, and you have to interrogate your own biases, however uncomfortable that may be.

Then, she says, you have to create a climate in which students can discuss race and equity candidly. She’s established four ground rules for the classroom and the equity team, based on activist and entrepreneur Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations About Race” model: speak your truth; expect discomfort; accept non-closure; and stay engaged.

Sussex Tech
Sussex Tech High School student Katasia responds to a short story about white privilege, while students Michelle (the story’s author) and Koby (to her right) listen. Credit: Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report

In a recent creative writing class, Forcucci’s students talked about how the media often portrays people of color as dangerous or as thugs. Koby, an 11th grader who is white and wants to become a cop, argued that police officers are villainized, too.

His classmate Michelle, who is half black, but is often assumed to be white, was skeptical. “The reality is that black people are being killed by police officers,” she said.

“I don’t think all cops are villains,” said Brittany, who is black. “But my dad taught me when I was little that when a cop comes to our car, we have to be careful. You won’t ever understand how cautious we have to be.”

“We need to realize how good we have it,” added Michelle, with passion.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” said Koby.

“No, you must, because if you don’t, we can’t change the system,” Forcucci urged. “If we’re going to talk about race, everyone has to be talking.”

“I’m worried I’m going to say something and people will say I’m racist,” Koby confided.

Difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversations like this one are the norm in Forcucci’s English classes. Tall and thin, with the beachy blonde waves and bronze skin of someone who lives near Delaware’s coast, Forcucci exudes energy and passion for her work. The 2018 Delaware teacher of the year, she has become a regional leader in the effort to expand culturally responsive teaching, and she pushed for last fall’s mandatory training.

Related: Teachers go to school on racial bias

Support for such practices appears to be growing. All 50 states have incorporated some aspects of culturally responsive pedagogy into their professional teaching standards, according to a recent analysis by the New America Foundation.

But only two states — Alaska and Washington — have stand-alone standards that specify the knowledge and skills crucial to culturally responsive teaching, according to the New America report. Most states “do not yet provide a description of culturally responsive teaching that is clear or comprehensive enough to support teachers” throughout their careers, the analysis found.

That may be partly because policymakers aren’t sure what effective practice looks like. While some studies have linked culturally responsive teaching to improvements in attendance and academic achievement, “We still don’t have the clear, causal evidence base to say, ‘if a teacher does this, then we will see this learning outcome,’ ” said Saroja Warner, a director with the consulting group WestEd who works with the mid-Atlantic states on culturally responsive practices. She hopes the New America report, which identifies eight “common competencies” of culturally responsive educators, will provide a template for states seeking to define the practice, “so they don’t have to start from scratch.”

Related: Access does not equal equity

In the meantime, experiments in culturally responsive practice are playing out in classrooms like Forcucci’s creative writing class, where on a recent Thursday Forcucci read aloud her student Michelle’s short story “Privilege,” her voice cracking often with emotion. In the story, a white narrator describes a scene in a coffee shop in which a middle-aged white man lets a light-skinned girl go ahead of him in a line, but reacts angrily when her black father tries to join her, accusing him of cutting.

It’s a story about the everyday slights suffered by people of color, and it’s based on similar experiences Michelle has had with her father, who is black.

“If we’re going to talk about race, everyone has to be talking.”

When she finished reading, Forcucci asked the class why it’s significant that the narrator is white.

“Because [white] people have the power to say something, and they don’t,” said Katasia, who is black. “They just sit and watch.”

Sussex Tech
Sussex Tech students Brittany and Michelle embrace Caroline, who became overcome with emotion during a discussion about race. Credit: Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report

Caroline, who is white, raised her hand. “Brittany is my best friend,” she began, then broke down, crying. Brittany and Michelle hurried to her desk and embraced her.

When she regained her composure, Caroline started over, telling the class about how, recently, an older woman was beeping her horn angrily at Brittany, “and there was nothing I could do.” She starts crying again.

Forcucci asked Brittany if she would have wanted Caroline to intervene.

“No,” she said. “I wanted her to stay out of it.

“I knew what would go down if I said something,” Brittany said. “She was an older white woman.”

Forcucci won’t be teaching creative writing next year; her husband, who is also an English teacher, will. But she will be leading a new class on social justice; already, 111 students have signed up — enough for five sections.

Most classrooms at Sussex Tech don’t look or sound like Forcucci’s, students said. Some teachers still aren’t familiar with culturally relevant practices, said Karli, this year’s valedictorian; others “aren’t ready for it.”

Teachers and administrators here acknowledge lingering tensions over last fall’s seminar. Colleagues who used to greet Forcucci with a friendly hello now leave the school’s copy room when she enters, she said.

Guthrie, the superintendent, thinks part of the problem was the top-down nature of the training. He hopes letting teachers lead, through the equity team, will lessen the resistance to change.

“If you try to force-feed people, it won’t work,” he said. “If you try to say there is a problem when they don’t perceive one, you’re not going to get anywhere. You have to help people come to their own understanding, in their own time.”

Eley, the criminal justice instructor, said he’s glad the new administration is taking equity seriously.

“I feel like I’m finally being seen,” he said, adding that “it feels funny to say that at age 38.

“If I’ve felt that, what do you think our kids feel?”

This story about Sussex Tech was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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