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For MLK Day, educators discuss improving equity in education

Kentwood It’s a great thing to celebrate being the most diverse school district in the state, but it’s important to dig deeper. That’s the message Kentwood educators heard Monday during a special presentation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

David Rease, the director of equity and excellence at a 135,000-student district in Maryland, shared his thoughts on equity and “genuine equality” to about 900 staff and community members during the remote presentation. Educators then broke into smaller Zoom sessions to discuss ways to serve all students in Kentwood even better, in one of many activities held by area districts to celebrate the holiday.

There are many historical examples of people embracing equality — such as during the civil rights movement — while struggling with equity, which requires equal access to resources for all, Rease said. He noted that integration does not automatically create fair circumstances.

“Does being at the table and being together really, actually, ensure you have the opportunity to benefit from being at the table?” he asked. “I understand firsthand that you can be at a place that has so much power, offers so much hope and possibility, and only be able to access a piece of it.”

He added, “Just being there doesn’t mean everyone is genuinely equal and has access to everything being offered.” 

Rease, a history teacher, is leading an equity-focused strategic planning process in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Marlboro, Maryland. He and a team of inclusion experts are working to engage 20,000 employees in learning about implicit bias, deficit-based thinking, the impact of systemic racism and creating more inclusive cultures that embrace marginalized populations, especially LGBTQ people, refugees, Muslims, newcomers and those in low socio-economic groups. 

The Need to Go Further 

Originally from East Cleveland, Ohio, Rease attended a high school where many students came from low-income households. Just 181 students of his 600-member freshman class graduated and only 40 went on to a post-secondary institution. 

Rease was a good student and was admitted to Columbia University in New York City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He then went on to earn advanced degrees from both Duke University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“Columbia … touted itself as being the most diverse Ivy League school in the most diverse city in the USA and potentially the world,” he said. Still, he found it difficult to find his footing there. 

“Whereas I had a really rich educational and rigorous experience there, I learned something that was really important: I learned the extent to which I was undereducated in the school system that I came from. I heard people talk about AP classes and IB classes and points and credits they got … My school didn’t even offer those opportunities for us.”

Roguewood Elementary fourth-graders put together a puzzle of King using pieces they each worked on (courtesy photo)

Rease praised the nation’s collective work toward diversity, equity and inclusion while noting the need to go further. 

“I’d never want to minimize the hard work and efforts that happened as a result of the civil rights era,” he said. “But we didn’t quite get as far as we needed to in order to ensure actual access and opportunity for everyone.”

Rease also referenced King’s 1967 “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, where the civil rights leader spoke on the resistance to changing systems. 

In that speech, King said: “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”

In breakout sessions after Rease’s talk, Kentwood educators discussed further working toward equity, asking difficult questions, being aware of implicit biases and living King’s legacy. 

Brookwood Elementary School Principal Lorenzo Bradshaw, recipient of the 2020 NAACP Role Model Education Award from the local Grand Rapids chapter of the association, connected King’s words to the outrage experienced during the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings. Those deaths at the hands of police spurred protests nationwide, and Bradshaw wondered if people might now be propelled to take further action.

“Could they make the connection to the bigger picture of equity for all?” he said.

Townline Elementary English Language Learner Coordinator Jessica Hulst noted that being aware of how implicit bias can affect students is key: “It takes those courageous conversations to find what’s in ourselves those small everyday things that add up to make barriers for our students, potentially, and to uncover those to make changes.”

Roguewood Elementary first-graders Addy Hipp, left, and Thalia Conley make hands with words of kindness for a K-1 hallway display (courtesy photo by Kathy Walcott)

A Weeklong Celebration  

Meanwhile, in suburban Rockford, students at Roguewood Elementary School began a week of activities celebrating King’s vision of a multiracial “beloved community.” They created posters bearing quotes from King and other words of kindness; engaged in spoken word and poetry focused on justice, diversity and equality; and read books around those themes. 

Younger children played a diversity version of “Simon Says” exploring their different personal traits, while fourth-graders collaborated on a colorful puzzle portrait of King. 

Students also are being offered a choice of readings and videos celebrating diversity from George and Elicia Davis, Lemarr Jackson and Motherland Cultural Connections, a Grand Rapids-based group that highlights African culture through music, food, art and storytelling.

Charles Honey contributed to this story.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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