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Tampa Bay school districts address racism, inequality in the classroom

Schools across the Tampa Bay area say they're committed to making a difference.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — As schools across the country and right here in the Tampa Bay area make major decisions about how to reopen, there's another issue school leaders are trying to address: racism and inequality.  

In Pinellas County, the district created an equity training program four years ago as part of the Bridging the Gap Plan. It's meant to close the achievement gap between black students and their peers.

Hillary Van Dyke is the senior professional development coordinator for equity with the Pinellas County School District. She wanted to make it clear that equity training isn't a diversity class, it's anti-racism training, to make sure every student gets the education they deserve. 

 "I developed a whole slew of training related to bias, systemic racism and instructional strategies for improving student outcomes."

Van Dyke's role has taken center stage in the last few weeks. 

"Over the last couple of weeks we've seen a huge influx of people wanting to take our trainings," Van Dyke said.

But, a three-hour training session is just that, training. Van Dyke says it's what the teachers do with that information that can really bring change. 

"It's interesting now to see more people using the phrase systemic racism and starting to understand that a little better and I think, for one thing, the education system is part of that."

Van Dyke says they are excited that more people want equity training, but they plan to do whatever they can to make this a more sustained effort. 

"Like every single person that works for the district, the only reason we're here is to serve students and so whatever we need to do to do better by that, that has to be at the forefront of our decision making."

She says there are several different levels of equity training.  The first level is just a three-hour class and is required for certain groups each school year. But if an employee wants to go further, they can become an equity champion for their school or department, to make sure people are putting this training into practice.

Here is the statement the district posted on its Facebook page:

"Like many of you, we began this week in a place of personal reflection and heartbreak as we process the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others.

As a society, this is not the first time that systemic tragedies of equity and race have faced our nation. It reinforces the significant need to address these issues at a national and local level.

This is why as a school board, and as superintendent, we are steadfast in our commitment to the work of equity, restorative practices and the focus on increasing black student achievement through the implementation of our Bridging the Gap plan. The importance of this work has been heightened during the health crisis. Throughout this time our educational community has come together to provide meals, deliver instruction remotely, ensure digital access and address the needs of families and students. It is indisputable that the work we have started around equity must be deliberate and continued.

We know there are no words that will ease the pain of people of color who experience injustice in their daily lives. As educators, we have the opportunity and responsibility to teach our young people to value themselves, and one another, and to stand up vigorously, yet peacefully, for what they believe in.

As a school district, as a community and as individuals we must all pledge to commit ourselves to this work, to the examination of our own practices and to disrupting the barriers which negatively impact our students, families and staff. It is our collective duty to build the next generation. They deserve a nation that supports their dreams, as their futures are so bright."

Pinellas County isn't the only district working for change, several other districts have recently made statements on racial inequality. Here is what other school districts had to say. 

Pasco County Schools:

 "In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, it is clear that our nation is in turmoil and our communities are hurting. And yet, I find reason to be hopeful. We are in an important moment in our nation's history when people of all races and ethnicities are standing together hand in hand demanding change. I am hopeful that we have at last embraced the concept that we are all responsible for each other.

In this environment of pain, anger and confusion, I want to send a clear message to our employees, students and their families, and our entire community. I am proud to call Pasco County my home, and I will continue to stand up for our community every chance I get. I am proud to lead our school district. Yet, I know that our community and our school district can and must do better. My words – our words – must be backed up by action.

As the superintendent of schools and the largest employer in Pasco County, I feel I have a responsibility to address the issues that have left our nation in chaos and to propose solutions. As Nelson Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Our educational system can be the driver that eliminates inequalities, creates responsible citizens, and fosters positive relationships within our community.

Making a difference is never an easy task and the path ahead is fraught with complexity. I believe that educators have a moral imperative to lead by example. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate any child or employee being ridiculed or mistreated because of the color of their skin, ethnicity, the sound of their name, or their unique qualities and differences.

That's why I am creating a District Equity Team to examine the factors that contribute to inequitable outcomes, and to propose solutions. I will direct this Team to take the following actions:

  1.  Identify biases and behaviors that prevent consistent equitable, fair and respectful practices;
  2. Leverage relationships with national external partners to engage in improvement methods for equity;
  3.  Set goals for achieving improved outcomes within our District Success Plan to address our equity challenges and measure the impact of our work;
  4. Provide equity focused professional learning to all stakeholders focused on deepening trust, developing diverse leaders, and building capacity for change.

Fulfilling these commitments and finding solutions will be a challenge. I cannot accomplish this task alone. I ask all of you to work with me to make a difference in our community – Pasco County."

Manatee County Schools:

"The School District of Manatee County stands in solidarity with all those who oppose racism and racial injustice. We grieve with our students, families and community over the brutal and needless deaths of Black Americans that have sparked protests of anger, frustration and despair across America and the world.

As part of an active response, the School District is committed to using all of its resources to fight systemic oppression and implicit bias to effect meaningful and lasting change. We will expand and emphasize Social and Emotional Learning programs to educate all students concerning interracial sensitivity and civility, cultural awareness and positive social interaction. To impact exclusionary practices we have adjusted our disciplinary matrix to reduce out-of-school suspensions and we are beginning to implement Restorative Practices as a tool to help end the school to prison pipeline.

We will continue to work with our local law enforcement agencies and our school Guardians to build bridges of communication and trust to our black and brown students and families. We will also ensure that the Florida Law Enforcement Academy at Manatee Technical College will review and evaluate their training practices to include appropriate restraining techniques and proper responses to violent encounters.

The values of equality, equitable justice and inherent respect for each and every individual are not only primary priorities of the School District of Manatee County, but an integral part of the educational mission to which we have been called."

#WeManatee -- We Are the School District of Manatee County."

RELATED: Manatee County School Board Members meet to discuss ways to eliminate inequality in classrooms

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Sarasota School District:

"As a school district, it is our responsibility to ensure that all of our students receive a high-quality public education. Education is the bridge to opportunity and understanding and covers so much more than purely academic pursuits. Academics are important, but we are also focused on the social and emotional well-being of all our students, as well as their civic engagement and growth.

All members of our school communities have a right to learn and work without fear of harm. Racism in our schools is not acceptable on any level. We will address all incidents of hate and bias if they arise, with a model that emphasizes communication, empathy, reconciliation, and support to those who are harmed.

I want to share how proud we are of our students, many of whom demonstrated peacefully alongside our Mayor, and so many others who are deeply concerned by the death of George Floyd and the events that are taking place in our country. Our school leaders have been focused on interrupting racism and building culturally responsive schools, which in turn, will build our culturally responsive community." 

Hernando County Schools:

 "Last year, Hernando Schools established Equity Teams at each high school. This next year, all of our schools will have an Equity Team in place.  These teams are made up of school staff who meet frequently, throughout the year, to identify and remove barriers to academic achievement, reduce any imbalances in school discipline and increase support at the social/emotional level.  

We are also adding two new positions. These staff members will be tasked with helping schools identify inequities and actively supporting the Equity Teams as they track data and implement new processes. They will also be able to provide current and relevant best practices and professional development to support those school teams."

Polk County Schools:

"In the days since the incomprehensible and inexcusable killing of George Floyd, our nation has experienced upheaval and heartbreak, yet I continue to find hope where I always do: in our children.

For the first time in our nation's history, Americans of all races and ethnicities, ages, religions and socioeconomic statuses are coming together to demand change. We are speaking with one voice, and we are delivering a united message: We will no longer tolerate racism, in any of its many hurtful forms, in our society.

Polk County Public Schools condemns racism, stereotyping, prejudice and social injustice. We are committed to creating learning and working environments that celebrate all ethnicities, races, colors and origins. We strive to ensure students and employees are treated equally and with the respect that all humans deserve. We promote diversity and tolerance, and we intervene swiftly and thoroughly when our students and employees fail to uphold those values.

I am proud of my school district, but the events of recent weeks have shown us all that we must do more. We cannot simply condemn racism, we must take action to stop it.

What can we do as an educational institution? We can teach our children about the atrocities of the past and ready them to lead this country into a new era of true equality.

I have directed staff members in our Public Relations and Strategic Partnerships, Equity and Diversity, and Teaching and Learning departments to work together on an innovative project.

This summer, we will conduct research and interviews with members of our diverse community. We'll capture their stories and create a new, unique educational resource that we'll use to teach about local racial issues — and inspire our children to continue striving for equality.

Additionally, staff in our Equity and Diversity department are leading an expansion of our existing diversity and sensitivity training so that our employees can better support and model positive, inclusive behaviors.

I encourage our parents and employees to join us in our efforts. Talk to your children — and to one another — about racism, its damaging effects, and how working together, we can promote inclusivity.

Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream that his four children would one day live in in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I believe we can still make that dream come true — and we'll do it one heart, one mind, one child at a time, through the power of education." 

Hillsborough County Schools:

Hillsborough County Public Schools stands together with our students, our families, our community, and law enforcement during this time of grief and outrage across our nation. My heart breaks for the lives that continue to be lost to racist brutality. These most recent events are a constant reminder that we still have much work to do in creating positive and inclusive environments; each of us must be a part of the change we need to see in our city and country.

Hillsborough County Public Schools does not and will not tolerate racism of any kind. We work every day in our classrooms to ensure equity and inclusion, to ensure our students are supported, engaged, and provided a safe learning environment for all children. Our students and staff have an important voice and we will listen.

As the Superintendent of more than 225,000 diverse students and being the largest employer in Hillsborough County, my thoughts are with our students, our families, and our staff. I think about you watching this unfold in our neighborhoods and am concerned about how you are coping with the unrest in our community. I worry about how the continued racist and unjust acts across our nation may be affecting you and your family.

Even though the school year has ended, there are mental health supports available to our students and families. Our Mental Health Hotline, created during the extended school closure, remains open Monday through Thursday during our summer hours. You can contact this resource at (813) 272-4787.

In an effort to further support our district families, there are also partner resources in our community for trauma counseling and mental health services:

Our district has put policies and practices in place to make sure that everyone in our school community has the opportunity to learn and work in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, free from bullying and harassment.

As a school district, we have a responsibility to make sure we are doing our part to foster empathy and kindness. Our schools are diverse places where our children learn acceptance and belonging.

I hope each of you remains safe and understands that peace must be our path forward."

10 Tampa Bay has reached out to Citrus County Schools, Hardee County Schools and Highlands County Schools for information on their plans and are waiting to hear back. We will update this story as soon as we get that information. 

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