Data would be coming soon enough.
Certainly none of the educators in the audience came in order to justify the disturbing numbers they knew lay ahead at Kansas City’s 2019 School Suspension Summit.
Racial inequities. Culture clashes. An imbalance of suffering among children in the number of days lost out of class.
No one wanted to be a party to that.
But racial equity consultant PaKou Her opened the summit with a warning:
“Oppression shows up when we don’t know it is happening.”
Disturbing data accumulate while the people with power — those with access and privilege — drift back to the comfort of the center, she said.
Soon, Eric Camburn, head of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Urban Education Research Center, would unveil the numbers gathered from the public school districts and public charter schools in Kansas City.
Between 2015 and 2018, the number of suspension incidents rose from roughly 15,000 to 25,000 — raising the rate of incidents from 30 to nearly 50 per 100 students.
Two-thirds of the suspensions affected male students.
Although white and black enrollment in KC public schools is virtually equal, black students were four times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Turn the Page KC organized the summit at Kansas City’s Mohart Multipurpose Center, along with UMKC, the City of Kansas City and SchoolSmart Kansas City, as part of the city campaign to get all children reading at grade level by the third grade.
To challenge the inequities of school environments, Her said, the power in the institutional center has to push out and find “the borderlands.”
That means finding common ground between divided cultures, power and identity — a unifying purpose inspired by Chicana poet and writer Gloria E. Anzaldúa who authored the book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, in 1987.
“There is beauty and chaos in the borderlands,” Her said. “It’s rich and life-giving.” It sheds stifling notions of what is normal.
“‘Normal’ is a code for access,” she said. Access lends power, though power itself is not the problem, she said, but the misuse of power. Racism emerges when race and prejudice combine with systemic and institutional misuse of that power.
The journey that the city’s public schools have travelled over the decades follows trails of race- and economically driven migrations, according to data gathered by Rebecca Haessig, creator of the Kansas City public education blog Set the Schools Free.
Families — white and black — have been coursing between schools and districts in pursuit of better educational environments, straining school systems and their communities.
"We’re seeing the suburbanization of poverty,” Haessig said.
Her urged the audience of educators and community activists to “come with a bias for intervention.”
And breakout groups attempted to set people into action.
“Education is disruptive,” said David Muhammad, a former Shawnee Mission School District teacher who specializes in “courageous conversations” workshops. School environments have to “empower people to become their own voice . . . to speak up to truth.”
The American ideal of a meritocracy, that people can equally succeed on talent and effort, is false and crippling to demographic groups on the wrong end of the academic achievement gaps, said Liz Meitl, an advocate for students.
“Meritocracy plays into oppression,” Meitl said.
And “systematic oppression,” said Donta Goodwin of the Griot Institute for culturally responsive leadership, “hurts everybody.”
One of the panelists was Lee’s Summit School District Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, who has been in difficult conversations with his school board about hiring a consulting firm to help staff respond to inequities between its majority white student population and growing black student population.
Igniting passion among educators is good, Carpenter said, but sustainable change in school systems requires leadership from the top down.
“Governance has to be committed to this work,” he said. It sets “the foundation” when the work “becomes uncomfortable.”