June July 20 header
Mackey Pendergrast
  • Racism Diminishes All of Us


    “That can wait.” I used this phrase a lot this summer. Since March, it seemed like prioritizing had become our highest priority, and it may have been the most critical management skill needed to figure out the rubik's cube of interlocking steps necessary for September reopening. As a superintendent, I often find it difficult to know how much energy to place on any one of our myriad responsibilities. Setting priorities and operationalizing our systems to stay focused on those priorities is something we all work at each day. For example, as part of our system of communications, through which we strive for honest and transparent dialogue with our community, we created two comprehensive information resources on our website: the Coronavirus Update Center, for regular updates on the current public health crisis, its impact on our programs, and our progress toward school reopening; and the MSD Forward: Reopening Our Schools webpages, to share district health and safety measures, new operational procedures (including mitigation strategies), school schedules, and programmatic adjustments we have implemented.


    However, while watching the news on May 25 and afterwards, I found myself repeating another phrase: “This can’t wait.”  Despite the exigencies of socially distanced classrooms, busing logistics, PPE supplies, and simultaneous in-person and virtual learning strategies, our highest and most urgent priority this summer became a different public health crisis -- systemic racism.  


    For the last several years, the Morris School District has been fully engaged in important equity and inclusion work, and we have a comprehensive Action Plan that has moved our district in significant ways for students of color, including: substantive increased participation in honors level classes; double-digit increases in standardized test results in reading, writing, and math; improved social capital opportunities and mentoring programs; dramatic decreases in suspension rates, among other tangible metrics.


    Yet, with George Floyd’s murder, we realized that there is a difference between making progress on equity and inclusion and addressing head on systemic racism in our schools. I had to discover and then reject the incrementalist mindset as a reason for delaying urgent action in confronting systemic racism. So no matter how intentionally and earnestly we have approached our equity and inclusion work, we acknowledge now that it is not enough and there is different work to do that simply can’t wait.


    This led us to start asking new questions: What good is our education if our students enter a democracy where certain citizens' voting rights are suppressed? What good is our education if all of the benefits and amazing achievements of science and medicine and technological advances do not benefit everyone equally? What good is our education if our efforts do not help to establish a more perfect union in every possible way for each citizen, not only for today but for the sake of posterity? If one of the central goals of public education is to prepare students to be fully engaged citizens when they graduate high school, then our students need to understand the ugly history of racism in our nation, its scarring impact on individuals and communities, and its weakening of our democracy. Racism diminishes all of us. Our students need the civic tools to unequivocally confront and work to dismantle all forms of racism in our society. This is different work than equity and inclusion. 


    To these ends, we have started our antiracist work with the understanding that it will require change, decisiveness and bold approaches. But we are certainly not the first generation of educators to take on challenging issues. Indeed, social justice has always been a central component of the national educational mission. And we don’t have to tackle this issue alone. Led by Kim Smith, Director of the League of Innovative Schools, there is a coalition of educators coming together to be co-conspirators in combating systemic racism in our schools. I encourage everyone to learn more and join the network. 


    This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic 1971 Jenkins court decision, which created the Morris School District on the premise that students are better prepared for life if they are educated in a diverse environment. Accordingly, the weight of antiracism is felt strongly by our community. We feel a sense of obligation to get it right for the next fifty years, as did the generation before us with respect to integration. Our students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and Board of Education are all saying the same thing: “This can’t wait.”