LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The Jefferson County Public School district has committed to making their classrooms a more welcoming learning environment for all students.
Fixing gaps in achievement and discipline between black and white students is a core goal of their racial equity plan.
At Highland Middle School, less than 40 percent of the students are black. But 70 percent of students suspended last year were black.
Highland teachers and staff attended a training on implicit bias on Tuesday, led by University of Louisville Director of Diversity Education and Inclusive Excellence, Marian Vasser.
“We all have implicit biases,” Vasser said. “It’s important to know you have them. Once you know you have them, and you accept it, then you can do something about them.”
Vasser said because teachers are under so much stress and may be overworked, they can sometimes overlook the messages they are sending their students.
“The system is not just perpetuated by ill-intentioned people,” Vasser said. “It’s well intentioned people that hold these ways of thinking, these patterns and beliefs that often get in the way. Most of the gaps are widening because well intentioned people are making some really bad decisions and they aren’t even aware of it.”
Recent data shows the achievement gap between black and white students in JCPS is getting smaller. The district hopes more teacher training could further the progress.
“I think for the most part, this is one of the first conversations that we’ve had as a group when it comes to race,” Floyd Craig, the sixth grade guidance counselor, said.
Before beginning his work in education 13 years ago, Craig was a JCPS student himself.
“Part of me getting into education is the fact that I didn’t see many like me," Craig said. "And I wanted to be not only that role model for some, but just even for them to see something that they otherwise wouldn’t see.”
Implicit bias explains the attitudes and stereotypes that are ingrained in all of us -- they cause us to make certain judgments and decisions without even knowing it.
While it may start with an unconscious snap judgement, those quick decisions can have lasting consequences.
“Our AP students are primarily white, and our comprehensive students are primarily black,” seventh grade guidance counselor Mary Barnes said.
Barnes said black students are also referred for behavior issues at a disproportionate rate.
“Although that’s disappointing, I think that’s typical of a public school in an urban school district," Barnes said. "I would like to be a positive deviant in that regard and a model of something better.”
Barnes said it was invigorating to be in a room filled with her colleagues excited to make a positive change for their students.
“This affects all of us,” Elizabeth Farris, the eighth grade guidance counselor, said. “I learned it is something we need to be proactive to change and the first part is education. And I think attending this training gives you what you need to make those necessary changes.”
Vasser said Tuesday’s class just touches the surface.
“I hope they push beyond the ‘I’m a good person’ and understand there is a lot going on unconsciously that they aren’t aware of," Vasser said. "They didn’t ask for it -- the system of oppression that we are all a part of, it affects us all and every individual has to do something different.”
There will be more sessions in the coming months at Highland Middle and other schools throughout the district.