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News / Clark County News

Camas School District series explores race up close

Book ‘White Fragility’ spurs discussions on privilege, biases

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: June 9, 2019, 6:00am
3 Photos
Camas School District Assistant Superintendent Charlene Williams, right, rehearsing her TED talk last month at the Camas Public Library. She and other staffers started a new professional development series this year, and one event was a semester-long discussion group on race.
Camas School District Assistant Superintendent Charlene Williams, right, rehearsing her TED talk last month at the Camas Public Library. She and other staffers started a new professional development series this year, and one event was a semester-long discussion group on race. (Columbian file photo) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — When Charlene Williams was growing up in Wilmington, N.C., a teacher told her about how few black women were working in math and science, and asked what Williams was going to do about it.

Williams, a black woman, intended to become an engineer, but changed her plans.

“Seeing teachers inspired me to go into education,” she said. “I saw what they were doing for students and wanted to do the same.”

Williams, who is now the assistant superintendent for the Camas School District, said her teachers not only fueled her love of education, but also her passion for social justice. She is now using that to open up dialogue about race in Camas schools with other staff members, who are taking that knowledge into the classroom.

This year, the district started a new professional development series called Teaching and Collaboration Opportunity Tuesdays, shortened to TACO Tuesdays. There are a variety of classes staffers can attend, and, of course, there are tacos present. Each course is offered three times a semester.

Williams led a discussion group the first semester this school year called Courageous Conversations About Race as part of TACO Tuesdays, which had about six regular attendees. The following semester, Williams led a discussion group on the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo, which regularly brought in more than 20 staffers. The group added two additional sessions to keep the conversation going.

“I was pretty floored by my new learning,” said Wendy Wick, a third-grade teacher at Dorothy Fox Elementary School. “I consider myself pretty aware, but it was eye-opening. It was enraging.”

Lindsay Peters, an English and history teacher at Camas High School, said the discussion group led to a lot more conversations on race between staffers. Wick said the conversations dealt with acknowledging just how white privilege still impacts the world, deconstructing the advantages that come with it and how to dismantle them for younger generations.

“We’re trying to get kids to take stock of whiteness and what that means,” Wick said. “They are not without race. To grow into the fullest, most well-rounded people they can be, they need to understand whiteness and white privilege.”

Diversity in Camas

Brian Wilde is a Camas High School graduate, and is now the school’s associate principal. He said he wanted to get involved as someone who grew up in the community and knows that perceptions of Camas might not be the reality.

“We want to make sure we are responding to the needs of all our community members,” Wilde said. “We have to reflect on our biases. We all carry them. The real damage is when we don’t realize it.”

Lisa Greseth, assistant superintendent with the district, said the district did hear from people wondering why they were studying race in predominantly-white Camas. The staff talked about diversity, and decided it would be an important topic to look at even if most of its students are white.

“Racism continues to exist whether there are people of color in the room or not,” Greseth said. “We’re learning about diversity in the world so we can raise everybody up.”

While Camas might have a reputation for being a particularly white area, the most recent data on enrollment from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction show that Camas has one of the more diverse student bodies in the county. According to OSPI, Camas’ student body is 72.72 percent white. The only Clark County districts with lower percentages are Evergreen and Vancouver, in which white students make up nearly 56 percent of both student bodies. Camas also has the highest percentage of Asian students of all districts in the county, according to OSPI’s data.

Peters said the fear of talking about race, of saying something and being perceived as racist or wrong, prevents teachers from doing work and connecting with students. While reading the book, Thomas Crone, a fifth-grade teacher at Grass Valley Elementary School, said he realized he was sabotaging his own work and getting in his way while trying to connect with students.

In late 2018, a joint analysis by The Columbian and The Seattle Times found that there is a sizeable gap between the growing diversity of students throughout Washington, and the rate of teachers of color being hired to lead those classrooms. New data from OSPI for the 2018-2019 school year show that Camas has 21 teachers of color out of 426 total teachers. That means that, with 4.9 percent of teachers identifying as people of color,Camas’ teaching body is among the least diverse in Clark County. Still, at Vancouver Public Schools, which has Clark County’s most diverse teaching staff, only 11.6 percent of teachers identify as people of color, compared to about 44 percent of its students.

“It’s critical to have places in our society where we can talk about challenging topics where people have different perspectives,” Superintendent Jeff Snell said. “We can learn from each other’s experiences. Public schools are truly a community coming together around something near and dear to their hearts, their children. When we create space to talk, it allows everyone to grow.”

Equity team

This year is the third year Camas has had an equity team in the district and in each building to discuss these issues. It partly stemmed from some families reaching out to the district around the time of the 2016 election. Snell and Williams visited a few families at their homes to hear their concerns and hear issues they’ve had at Camas schools in the past.

“It’s a pretty intimate conversation when somebody opens up their home to you,” Snell said. “That’s powerful. That kicked off a different level to this conversation.”

Williams said it’s important to build relationships with families and to hear their concerns, whether it’s the use of racial slurs by other students or changes in laws that could affect their lives.

“The dynamic for these children is different in school,” she said.

Snell said it felt like a “punch in the gut” to hear about these issues, but it wasn’t a surprise.

“A school district plays a big part in making families and kids feel welcome in a community,” he said. “We were allowing experiences to happen that were counter to that. It’s the exact opposite of what we want to have happen to students in our system. It was difficult to hear, but important to hear.”

This work has led district officials to look at certain educational topics differently. Snell said it can look good to say nine out of 10 students are graduating, but the district has started to focus in on the other side of that: one student out of 10 didn’t.

Doug Hood, director of elementary education, said district officials have tried to stop using the phrase “achievement gap” to instead say “educational debt” as a way to shift blame for a student falling behind from that student and their family to the district.

“As adults, we have not figured out how to reach this student,” Hood said. “It’s on us.”

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For Peters and her students in English class, she has tried to bring in more diverse author voices to their reading selections this year, as the cannon of classic literature tends to be made up of mostly white male authors. She said students really connected with Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” a book about a black teenager who sees a white police officer shoot and kill her friend.

It was important for Peters to show her students there’s more to the world than just what they see in books typically read in high school.

“My kids are going to change the world,” she said. “I want to help them.”

Staff writer Katie Gillespie contributed to this report.

Columbian Staff Writer