First, I want to clarify that my intention here is not to criticize the State College Area School District’s response to an assault related to a racist high school photo earlier this year. I really understand how difficult this job is. Rather, the purpose of my writing is to offer some suggestions as to how we might envision moving forward as a community.
And so I have no reason to question Superintendent Bob O’Donnell’s statements that no one in administration was aware of the potential of this incident in advance. But I’m left with one question; a question that I think we as a community need to answer. The question is: why not?
Surely there were students who were aware of the serious potential for disruption, yet no student felt it was safe or appropriate for them to approach an adult with their concern. Or perhaps even more worryingly, they thought “that’s not my problem”.
I think that says a lot about the culture and the climate in our schools. But why is it important?
For more than 20 years, we’ve had a “State Baccalaureate graduate portrait” that included things like “a responsible and involved citizen”. More recently, we have pledged that “all of our students will be prepared to succeed in a racially and culturally diverse local, national and global community.”
And so much the better for us. But the evidence suggests we haven’t yet made the kind of progress we can really feel good about. What we need to recognize: It’s one thing to have a goal; a statement of commitment. It’s another to have a plan.
Here’s the part I’m missing. It is not possible to develop higher-order “21st century” cognitive skills (such as critical thinking and creative problem solving) without first investing in creating a learning environment that n is not only physically safe, but emotionally, psychologically and intellectually safe for all our students (and teachers!) This is especially true if we believe it is important for our students to develop the skills necessary to work effectively and productively with people of different perspectives and experiences.
A long-term plan would include the deliberate construction of an environment that supports the development of these basic skills. From the early primary years, we need to give students a sense of ownership of their classroom environment. (It’s more doable than you might think.) If we built on this every year, by the time our students arrive in high school, they’ll have the expectation, the confidence—and the experience—to know that they had the ability to make a contribution to their school community, and beyond. In other words, to be effective citizens.
Isn’t that what we want for our students?
But there are important things we could do now. At the earliest opportunity, we must engage in conversation with our community. At its core, public education is a community enterprise; for this to work, schools and the community need to agree on our goals.
Second, each class in our school should set aside time to have conversations about our school climate. This should be seen as an investment and should include conversations about racial climate, but shouldn’t be limited to that. Do our students feel safe? Do they feel respected? Do they feel part of the community? If not, why not?
We should not fear this conversation. (And it can’t be a single conversation; it has to be continuous.)
I believe we have a moment of opportunity. We live in a community that supports public education and understands its value. We have experienced and quality teachers. We may not be a wealthy community, but we have resources that other districts would love to have. So if not us, then who?
David Hutchinson was an 18-year member of the State College School Board, 2019 president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association, and host of Discomfort Zone on WKPS (90.7 FM) at 9 a.m. Thursdays.