Tuesday, August 11, 2020
WRHS Teachers Strive to Address Systemic Racism in Their School
Protesters turned out in Ketchum last Tuesday to show solidarity with protesters nationwide who are demanding an end to racial injustice.
Monday, June 8, 2020


As protests ramped up across the nation following the death of George Floyd, the staff at Wood River High School got a pointed email from a former student requesting reparations “at this time of chaos and civil war.”

An African-American now living in New Orleans, the former student reflected on her experience at Wood River.

She described how, as the only black student in most of her classes, she was inundated with invasive questions from teachers fixating on her because of the color of her skin. She noted how she was attacked for wanting to read “The Scarlet Letter” rather than “Huck Finn.”

Maritt Wolfrom serves on Wood River High School’s Equity Task Force.

She recounted being told to write a tear-jerking story sensationalizing her life as a token black instead of writing what she thought represented her best on her college application. And she lamented that it was a fellow student—not teachers or principal—who removed a confederate flag from campus.

You need to do better, she said, as she described how she fought for her right to speak and be heard but “was heard by no one.”

“It was scathing, a hard read, but an important read. It challenged us to examine our own personal racism,” said WRHS history teacher Maritt Wolfrom. “I felt we had worked hard to create an equitable school environment. But, when I looked through the lens of a young person who had suffered harm and trauma, I realized there was more to do.”

Wolfrom and many of her fellow teachers joined nearly 2,000 people who took a knee to plead for change last week along Main Streets in Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum.

And, while protests nationwide have focused on changing the culture of police departments, Wolfrom said she and her fellow WRHS teachers recognize the need for change in schools, as well.

“When you look at systemic racism, that’s where it starts—in our public schools,” she said. “If our schools are creating these environments that perpetuate racism and differences in social class, we need to change that.”

Twenty-five WRHS teachers, counselors and other staff members—all members of the WRHS Equity Task Force--have penned a letter in which they state their commitment to confronting systemic inequalities and racism. The letter, which can be viewed in English and Spanish in today’s Eye on Sun Valley, outlines how they started the hard work of examining where change can be made last fall.

Dropping a knee or raising a fist in support of Black Lives Matter and an end to brutality against people of color in this country is not enough to fix the systemic racism built into our institutions, they acknowledged.

Wolfrom, a spokesperson for the group, starts off each year by having her sophomore history students examine what the history books say about Christopher Columbus. They then read primary historical sources and the writings of missionaries who accompanied Columbus. And they read Howard Zinn’s “The Real Christopher Columbus,” which purports that Columbus Day is not a thing to be celebrated.

They examine the accuracy of the different narratives and try to figure out whether there are voices missing. And then they do the same to other periods of history, including Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

“One student said, ‘It’s a whirlwind of sexism and racism and I’m so confused,’ ” said Wolfrom. “I really do try to offer those alternative narratives and have kids look at who exceptionalism is for.”

But Wolfrom and her fellow teachers realize there’s more to addressing systemic racism and inequality than the classwork they choose for their students.

That realization started as some pursued English as a New Language credentials. Challenged by what they were learning, they formed the Equity Task Force with the permission of the school administration.

Now, they’re identifying problems that affect a disproportionate number of students of color, such as suspension. And they’re committing to create more equitable outcomes.

For instance, they’re looking at achievement gaps where students are not given options, opportunities or encouragement because of systemic racism.

“Even the COVID shutdown has highlighted greater inequities—more students of color lack something as basic as access to internet or high-speed internet,” said Wolfrom. “As schools shut down, some kids became primary caregivers for younger brothers and sisters. And, as jobs shut down, some kids worked at Albertsons and other stores to supplement their families’ income so they were not able to keep up with school work. And, over time, we saw more dropping out. We implemented summer school for the first time in a few years to help these students recover credits.”

Teachers are considering eliminating the tracking system in school as they recognize that students assigned to remedial courses tracks suffer damage to their psyche. When students are kept together,  there’s a chance that kids with higher skills sets can pull others up, Wolfrom said.

Teachers are also examining how they might use more restorative justice measures instead of punitive discipline, such as suspension.

Wolfrom and a couple of her colleagues are examining how grading priorities can be unfair to students of color.

Take the student who fails to turn in an assignment on time because he was working to support his  family.

“Once that student gets a zero on an assignment, it’s impossible to pull himself up because of the way the system of averages work,” said Wolfrom. “If he has no ability to resubmit or revise, emotionally he gives up in class because he thinks there’s no hope.”

Grading is not really about learning but, rather, the grade, added Wolfrom.

“A prime example is my advanced placement students. If students are sitting at 89 percent, they want to know what extra credit work they can do to get to 90 percent. It becomes all about that one extra percentage point, all about the GPA,” said Wolfrom.

Wolfrom said teachers will review education studies this summer and meet to discuss ways of creating a more equitable system, even as they try to figure out how to best teach next fall amidst COVID concerns.

“We feel we can’t do nothing,” she said. “We want to reflect on our practices, ask hard questions and look at racism and our own place in a racist society.”


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