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Two Decades After Reports Documented Racism In Vt. Schools, The Problem Still Exists

A woman wearing a black t-shirt holds up an assignment sheet, detailing an role-playing activity about immigration for students at Mt. Anthony Union High School.
Drew Davidson

A recent incident in Bennington shows that students of color sometimes still face racially insensitive curriculum in Vermont schools.

The incident comes as Vermont legislators are debating a plan which, if approved, would invest money in teacher training to improve racial equity in classrooms across the state.

For Bennington parent Mia Schultz, a red flag went up as soon as she saw a recent worksheet sent home from her son’s current events class.

Her son is a junior at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, and the class was studying immigration policies in the United States.

More from VPR: Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

The assignment was a role-playing exercise, which Schultz says was built on the assumption that people who are coming to this country are criminals trying to scam the immigration system.

“And if you look at those worksheets, the role playing that they described was [that] the immigrant was to be scared, was to feel nervous, like they had done something wrong,” Schultz said. “And all of the students are harmed when we perpetuate these negative stereotypes, and ask kids to role play really, really sensitive and harmful situations.”

Schultz is Black, and she’s president of the Rutland Area NAACP.

She says this wasn’t the first time she's confronted administrators about racist curriculum.

"All of the students are harmed when we perpetuate these negative stereotypes." - Mia Schultz, mother of Mount Anthony Union High School student

Her same son was involved in a role playing exercise a few years ago, where he was asked to play a slave in a class that was studying the Civil War .

Schultz says the problem is not one teacher or a specific learning plan, but rather the systemic racism that’s perpetuated when students take part in lessons like this.

“We really want to change these systems, and that includes the educational system, in which systemic racism ... and discrimination has been allowed,” Schultz said.

“This is, like, embedded in how we operate. The history of America really has been that the oppressor is always the one in charge. And these are the systems that were built by those oppressors. So yeah, we’re going to have to unlearn a lot of things.”

The House Education Committee is considering a billthat would fund training so that Vermont's mostly white teachers get specific, updated training in what the legislation calls "ethnic studies."

But Education Secretary Dan French says he doesn't think the state money should be used on the teacher training.

French said he wants to see changes made to the state's education standards. And that, he said, will direct teachers toward more inclusive curriculum.

More from VPR: Hartford Confronts Racism, Misogyny & Classism After Select Board Member Resigns Over Harassment

“I think we’re at that moment in time as a country where, you know, we need to shift more towards action,” French said.

“And particularly, the action orientation in education means we need to take a closer look at what’s being taught in the classroom. And I think the state has a responsibility to put pressure on the system to move in that direction, and I think a required policy, from my perspective, was a better approach.”

Vermont passed a law a two years ago that set up The Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group, which is supposed to look at education standards to better support racial and social equity.

And they’ve already identified the language that needs to be changed within the State Board of Education Rules manual.

But in a reportthat came out recently, the group said making those changes on the local level, which ultimately controls school decisions, will be more difficult.

Amanda Garces is chairwoman of the Working Group, and she says that while the standards do need updating, teachers also need to be trained and supported.

More from VPR: Teenagers Of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

“You know, at the end of the day, the teacher has the autonomy to say, ‘This is how I’m going to teach these standards,’” Garces said. “So, we’re here in the long term. Our kids need it now, but the conditions are not fully set for us to change the whole system in one day.”

Vermont has struggled with this for years

Three different reports over the past 22 years found racism was pervasive in some schools and needed to be addressed.

"The systemic shift means that even beyond our institutions and schools, it's about really shifting the culture of what education could look like in our communities." - Christine Nold, teacher in South Burlington School District

Christine Nold is a sixth grade teacher in the South Burlington School District.

And she's a member of the Education Justice Coalition of Vermont, a group of teachers and activists who are trying to introduce curriculum changes into schools.

“There are moments when educators are really trying to embrace anti-racist curriculum, and you have folks in the community who, again, just learned in a different way, who have a lot of questions,” Nold said. “'Why is my student reading this book? We always read this other one.' And so the systemic shift means that even beyond our institutions and schools, it’s about really shifting the culture of what education could look like in our communities.”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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