When Richardson ISD Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone took to social media last week to respond to “demands” by current and former students, many readers were taken aback. Even Stone admitted her initial “administrator’s cerebral reaction” was less than generous.
“Uh, wait, students can’t make demands,” Stone recalled thinking. Then she sat down and heard them.
“I listened to these young people (most now adults), articulate and explicitly detail their experiences of suppressed pain associated with systemic racism. While hard to hear, I can’t imagine how hard it was to experience,” wrote Stone. “Embedded in sadness, I could hear a smidgen of hope that their voices could be heard. At the end of those three hours (+ 2 more today, bless them!), I now fully understand and support their word choice – DEMANDS. I thought to myself…I’d be demanding, too.”
The Students’ Demands:
- We want a public acknowledgment that racism is systemic and within RISD.
- We want a commitment by the district to dismantle these racist systems.
- We want students’ voices at the table and treated like a respected and valued partner in this work.
- We want programs, policies, and resource allocations that close achievement gaps.
- We want teachers and students to be held accountable for racist actions (and create a mechanism to train them to be anti-racist, so it doesn’t get to that point).
- We want the comfort, safety, and well-being of students of color to be prioritized in the way that it is now for white students, teachers, and families.
- And when the comfort, safety, and well-being of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] are not secured, there needs to be a mechanism for students to report it and be able to design a change for it with the support of adults.
Priscilla Beltran and Osadolor Osawemwenze were among the students pushing for improvements at RISD. Beltran will head off to Boston to attend Emerson College in the fall. Osawemwenze will enroll at Stanford. The graduates said the wall between students of color and their white counterparts begins forming – and systemic racism begins showing – long before kids ever arrive on the LHHS campus.
“One example is the discrimination we see in AP classes,” said Osawemwenze. “It’s not as simple as more white kids signing up for the challenging coursework. You have to dig deeper to learn why. It’s really about encouragement. Counselors are the biggest factors in who signs up for AP classes. If a [Black or Hispanic] sixth grader signs up for pre-AP math in 7th grade and the counselor asks, ‘Are you sure?,’ the child may back out. It’s the children of color who are being discouraged from taking these classes.”
Beltran and Osawemwenze say they and their friends experienced this kind of second-guessing often. The two of them were strong-willed enough to push back, but saw many classmates enroll in regular classes instead. Once preteens jumped off the AP train, it was difficult to jump back on.
“Keep in mind these are children,” said Osawemwenze, the child of Nigerian immigrants. “You can’t expect children to map out their life and see into the future that taking this class may be the best decision for them. For example, if you take 7th grade pre-AP math, you take pre-calculus as a junior. Those kids have an advantage when they take the SAT [college entrance exam] junior year.”
Beltran is a first-generation college student and the daughter of teen parents.
“I had to start advocating for myself in elementary school,” Beltran said. “My parents wanted me to be successful, but they didn’t know how to make it happen. I watched students with parent advocates, and I signed up for the classes they were taking. I got invited into organizations, and I reached out to people who could help me and give me direction. I developed resilience.”
Osawemwenze and Beltran could be out enjoying the summer and preparing for college, but they are helping RISD focus on issues that hold students of color back. Their concern, they say, is for those who remain at LHHS.
“A lot of people would say our success stories are to be celebrated,” said Osawemwenze, “but why are they so rare? I’m the only BIPOC student who graduated in the top ten. If I took away all of these accomplishments, would I just be another black kid to you? Would I slip through the cracks? I shouldn’t have had to fight this hard, but if I hadn’t, no one would have been there to support me. I had to work to be heard, to find people to advocate for me the way every student should. The diversity at LHHS doesn’t translate to the leadership, awards, scholarships – the faces of the school.”
The two recalled a “leadership breakfast” they heard about only afterward.
“I’m the senior class president and [Osadolor] is a National Honor Society officer, and we weren’t invited,” said Beltran. “It was a room full of white students, and that’s considered normal. No one wondered, ‘Who’s missing?’”
“That’s not right,” agreed Osawemwenze. “As diverse as LHHS is, it doesn’t make sense that the room is all white.”
The two also say high-achieving BIPOC students in RISD are often funneled toward community colleges in the Dallas County Promise program instead of being encouraged to pursue more elite – and expensive – universities.
“It’s strategic,” explained Osawemwenze, who said the assumption that white students can finish school, land jobs and repay debt while minority students cannot is the very definition of implicit bias. “It’s just another level of ‘Are you sure?’ The question is bad because it’s being asked only of certain students. No one asked the white valedictorian if he wanted to go to Richland.”
In her letter on social media, Dr. Stone asked all RISD staff “to spend time this summer in individual reflection about racism in our world, community, and school district” as she continues to share her own reflections. Her message gave the students hope for future change.
“This isn’t the first time [Osadolor] and I have spoken up, but it’s the first time I’ve felt like I’ve been heard by RISD,” said Beltran. “It’s one thing to sit down and listen. It’s another to hear concerns and do something about them.”
“I wouldn’t expect the same Lake Highlands in the fall,” agreed Osawemwenze, who wants to see progress before his brother enters 8th grade in the fall. “I’m hearing a lot of dialogue by younger kids online.”
“A lot of parents believe in true equity, but they don’t know how to go about it,” said Osawemwenze. “Dr. Stone may not be able to meet all of our demands, but what she can do is use her position and privilege to help create change.”
If you are a parent, teacher, student or alum of Lake Highlands schools, Advocate Magazine wants to hear your thoughts. Is Lake Highlands as inclusive as we should be? Do all of us have access to the same benefits and opportunities? Are we leaving some of our neighbors behind when we could be helping instead? Please complete this survey or email us at EmailLakeHighlands@AdvocateMag.com. We won’t use names or personal information unless you give us approval, but we’ll use your answers to research issues.