Burlington’s important conversation: How well are students of color served by the district and its teachers?

April 17, 2012; Burlington Free Press; Molly Walsh & Joel Banner Baird

A full-house crowd assembled at the Burlington City Council meeting Monday night to talk about racial issues in city schools — and by extension in the city itself.

On the hot seat was Burlington schools Superintendent Jeanne Collins, who endured sharp questioning from Ward 3 City Councilor Vince Brennan on her commitment to equity.

Brennan, a Progressive Party member, acknowledged that city councilors have no authority over the superintendent’s employment status, but he said that the school district needs a change in leadership. The councilor faulted Collins for not providing adequate support of a 2011 report that said students of color and low-income students are not getting a fair shake in the city school system.

The School Board unanimously accepted the report in October, and Collins praised the report at the time. In January, a Burlington High School math teacher, David Rome, wrote a rebuttal report contending the first report was misleading, inaccurate and overlooked the diligent effort of teachers who deliberately choose to work in Burlington schools because of the system’s relatively diverse student body. Rome’s criticism has prompted subsequent discussion not only about diversity but about the role of free speech.

On Monday, Collins, School Board Chairman Keith Pillsbury, Burlington schools Director of Diversity and Equity Dan Balon and Ward 5 School Board member Paul Hochanadel gave the City Council an update on work to improve outcomes and climate in Burlington schools.

Collins said she was committed to hiring more teachers of color and improving the climate for all students and families with more teacher training on culture and race, among other things.

She said it would be “a journey” to resolve the problems, and mistakes might be made. But the community should “lean forward together” to create an equitable environment.

Burlington’s school system is much more diverse than most in overwhelmingly white Vermont. Burlington has 4,408 students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, and according to the most recent Burlington School Annual Report, published in February, about 33 percent are non-white or multi-cultural. About 15 percent of the students in the district are English language learners from countries around the world.

Brennan asked Collins and other school officials if they accepted the notion of white privilege, a theory around race that posits that white people have built-in advantages because of their skin color.

Brennan asked the school officials: “Do you believe white privilege exists?”

Someone in the crowd said “of course it exists” while another councilor, Paul Decelles, R-Ward 7, bristled at Brennan’s question, saying: “Could you explain what you mean by that comment you just made?”

Brennan, who is white, indicated that he does believe the concept of white privilege exists. So did Collins. “Yes, absolutely white privilege exists,” she said.

Other members of the all-white City Council weighed in on the matter, with Ed Adrian, D-Ward 1, also saying white privilege exists.

Some councilors and Collins said the conversation about race cannot take place only in schools and about the schools. It’s a community issue, they said.

“We cannot stop with the schools,” Collins said.

Mayor Miro Weinberger echoed that theme and thanked both residents and school officials for coming to the discussion. “I think we are having a good conversation tonight, an important conversation.”

Lindsay Reid, a former Burlington school district employee, said she was not satisfied with Collins’ responses: “She persists in protecting the delicate ego of white teachers at the expense of students and families that face discrimination.”

Reid, who is originally from Burkino Faso, agreed with Brennan that it is time for new leadership in the school district. So did Jeanine Bunzigiye, an immigrant from the Congo and a former home-school liaison for Burlington schools. Many immigrant and refugee families are weary of talking about problems and want better academic outcomes for their children, she said. “I think they really want to see some action,” Bunzigiye said.

During public comment, about 10 speakers said the school district has a long way to go to eradicate racism. Reuben Jackson, a teacher at Burlington High School, said the district has made some notable efforts to address its historical homogeneity, but needs to go much further before students and staff reach real comfort levels.

Ward 7 resident Roger Kilbourn was at the meeting and said to a reporter that his three biracial children successfully navigated Burlington’s school system, with help from teachers, administrators and his Hispanic wife.

“It starts in the home,” Kilbourn said.

“There’s a one-sided discussion out there,” he added, referring to the public comments voiced to the City Council. “There are probably problems, but there are also success stories.“

Kilbourn said two of his children graduated from Burlington into careers in special education and civil engineering. The youngest, age 19, is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, he said.

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