Jefferson City Public Schools is not the first Mid-Missouri school district to work on addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.
The Jefferson City school district has been working with the community over the past several months to chart a course forward after an incident in September involving some Jefferson City High School students and a racially-insensitive photo renewed concerns and discussion about racial disparities — particularly in staffing and student discipline — and engagement with the community on topics of diversity and inclusion.
At one of the community meetings sponsored by the school district, JCPS Superintendent Larry Linthacum shared that he had spoken with Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman about what's worked and what hasn't in that district when it comes to making progress on diversity issues.
The News Tribune also recently spoke with Stiepleman and CPS' Chief Equity Officer Carla London to learn about that district's experiences and the efforts they've undertaken.
That's one immediate distinction to note: Stiepleman said London's position — she's in her first year on the job — is extremely rare among Missouri school districts. As chief equity officer, she is part of CPS' core cabinet of administrators, on the same level with the district's chief financial officer and assistant superintendents for human resources and elementary and secondary education.
Columbia's 18,000-plus student population also makes the district more than twice as large in enrollment as Jefferson City, but the two districts are more similar than the obvious observations might suggest.
African-American students represent 20 percent of the student bodies in both districts. Non-white children all together make up 37.2 percent of the student body in Jefferson City, while in Columbia, the total percent of students who are racial or ethnic minorities is 39.7 percent.
Both districts have high percentages of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school — a standard indicator of poverty. In Columbia, that number is 43.5 percent; Jefferson City is higher, closer to 60 percent.
Both districts also share similar disparities along racial and ethnic lines. Stiepleman said CPS has 1,500 teachers, 14 percent of whom identify as educators of color. About 8.03 percent of JCPS' 1,232 full-time, non-new-hire staff members have diverse backgrounds, though full-time staff also includes employees like administrators, principals, guidance counselors and librarians.
The superintendents of both districts would like the diversity of their staffs to match the percentage of their respective student bodies.
Stiepleman cautioned one cannot just assume a teacher who looks like a child has had the same experiences, but it is important to have a diverse staff that can motivate and connect with all students.
"It challenges (students') assumptions of who can and cannot teach," which can show students they really can be anything they want to be and not feel limited in their aspirations, he said.
"You could try to go to job fairs, which is what our school district has done in the past. We go down to Columbia, South Carolina, and we say to (teacher candidates from) a historically black college, 'come on to Columbia, Missouri.' They go 'mmm, pass. It's cold. I don't know anyone there, and I might come for a year, but then I leave.' So, instead, what we've been pushing is a grow our own," he explained of his district's recruiting strategy for teachers.
He said the district has contracts with Columbia College and Stephens College for three Columbia high school graduates to get their full tuition and room and board covered and then be hired by the school district as teachers upon graduation from college. "So, they graduate debt free, they're students from our community and they're exactly what we're looking for in terms of future teachers," he added.
This year is the first year of the program. "By the end of the (first) four years, we'll have 12 (students) in the pipeline each year, which is not insignificant in terms of what we're trying to accomplish. You're talking about kids who are from Columbia," he said, which speaks to a community priority of trying to lower local unemployment, particularly among African-Americans.
The jobs students will have upon graduation will pay almost $40,000 a year with full benefits and no debt. "That's a game changer," Stiepleman added.
Districts all over the state are facing a shortage of teacher candidates, and grow-your-own initiatives are one way districts are thinking about attracting or creating local candidates.
Stiepleman said Columbia has not yet reached out to Lincoln University to create a similar arrangement as with Columbia College or Stephens College, out of respect that JCPS might want to look into a similar initiative. He added Columbia is also speaking with Central Methodist University.
Whether new or just new to the school district, Columbia teachers are also required to do equity training.
London explained the training — provided initially by the National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis to CPS staff who've gone on to become trainers for other staff themselves — is an intense self-reflection on implicit biases based on learned socializations.
Socializations are the assumptions picked up and reinforced through experience: "The songs we sang as kids, the jokes we heard, the people our parents introduced us to that we spend time with," what we saw on TV, Stiepleman cited as examples.
"We really stress in our training that it's not to attack anyone. We were socialized the way that we're socialized. It's not a self-assessment to put yourself down or to feel guilty, but it's really just a reflective piece that says, 'What am I doing and what do my background and beliefs bring into the classroom? How does that impact the students I work with every day?'" London added.
The Columbia district has been doing equity training for about six years, but this is the second year the training has been a requirement for all staff, she said. Training teams go to every building in the district either bi-monthly or twice a year. "Some buildings want more, but that's generally the average, because we're using some of their faculty meeting time," she said.
The district is also using restorative practices training as one tool in the re-examination of discipline practices. London said such training is about repairing harm at buildings but also about building community in classrooms and buildings.
Like JCPS, the Columbia school district has a significant discipline disparity between white and African-American students. The 20 percent of CPS students who are African-American received almost half of the district's out-of-school suspensions last year. Eighty percent of all Columbia students who received an out-of-school suspension last year were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Over the past four years, the overall number of out of school suspensions in Columbia per year has decreased from more than 1,500 to 575.
On the academic curriculum front, London said the district's media specialist coordinator has expressed a desire to do an audit of what's in school libraries in order to ensure students are absorbing more complicated portrayals and narratives of themselves and others than traditional stereotypes.
Stiepleman used the example of "when you're studying American Indians, (making sure) that every story is not a folktale, as if you romanticize a people that no longer exists," when those people are neighbors.
Furthermore, he said, "In the absence of employees who look like the 61 different languages that are spoken in the Columbia Public Schools, how do we find those individuals in our community and have them tell their story?" He added local companies have offered their own media teams to record those stories "of someone who looks different from us and reading a favorite story, or telling a favorite story, and allowing teachers to use those stories as part of their social studies units, so that we're constantly introducing children to the world, but that the world actually lives in our community."
The diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that have been described are only some of those CPS has undertaken and that are included on a list shared with the News Tribune and Linthacum.
Linthacum said he's talked with Stiepleman three times in the past three months. He said Stiepleman didn't give him a sense of how much initiatives like the ones described cost financially. "We're just trying to get an assessment of where we are and things we need to consider," Linthacum said.
The News Tribune reached out to Stiepleman again to get an idea of what some of the initiatives cost and how the Columbia district has paid for them — whether through the district's own budget or through outside funding or grants.
Stiepleman responded in an email that the grow-your-own contracts cost the district $3,500 per student in the program. London's position of chief equity officer was "budget neutral," as she filled in a space on the district's cabinet that had been left vacant by a retirement.
The equity training costs about $6,000 for a staff member to become a trainer — likewise, $2,000 for the restorative practices training.
A cultural audit with the Diversity Awareness Partnership last year cost $2,500. That audit looked at cultural celebrations in the district — whether they went deeper than planting a flag by a food dish and calling that "international day," or in other words, "how do we celebrate children?" Stiepleman said.
"We've made these initiatives work within our budget," he wrote.
Linthacum said in regards to the grow-your-own campaign Columbia is using, pros and cons have to be weighed, and he doesn't know for sure yet how well it's working for CPS.
He said his main takeaway from conversations with CPS about diversity initiatives and practices has been, "It's a slow process," but an important one that is producing positive results over time.
He anticipates an update at the January Board of Education meeting about JCPS' proposed work, but does not expect finalized plans until probably the February board meeting, in part because meetings with staff are not yet finished.
The district will be bringing back its multi-cultural advisory committee, though, he added.
London said of CPS' experiences: "There will be a group that says, 'This is long overdue, and let's just jump in and it has to be happen.' And then there will be a group that says, 'I'm really uncomfortable with the conversations. I don't want to have them at all.' Just balancing that in the middle, I think we've been very thoughtful with that process."
Stiepleman said he encourages people to look at cultural competency as a way of looking at the world instead of another set of assumptions in itself; "prism" and "lens" are the words he used.
"It was really important that this wasn't seen as just one more thing to do, but how do we do what we already do, just better?" London said.
"As teachers, we all like a handout. Give me this paper and tell me what to do. And this work is about when you leave (training), think about how this is going to impact you or how you think about your interaction with students," she added.