Jefferson City Public Schools' secondary students have said they want validation and empowerment to feel a part of their schools and community, Superintendent Larry Linthacum said.
Linthacum shared at this month's Board of Education meeting feedback from students and staff the district has collected in recent months as part of discussions about efforts to make progress on issues of diversity and inclusion.
From students in sixth through 12th grades:
"Treat everyone the same by creating a safe culture where it's OK to be who you are."
"Behaviors are learned. Teach us how to communicate and collaborate better with each other."
"Empower us to provide to the school and community in a positive way."
"They were insightful. I was encouraged by that," Linthacum said two weeks ago of students' responses in particular.
He wasn't personally at all of the meetings in which these responses were received. He said building administrators determined the best way to engage their students and staff, although he has met with the district's faculty council, which has representatives from each building in the district.
JCPS Director of Secondary Education Gary Verslues said school buildings solicited student input in a variety of ways, such as through club meetings and Focused Academic Study Time class periods.
It's not the first time students and community members have shared sentiments similar to those heard on an at least quarter-century historical continuum of the school district being asked to address diversity and inclusion issues.
"'We feel this is not even our school,'" Iva Presberry recalled two weeks ago of how some — particularly minority — students felt when she started working at Jefferson City High School in 1991.
Presberry has been retired for 16 years, but while she was a counselor at JCHS she sponsored the Kito Culture Club. The club was open to all but made a conscious effort to celebrate African-American contributions to society.
She started the club "to give students who were minorities opportunities for leadership," which she said students told her didn't really happen in other clubs, where they felt like outsiders.
Whether it was the annual all-school assembly during Black History Month or organizing fun outings for members, she said, the club gave students in it a sense of pride in saying "this is my school and I'm important here."
"I think the kids did feel like they had a voice and were important and they were recognized," she said.
The book "Jefferson City Public Schools, the First 175 Years of the Journey" notes other community concerns and efforts to address them in the mid-1990s.
"After tension rose in the fall of 1995, Jefferson City citizens created a Human Relations Task Force to search for solutions to race relations problems in the schools and community. School staff took cultural diversity training in 1996, and students helped also," the book states.
C. Suzanne Richter is one of the two co-authors of the book. Richter taught with JCPS for 17 years — with most of her service at Simonsen 9th Grade Center.
"Part of the cultural diversity training was related to poverty," she said, having participated in the 1996 diversity training herself.
"We did a role-playing poverty simulation, which I found very valuable," she added. That helped her be more aware of students in her classroom who might have been coming to school hungry and what else they might be going through.
Twenty-two years later, the district is again organizing diversity training for its staff.
Diversity training is one of the three goals Linthacum announced at this month's board meeting as a district priority following the most recent community discussions about diversity and inclusion, including the input from students and staff.
The diversity training — in the form of professional development — will begin for administrators and board members March 7 with a session led by Juanita Simmons, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.
The other two priorities are ongoing work on the district's hiring practices to ensure the diversity of staff can be increased to match the diversity of the student body and the resurrection of the district's multi-cultural advisory committee, which Linthacum said has been inactive since 2009.
"Everybody needs to be at the table and feel valued and that they're important," Richter said of lessons from the 1990s that might apply to the present.
"To date, we believe the board and the superintendent have not been committed, nor have they effectively responded to those (and other) concerns," a group spokeswoman for the local group "Concerned Citizens" said in March 2001, after months of the group's regular meetings with administrators on concerns that included racially-disproportionate discipline outcomes within the district.
A U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights report released in May 2002 ultimately cleared the district of the general allegation that the district "had discipline practices and policies that had a disparate impact on African-American students by suspending them at a percentage rate which was double and sometimes triple to their percentage of the student population."
Discipline data from the first semester of the current 2017-18 school year presented by the district's Chief of Learning Brian Shindorf last month also show about the same percentage of students in each of the district's four largest racial and ethnic groups — black, white, multi-racial and Hispanic — received the same outcomes of out-of-school or in-school suspensions or other consequences for the 11 most significant types of offenses for which students are sent to school offices.
The state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also recently cleared the district of policy, procedural and practical culpability in what DESE investigated as a "significant discrepancy" in the rate of black students with disabilities who were suspended or expelled for more than 10 days over the past two years.
In other words, the federal conclusion from 16 years ago seems to have held true recently.
However, Shindorf said, there are still plenty of questions to be answered, particularly about why a larger percentage of black students are sent to school offices in the first place compared to their peers.
Those kinds of racial disparities in discipline have persisted since at least the 2013-14 school year, according to JCPS data.
Linthacum believes there is reason to have hopeful expectations about the present and future.
"There is energy and working together," he said. "We're willing to have difficult conversations."
"It's a starting spot," he said of the three priorities he announced. If done right, he said, they can lead to additional progress.
He anticipated discussions about changing curriculum — as the district's elementary and secondary teachers have requested — will come from the multi-cultural advisory committee, for example.
He reported elementary staff specifically asked for "educational opportunities and curriculum by which students are exposed to different cultures."
Secondary staff want to "embed strategies within our curriculum to effectively (and) consistently address diversity, that all students receive the same information."
Both sets of staff also want students to experience a culture of acceptance and community.
Board of Education President Steve Bruce said he hadn't been familiar with the district's history of trying to address diversity and inclusion issues. However, like Linthacum, he has hope for the course of things to come.
"I think there's a greater recognition today of the impact of how kids are treated in schools and the results that has, the results that that treatment has on their academics and social growth," Bruce said.
"We know better now," he added, saying "kids do better whenever you create an engaging environment."