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Ashland, Medford School Districts Aim For Black Student Success

Angela Decker / JPR News
Equity consultant D.L. Richardson (R) and Kokayi Nosakhere, a community member involved in the Black/African American Student Success group that's working to support students of color in Rogue Valley schools.

It may not always look like it, but there’s at least one African-American family in every county in Oregon.  A state study found that while black students make up a relatively small part of the K-12th grade population, they experience lower graduation rates and unfair discipline. 

Ashland and Medford school districts got a grant from the Oregon Department of Education to help bring more fairness to the schools and help support black students and their families. 

Changing the school environment and making it more welcoming for black families is no easy task given some of the experiences of black families in the region. 

In a series of recent meetings, parents and guardians of African American students in the Ashland and Medford schools gave voice to sentiments like these:

"Since my son has entered middle school we’ve been encountering quite a few issues with administrators and staff, not so much students." "A child who is verbally assaulted has no recourse." "If my grandson continues to get hurt here, I will  sue you."

The meetings are organized by the districts and led by civil-rights scholar D.L. Richardson, who was hired as an equity consultant.

Richardson says addressing issues of bias is good for everyone.

"If we all figure out how we can work together better and how we can work together to improve our students of color and our African American students then we’re looking at being able to increase what needs to be done for the school to make the school better," he says. "If our kids are doing well, all of our kids will do well."

Richardson says he wants to help build community and take action on some pressing issues such as staff bias.

One Ashland mother says she was frustrated with the number of times teachers and staff confused her son with other children of color or unfairly targeted him for discipline.  JPR spoke with her as one of the meetings broke up.  She asked not to be named because she’s concerned about retaliation against her child.

"Our children need to know that they have an advocate, and it needs to be brought to our community’s attention that there is implicit bias and that our children are being treated differently, being disciplined more harshly," she said.

Implicit bias is the unconscious prejudices or assumptions we have toward those who are different from us.

D.L. Richardson has introduced himself to black students in nearly every school in the both districts, spoke with administrators, and organized implicit-bias training for teachers, staff, and students.

Most parents and family members of black students say their kids feel that bias at school, and it’s taking a toll on them academically and at home.

The Ashland mom says since the first training for school staff, her son has had fewer issues, but more needs to happen.  She also says she’s grateful to have a group like this available.

"Having a support system like this to bring these issues to the surface has been empowering, and it makes me feel better because we were about to move. It was bad."

Kelly Raymond is superintendent of the Ashland School District. She says she wants district efforts to lead to fairness and better equip teachers to work with diverse students.

"I hope I have students who feel safe," she says. "That we can interrupt biases and implicit biases that we’re seeing or hearing, and that we don’t have gaps in our student achievement, for our students of color. And that we have an open dialogue and we are always listening to parents and guardians."

Raymond says the Ashland district is creating a curriculum that emphasizes diversity. They’re also working on continued anti-bias training for staff and teachers.

D.L. Richardson says he gets that racism is a tough topic. Most people don’t believe they have ingrained biases and are quick to get defensive.

"If we can somehow just get people to understand that we are not attacking you as a person, but because of the way the system has been in place we have a lot of work that we have to do to get us to the level that we need to be for our kids," he says.

Most importantly, Richardson and group members say families of black students in the districts are forming a community and building a network to support students and one another.

That’s something that Richardson says black people in the region haven’t really had, but now he wants families who are new to the area to know there is a community in place for them and it isn’t going anywhere.