Vashon High School approaches racial equity
By Isaac Escovedo, Editor-in-Chief
According to Data USA, 92.3 percent of Vashon’s population is white, and this lack of diversity is accompanied by ignorance. No matter how progressive Vashon tries to be, there will be blind spots ― facets of systemic racism that go overlooked as white islanders lack the experiences of people of color (POC), and unfortunately this ignorance has been known to drive away POC residents, further preventing education via socialization. Not unique to Vashon, the entire nation is plagued by systemic racism, which is evident in the education system. Disparities in test scores and grading between white students and students of color has led to more people across the country questioning the U.S. education system.
In the past several years, Vashon High School has worked to dismantle elements of systemic racism present in modern schooling.
“We started a committee called the Parents and Friends for Racial Equity. We did a lot of grassroots organizing, and I volunteered to lead up the committee to go and ask [the school board] questions,” Spring Hecht said. Hecht has been a school board director for the past four years, and before that led a committee of parents focused on improving the school district’s handling of racial equity issues. “We were like, what is our district doing? We just had so many questions… One of the first steps was to hire a consultant. The district did that and they invited our parent and community group to join them.” Hecht said.
Issues like systemic racism are so ingrained in the way we live that dismantling them requires a multi-tiered approach.
“We have to have that 60,000 foot level view of things. So we often guide the district’s priorities. One of the things we’ve done as a board is we made racial equity one of our top priorities, [and] we passed a racial equity policy,” Hecht said.
The school board cannot make minute changes to every class, but they can make sweeping policy and priority changes that are reflected across the district. The racial equity policy passed by the school board unlocks funding for racial equity education and signals a district-wide intent to shift teaching to include more input from BIPOC and focus on dismantling the white-centric perspective that has permeated the education system for centuries.
Once the school board has made these decisions, it opens the gate for school administrators to enact school-wide changes.
“This year in particular we started with the staff racial equity team, leading staff through several professional developments about incorporating things like black joy into their lessons, or how to identify bias within their curriculum… A lot of [teachers] have been doing this for a while. [Things like] choosing black authors and choosing which court cases they review both current and historical,” vice principal of Vashon High School Andrew Guss said.
The staff racial equity team is a group of teachers with additional training in how to identify and prevent racial discrimination in schools.
“Last year we would meet as a staff maybe once every three weeks or so… but right now the [entire] high school staff meets every week. Every other Friday has dedicated at least 20 to 30 minutes to racial equity work.”
One goal of Vashon High School’s administration and racial equity team is to hire more Black and Latino teachers.
“Our student population is 25 percent people of color, but our staff population does not reflect that. A big goal that we’ve been talking about is how can we promote diversity in our staff, not only diversity in hiring, but retention, making sure staff of color are actually fully supported and have what they need to do their jobs well.” VHS art and ceramics teacher Kristen Adams said. Adams is a member of the high school’s racial equity team. High schools are not mandated to address racial equity issues at a state or local level, so many see the creation of the racial equity team as a step in the right direction.
“There are no national standards for anything. There are state standards, which are very, very broad and vague and up to interpretation. And then it’s like… what does our district value? And so our district values education that addresses a lot of these issues. I’m allowed to do what I do and talk about the subjects and all that because of the district and their support,” VHS history and U.S. government teacher Jason Butler said. Butler is also a member of the high school’s racial equity team.
“I’ve kind of gone away from, ‘I need to test your knowledge on this with multiple choice questions.’ Instead I want [students] to just understand what system [they are] currently in, why there are so many white kids at Vashon High, how housing discrimination has created the environment of who goes to school, where, and then how those inequities lead to college admissions, lead to job opportunities, and future incomes.” Butler continued.
Vashon High School’s approach to racial equity is three-pronged. The school district and school board make racial equity a priority at a broad level, the school administration gives educators the time and training necessary to implement new ideas into the classroom, and the teachers take those ideas and run with them. Nonetheless, it is a complicated topic. Promoting racial equity is not just a switch that can be flicked; it requires curriculum overhauls, examination of grading biases, and most importantly, discussions with students.
“A lot of the teachers are trying to discuss [racism]. I know it can be a weird topic for some teachers to talk about with students, but I see that they’re trying. Some of our REP representatives talk at staff meetings… the teachers listen to the students better [about racial equity issues],” Saffron Hinz said. Hinz, a VHS student and member of Vashon High Schools’ Racial Equity Pact (REP), a club dedicated to promoting racial equity and educating students, played a part in the BLM in Schools day a month ago, as well as working with teachers at staff meetings.
“We’re working on trying to tie [racial equity education] into regular school, just to make it a normal thing instead of a once in a while thing,” Hinz said.
“I think the motivation is there. I believe that our administration and our staff are onboard and committed to improving racial equity. It’s sort of like you can’t improve a problem if you don’t recognize that it’s there.” Adams said. From the 60,000 foot view of the school board to teachers in their classrooms, every level of the Vashon High School machine is engaged with promoting equity. The question now is how effectively will Vashon High School boil the phrase “racial equity” down into a list of concrete actions?
There is a lot of work to do, but acknowledging the existence of subconscious racial bias is a big first step, and one that requires constant vigilance. Every single member of the Vashon High School community needs to be on the lookout for racial bias both internal and external. “Racism can easily get into our everyday lives, and we need to be aware of that. Sometimes it can be right under our noses without our knowledge. We need to be aware and be careful. We can’t pretend it’s not happening.” Hinz said.