Verenice Gutierrez picks up on the subtle language of racism every day.
Take the peanut butter sandwich, a seemingly innocent example a teacher used in a lesson last school year.
“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.
“Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”
Guitierrez, along with all of Portland Public Schools’ principals, will start the new school year off this week by drilling in on the language of “Courageous Conversations,” the district-wide equity training being implemented in every building in phases during the past few years.
Through intensive staff trainings, frequent staff meetings, classroom observations and other initiatives, the premise is that if educators can understand their own “white privilege,” then they can change their teaching practices to boost minority students’ performance.
Last Wednesday, the first day of the school year for staff, for example, the first item of business for teachers at Scott School was to have a Courageous Conversation—to examine a news article and discuss the “white privilege” it conveys.
Most of the staff are on board, but there is some opposition to a drum class being offered to middle school boys of color at Scott School.
Fifty percent of the students at Scott are Hispanic; another 15 percent are black and 9 percent are Asian. Eighty-five percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Chuck Barber, who also offers boys’ drum corps at Vernon and Faubion schools in Northeast Portland, approached Gutierrez last year to start up a lunch-time drum class for black and Latino boys once a week. This year, it’ll expand to two classes a week, to accommodate new boys as well as those with experience.
At least one parent has a problem with the class, saying it amounts to “blatant discrimination and equity of women, Asians, whites and Native Americans.”
Gutierrez denies that any students were turned away from the drum corps, and vehemently rejects any suggestion that it is discrimination to offer a club catering to minority boys.
“When white people do it, it is not a problem, but if it’s for kids of color, then it’s a problem?” says Gutierrez, 40, an El Paso, Texas, native whose parents were Mexican immigrants. “Break it down for me. That’s your white privilege, and your whiteness.”
Like many if not all of PPS’ leaders, Gutierrez has gone through California-based consultant Glenn Singleton’s “Coaching for Educational Equity,” a weeklong seminar on race and how it affects life; she’s also become an “affiliate,” certified to teach the equity curriculum; and she serves on the district’s administrative committee to address systematic racism, a group that meets every other week.
Despite that year of work [at improving student achievement], Oregon’s Department of Education just last month identified Scott as a “focus school,” one that performs among the state’s lowest 15 percent.
“This isn’t for the weak,” [Gutierrez] says. “We have less resources. We can’t impact that. I want to walk away from Scott when my tenure is done and be able to say that school is achieving just as well as Alameda or Sabin, or any other school in the city. Why not?”