Speaking out of school
Former guidance dean reports from the front lines on District 186 racial disparities
Kelly Wickham Hurst spent about 20 years with Springfield School District 186. As guidance dean, she frequently took to her blog and social media to share stories of black students being treated unfairly, and her efforts to advocate on their behalf. Under her social media handle – MochaMomma (an homage to both her love of coffee and the color of her skin) – Hurst gained 11,000 Twitter followers, 25,000 monthly impressions on her blog and a presence on bigger platforms like NPR and Katie Couric’s show. Sprinkled in among the stories she shared online were hints that some schoolhouse colleagues resented her, like the time a teacher inadvertently flashed a text message over the classroom projector and students saw Hurst referred to as a “bitch.”
There was never one explosive confrontation, but over the years, these stories of small indignities (academics call them microaggressions) piled up. So it was no surprise when, over the summer, she parted ways with the school district and started an initiative called Being Black At School.
Do you want to give an example or two of things that you saw happen, and I will tell you that I will run it past (school district officials) to get their side of it as well.
Okay, here’s one. As guidance dean, one of my roles was to make sure that we got parents in the door, and that happens for multiple things, like band concerts or choir concerts or sports. … But this was around parent-teacher conferences. And the protocol was to make a list of students that you wanted to see their parents, and that list was given to me. One year, I got a list from a grade level that was two lists – one said “academic” at the top, and the other list was “behavior.” And the behavior list was 16 kids, and 14 were black boys.
Who was on the academic list?
I can’t recall the number, but it was mostly white – for either not doing their classwork or homework or not understanding a concept.
I wonder why they decided to break it up that way.
I don’t know but they shouldn’t have when they gave it to me, because I recognized it right away for what it was, and that was that we only want to talk to black students’ parents when they’re a behavior problem that we want the parent to come in and fix. I mean, I know these kids are struggling. I see their grades, I’m in their classrooms, I know exactly – those teachers were not calling the wrong parents in. But if they’re delineating that these kids are academic concerns and these kids, we want to talk to their parents because we want better behavior from them, I found that very problematic.
Were there no students who were both? Were all the white students with academic struggles perfectly behaved and all the black students with behavior problems doing great in academics?
That was my question to them! And they came back with, “No, there’s crossover on both of these lists.” The child who’s not working well in the classroom is probably having some issues at home. Such a great example that you and I talked about is that whole iceberg thing: You see the problems at the top, you don’t see all those issues going on underneath. So what you perceive as being their behavioral problem is going to be rooted in some academic issues as well.
But I never got a list like that again.
I think what solidified it for me was watching a whole lot of things unfold that were unfair all the time…. Once I became an administrator, what became very difficult was being the person that had to discipline the students when I knew that some implicit bias brought that kid into my office. So trying to have those conversations with colleagues, and they didn’t want to admit any of it. It’s not a fun place to be. We don’t want to talk about race in this country.
An incident happened in the spring, where we had a white student that brought drugs to school, and was given all kinds of supports – the social worker, psychologist, he had to see me so that he could get his grades up and I could help him with homework. And the following week, another student who was black was absent from school and the principal called the police, and asked the police officer in the building to talk to him. Which is not protocol. It’s absurd. And I tried to make that point with her, to say calling the [police] on a black child sometimes has them end up dead. It was that serious for me.
If I recall your account of that incident on social media, the black student’s mother approved.
Correct. When I found out that our school resource [police] officer was asked to speak to this child, I was a little incredulous, and pushed back on that. And when I did, my boss said to me, “But I’m going to ask another one, the young black guy who’s also a police officer, to come talk to him.” And then I was just flabbergasted that she felt that it was necessary to call two police officers on a child for truancy. But we had a known drug dealer in our school building that she didn’t ask the police to speak to. And she said, “I asked his mother and she said it was OK.” I went and contacted the mother – not because I didn’t believe [the principal], I believed [the mother] said it was okay. I believe it was sold to her in such a way that we were going to do her child a favor by bringing police into a situation where police had no business being.
Was the mother aware that there were these other options – for example, the services that were provided to the white student who brought drugs?
No. She was not aware. She said, “I thought that you, as a school, had my best interests at heart,” and I assured her that that’s not the way we should’ve handled it.
You refer to systemic racism in schools. Why don’t you give me the building blocks of that? It’s disparate discipline, disparate access to advanced classes, it’s… what else?
We don’t reward students of color as easily as we do white students. We don’t nominate them for things. We don’t give them recognition, we don’t give them awards or rewards. White students are more represented in the advanced-placement and dual-credit courses. That’s in high school, but if we’re going to go ahead and walk it all the way back, from elementary to middle school, teachers get to make recommendations about where students should be in classes. And yes, there’s absolutely some tests and assessments that also tend to deny access.
I want to just clear up one thing. In all the time that I’ve known you, and watched what you’ve posted on Facebook, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you accuse anyone in this school district of being an intentional racist. I think what I’ve seen you complain about is more people who don’t want to make waves, want to preserve the status quo, so do you think they have a bad heart? Or do you think it’s kind of normal … and that is the problem?
I like the way you characterize it, because I think it’s exactly what I’ve done: I indict the system. I don’t say “this person” and I’ve rarely named people unless it’s been kind of egregious. I also know that whiteness protects itself. It privileges white students, it is always going to protect itself, so it does not like it when you pick those scabs and say, “You’ve got some problems here, and by the way, it’s kind of stemmed on race.”
You know, the black students that I had to discipline, that came to my office, almost 100 percent of the time would say, “I absolutely did that behavior. I did that thing they said I did. But so did some white kids, and they are sitting in those classrooms getting an education, and I’m in here, and I’m going to get another consequence, and then I’m going to fall further and further behind.” That’s a systemic issue.
Have you always been this conscious, or was there a point where something happened?
I was not always this conscious. There were things I missed. But once you finally recognize it, you can’t unsee it and then you’re angry about it. You’re angry about the system, and I was angry at myself for participating.
So what happened?
I worked at a high school years ago as a teacher, and we had two guidance deans – one black and one white. And the black guidance dean – everyone used to talk about her disparagingly. And I wasn’t picking up on that; that clue was just lost on me. It was, “She never does anything. You know, she doesn’t know how to schedule anyone.” And scheduling is a huge issue. It’s a big part of your job as guidance dean. It’s like a giant Jenga puzzle that you try to fit every kid into where they need to be and the correct number of kids in each classroom. I listened to that, and I started to repeat it, because I didn’t see it for what it was! I used to just say, “Yeah she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t know how to schedule anybody and the white one has to do all the work.”
And then I became a guidance dean. And I had a white boss. And there was another black guidance dean – two white guidance deans, and two black guidance deans, and we were all first-year. It seemed like she was always working with the white guidance deans, but she wasn’t teaching us anything. I kept asking: “Can I come to this meeting?” And she’d say, “Oh no, you don’t have to worry about that.” And then I realized: People are going to say that I don’t know what I’m doing! And that was my moment.
I am embarrassed, sort of mortified, that I didn’t recognize it until it happened to me. And then I thought oh my gosh, I did this same thing to that woman 10 years ago. And that’s AWFUL. It was heartbreaking to me, to realize that I’d participated in something that the system perpetuated, and that it was now going to be done to me.
You’re fighting for black kids, but you don’t have a black kid. You’re mixed; your children all have white fathers, so they look white; you live in a predominantly white neighborhood. Does that give you like a double-agent view?
There have been times where I’m trying to speak on behalf of our students of color, not just black kids, and people for whom I do not present as black will sometimes say something pretty racist and reveal their hand. Like, “Well you know, black parents just don’t care about their kids,” or, “Well you know, black parents just don’t care about school.” Or “Black kids just don’t do as well in school.” With no data and no research; just a completely blatantly racist statement.
People have said those things to you? People in 186?
Absolutely. People in 186, people in this community. So I think what I’ve tried to do is make it very, very clear that I am black. And that’s my identity, and what I fight for, and what I write about, what banner I wave. I’ve made it extremely clear why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Let’s go on to what you’re doing now. So you’ve started a business?
I also call it an initiative. This is an initiative that I would like to be able to affect policy with. I’m building it into two things. There’s a business side, and a nonprofit side. The nonprofit side is going to be the thing that effects policy. The business side is the consultant side.
Your professional career has been mainly in Springfield, and by your own account, it’s got some problems. Now you’re presenting yourself as a consultant. There are some districts ahead of Springfield on this path, and you haven’t worked at those districts. So how do you feel that you can be a consultant when you haven’t worked in a district that gets it right?
That’s a good question. I feel like personally, I feel like this is part of my own trauma working within a system that didn’t believe me, didn’t trust me, didn’t think I knew what I was doing – I think I have had personal successes. I hate that they’ve come about because I have not trusted the system to do it right. And so, I have had my own meetings with black students. I have had my own meetings with black parents, in order to say, “Here’s how you navigate the system.” And those have been, on a much smaller scale, successful. I wish that they didn’t have to be so sneaky. I wish that we could’ve addressed this as a whole system. But I’m spending a lot of time, doing a lot of research and visiting a lot of school districts that are getting it right. And that has helped me tremendously and humbled me, because I have looked at things I’ve done in the district and thought, “I could’ve done that so much better.” Or “We could’ve done that so much better.” I don’t think I know everything. I absolutely don’t. And I think that that’s actually my superpower.
What policies do you have in mind?
Some of them are around restorative justice, but most of them are around making sure that teachers are culturally competent, making sure that before you go into the classroom, or as a practicing teacher, that cultural competency is a part of your pedagogy.
How do you infuse someone with cultural competence? I almost feel like if they want to be culturally competent, they’ll find a way.
I see some truth in that, but I also recognize that they’ve all come from systems that were also culturally incompetent, and so we have a generation of teachers right now in the U.S. who all went to primarily white, Euro-centric [schools], who have not had to see all of this stuff. Sometimes I give people a pass on that, because it’s not your fault you didn’t learn this when you were in school. But we are actively discussing race in this country now. I’ve never before in my life seen so many people talk about how we don’t need to celebrate Columbus Day anymore. You know, that wasn’t happening when I was a classroom teacher. So can we now look at our curriculum? Can we now look at the programs we have in school? …. This is multi-step and this is long term.
I’ve noticed you’re crowdfunding. How much have you raised and what is it paying for?
About $5,000 and a lot of it has paid for my time that I’m putting into this. Some of it has gone toward website development and paying for an attorney to do our nonprofit stuff. And we’ve got T-shirts and mugs so people can support us that way.
Can you make a T-shirt or a mug that explains why being “colorblind” is not good? For people who don’t know they don’t know? Please?
Colorblind is a way to say “I got everything I have in life because I worked hard for it, and you can too.” Colorblind gives us the bootstrap theory, that everyone should pull themselves up. That’s fine. But generational wealth in this country is an actual thing. And the fact that your parents or grandparents may have actually benefitted from the GI bill, or were not treated poorly when they were in the armed services, or got to have loans for their houses or their businesses... I mean really, if you are still in 2016 saying that you are colorblind, I am so concerned about your lack of historical knowledge. If you’re not paying attention to the history, then your colorblind means jack.
You said you couldn’t change the system from the inside. Are there missteps you made that took you out of that possibility? Is there something you could’ve done where you didn’t piss so many people off? Could you have proposed solutions or come up with nicer ways to say things?
I think I came up with nice ways to say things. I imagined myself in this role of a leader who valued race and equity, so I found myself in places where I thought I was contributing to how we could make changes, not realizing that once I left that space, people were just like, “No, we’re not going to do these things.” Which is why I came up with that phrase that I continue to say – whiteness protects itself. I feel like, in some ways, that I was patronized for my contributions. I think I did say things nicely, and that didn’t get me anywhere. So I started saying things really bluntly, and then that didn’t get me anywhere. So I don’t know what I could’ve changed.
You took a leave of absence without pay. Is that different from quitting and saying screw you I’m never coming back? Doesn’t that leave the door open for you to return?
It does, but I won’t. At the time, I needed to retain my health insurance. That was the biggest part of it. And maybe I was afraid that what I was going to do next wasn’t going to work. But after three months of doing this, I realize I don’t have to go back. There’s no way I could go back after I’ve been free.
I’m not going to be silent on issues of race. I’m not going to be complacent. I’m not going to be a good little soldier and fall in line and let the system destroy children in the process. I couldn’t figure out how to change the system in the system. In the system, I was marginalized or punished for trying to change the system. Outside of the system, I want to disrupt this narrative completely. I want to be an interrupter.
Dusty Rhodes is the Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois. This is an extended version of an interview that first aired on WUIS 91.9 FM.
Response from Springfield School District 186
The District does not comment on individual past or present employees. Further, under FERPA and the Illinois School Student Records Act, the District cannot discuss any incidents regarding individual students. However, we would like to share some of the initiatives that have occurred or will occur in the coming months.
Having a forward vision for the work around issues of student support, race and equity in District 186 is very important to Superintendent Jennifer Gill. Last June, District 186 embarked on the first-ever Braided Behavioral Support Training with teams of educators from all of our schools. This event challenged the schools not to focus on just one approach but to braid together a variety of support systems in order to improve behavioral and academic outcomes for students.
For example, we had a team attend a workshop regarding trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, which includes information about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. This program is sponsored in partnership with the Illinois Education Association and our local Springfield Education Association. Another diverse team of district leaders, administrators and teachers attended the International Institute for Restorative Practices training, which will provide direct training on strategies to build supports in our schools for all students and families.
Over the past two summers, we have had a number of administrators and teachers attend the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Cultural Proficiency Strand. We continue to be partners in the community work being led by the Race Unity group in Springfield. Every level of District administration as well as security staff have viewed the Racial Taboo film and it is now being shown in individual school settings.
In addition, we are partners in and fully support the work of the SCoDR (Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism) and have had a large team of educators attend the Crossroads Anti-Racism Training initiative over the last two years alongside community and faith-based organizations.
The District is intent on scaffolding our approach and having a growth mindset. While we own the past, the District embraces a forward-looking vision that will strengthen our system.