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School board hears report on equity

NEW ULM — The New Ulm Public Schools’ Board of Education continued working towards the goal of creating a more equitable district, during Thursday’s work session.

The district recently approved a new three-year strategic plan. One of the key priorities of the plan is to create equitable education for all. Last month, the board and school principals began working with the consulting group Longview Education to provide training in equitability.

During the recent work session, the board and principals focused on understanding the difference between individual, systemic, or institutional biases and prejudices.

The board viewed a video presentation from Ayo Magwood, a former high school social studies teacher who has specialized in teaching a pro equity school model.

Magwood’s presentation began by discussing why learning about racism is difficult.

She said the first obstacle in learning about racism is the basic method humans learn. Children build blocks of knowledge and build new knowledge on these blocks. When learning about different groups, societies, or cultures this new knowledge is placed on top of old assumptions. This creates an insufficient context for other groups.

“We assume what is true of our society, must also be true for other groups as well,” Magwood said “and may or not be true. That’s something we have trouble wrapping our heads around.”

Another reason it hard to learn about racism is false cultural narratives that conflict with teaching. Magwood used the example of economic mobility in the United States. For a century, the United States has been viewed as the country with the most economic opportunities for upward mobility and many still believe this is true even though many European countries have outpaced the U.S.

“Because we assume the U.S. has an equal opportunity when we see information that contradicts that, we excuse and say it is an exception,” she said.

Cognitive bias is another reason teaching racism is a challenge. Humans have historically been suspicious of outside groups. Magwood said in pre-historic times it was helpful for humans to have this bias as it helped them survive, but it no longer helps in modern society. She compared cognitive bias to the appendix, an organ with no beneficial function.

Magwood said some of the solutions to overcoming these obstacles are addressing misconceptions and minimizing the threat of biases.

In addition to learning challenges related to racism, there are teaching challenges. Magwood said a teacher exacerbates problems by allowing debate on empirical issues of race, while not allow debate on policy.

Magwood explained empirical issues are those that have been settled based on a preponderance of evidence with a majority of consensus. The existence of structural racism is an empirical issue that has been settled. Allowing debate on whether structural racism is real is counterproductive. Avoiding debating empirical questions in the classroom helps create guardrails and shuts down racist comments.

Magwood said debating policy is acceptable for teachers. For example, debating how the government should respond to structural racism is acceptable. By debating policy, a teacher or school can have a constructive conversation about racism.

In the second part of her presentation, Magwood discussed the difference between individual and structural racism. Individual racism comes down to a single person, while structural racism was driven by society. This is where teaching about the history of racial biases is necessary.

“I argue that a school’s primary (purpose is) to teach basic history and basic facts around our system,” Magwood said. The school setting is the last chance a student has to learn basic history and facts. Modern issues are easier to learn outside of the class.

Magwood said in the U.S. issues of racism are often seen on the individual level because this country has a strong sense of individualism, but in dismantling racism there is a need to look at the structural issue causing discrimination.

Magwood closed the presentation by answering common questions she receives. One common question is why should policies and programs be created for smaller groups?

She said smaller groups are likely to feel even more marginalized if they cannot rely on programs or safety nets to protect them. In addition, policies and programs created for the smaller group could benefit even more people.

Magwood pointed to the creation of wheelchair-accessible ramps. The government was reluctant to require ramps at a public location because the number of wheelchair users was low, but after ramps became commonplace it was found many groups benefited from the ramps. People using strollers, those on crutches, those wheeling a suitcase all benefit from these ramps.

“Making sure our schools are equitable helps everybody and you would be surprised by how many people will be helped,” she said.

The board was reminded that students of marginalized groups are not necessarily going to reach out to the school to ask for assistance, it will be on the school to look out for the groups in need. Any policy or program created by the school would be available for those who needed it and this would help create a level field for all students.

This was the second study session dedicated to equity training. The board will be working with Longview Education on further training over the next several months.

The next regular board meeting is 6 p.m. Thursday, July 22 in the District Boardroom, 414 South Payne Street.

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