Yusur Jasim listens to another student Thursday during an end of the day “crew meeting,” where small groups of students meet to discuss race, gender and other issues. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For students at Casco Bay High School, having conversations about topics that might be difficult to talk about is one of the most effective ways to ensure everyone feels welcome.

There are regular “courageous conversations” where students tackle big topics like gender, race and equity and daily “crew meetings” of small groups of students who check in with each other and break down the big discussions.

There are also weekly school meetings that include a platform for students to express themselves however they see fit – whether it be a rap inspired by their home country, dances from around the world or one student’s recent poem about how she was taunted on the street for looking different.

“If people don’t have dialogue and don’t have conversations about things that might bring minority groups down, it will just continue,” said Joseph Inabanza, a junior at Casco Bay who immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa three years ago.

“That can present another barrier. Building a community where isolation is not an option and where we can build connections and understand each other, that’s something we do a lot of at Casco.”

The school is part of one of Maine’s most racially diverse school districts – about 54 percent of students in the district are white, compared to 88 percent of students statewide.

It’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to embrace that diversity and ensure all students feel welcome and safe – something more schools in Maine are re-focusing their efforts on following reports of shortcomings or racist incidents.

Navigating sensitive subjects such as race, gender identity and discrimination can be a challenge for schools, but several districts said today’s political rhetoric and changing student demographics have necessitated the conversation.

Nationally, about 50 percent of elementary and secondary students are white, making Maine among the least racially diverse states, according to U.S. Department of Education data from 2013-2014, the most recent year available on the department’s website.

Joseph Inabanza walks down a hall at Casco Bay High School in Portland on Thursday. Casco Bay is part of one of Maine’s most racially diverse school districts – about 54 percent of students in the district are white compared to 88 percent statewide. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

More recent data from the Maine Department of Education shows that in the last 10 years there has been a 5 percent increase in nonwhite students and a 1 percent increase in the number of English language learners in Maine.

But pockets of the state, particularly those where new immigrants have settled, have seen growth that has far outpaced those numbers. Portland has seen a 13 percent increase in the racial diversity of its student body while Lewiston has seen a 20 percent increase.

Other districts such as Biddeford, Westbrook and South Portland have also seen significant changes in racial demographics.

With that change has come tension.

In Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 a black teacher’s complaint about two racist incidents in her classroom prompted widespread concerns last year about racial tensions and an ongoing district investigation into how the administration handles such incidents.

In Auburn, a recent story on the front page of the Boston Globe magazine focused on how racism “has gone unchecked and festered” at Edward Little High School, which has absorbed large numbers of Somali immigrants in recent years.

And in Portland, students at Deering High School said the school’s high number of minority and economically disadvantaged students led people to spread rumors about the school that contributed to a sudden enrollment drop this fall.

“When things change quickly there are students who aren’t prepared for it,” said Steve Wessler, a co-founder of the Civil Rights Team Project in the Maine Attorney General’s Office who advises schools and other groups on human rights.

“They’ve heard stereotypes and bias from people in their community or family and they are expressing those biases. That creates conflict.”

Some school districts said even if they haven’t seen significant change they want to be proactive on the issue.

That means raising awareness not just around race, but also what it means to belong to other protected classes, including gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability and socioeconomic status.

“It’s an issue that’s out there,” said Lou Goscinski, superintendent of the York School Department. “We see it all the time in the media and I’m trying to stay ahead of it and promote discussion.”

The steps being taken include teacher training, school year themes related to diversity and inclusion and the addition of a new family engagement and cultural responsiveness position at the Maine Department of Education.

“This is something we work on every single day,” said Jeremy Ray, superintendent of Biddeford Schools. “It’s about teaching tolerance and paying attention to what’s going on.

“What’s very difficult for schools right now is our young people see so much, whether it comes through the media or elsewhere, about hate and the tone that sometimes is set in our country about intolerance. It’s quite a challenge for schools.”

In a classroom at Sanford High School, about a dozen students worked on addressing those issues on a late-September afternoon. As part of a Civil Rights Team that formed last year, the students are tasked with trying to improve school safety and reduce bias.

They work on things like putting up posters reminding their peers about how to interact with marginalized groups and recently made friendship bracelets to raise money to bring in diverse speakers.

“We try to educate people on things,” said Ellen Coleman, a junior on the team. “We’re not necessarily the hate police but when incidents of bias happen we call it out. We’re not like, patrolling, but our goal is pre-emptive action and getting ahead of the bias.”

Like others, the district has had its own incidents that have raised questions about how welcoming the school climate is.

In 2018, Sanford dismissed a longtime substitute teacher after she was recorded telling a student, “You’re getting kicked out of my country,” during a discussion on the southern border wall proposed by President Trump.

The district hasn’t seen as much racial change as some others, but students on the Civil Rights Team said race-based bias is still something they try to educate their peers on, along with raising awareness about other marginalized groups.

Senior Alex Maschhoff listens at a meeting of the Sanford High School Civil Rights Team last month. “We live in Maine,” said Maschhoff, a transgender student. “We’re all just a bunch of white people and I don’t think many people know that people of color exist or people who aren’t Christian exist.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We live in Maine,” said Alex Maschhoff, a transgender student. “We’re all just a bunch of white people and I don’t think many people know that people of color exist or people who aren’t Christian exist. There are people in the LGBT community. And their parents never really decide to have that conversation with them because why would you?”

Maschhoff said it’s been empowering to know others have also been targets for bullying or harassment. And when fellow students speak up, he said, it carries more weight then being chided by a teacher.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “But we’re here to let people of marginalized groups know we’re here. We’re fighting for you.”

In addition to the work students are doing, school leaders said it’s also incumbent on them to bring about change.

In Biddeford, which has seen the number of English language learner students quadruple in the last 10 years, the district is working this year with Wessler, the human rights expert, to conduct focus groups on the experience of immigrant students.

They hope to use the findings as the basis for a community discussion between long-time residents and new Mainers.

Other schools, too, are turning to experts to help them delve into possible shortcomings.

Elizabeth Greason, co-founder of Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants, a Portland-based firm that provides consulting around cultural awareness, said requests from school districts have increased in the last year, particularly from those wanting to get out ahead of the issue.

“I think a lot of things are tying into this particular time in our history, whether it’s visibility on social media of diverse experiences, schools being on the front page or just that that information is so much more readily available,” Greason said.

“I think people are waking up to experiences they didn’t even know were happening. Once you wake up to that it’s very difficult to pretend you didn’t see those.”

The group helps districts assess where they’re at in terms of understanding other cultures and bridging differences, and from there will design training or help set goals.

A school that wants to increase the diversity of its faculty, for example, might be connected with alternative recruitment methods or undergo an investigation into what about the school might be perceived as welcoming or not welcoming to a diverse candidate.

Greason said the response to the training sessions has mostly been positive, although her group does meet staff members who are resistant to the idea.

“Some schools are thankful to be talking about this stuff and they can’t wait to bring the ideas into their classrooms,” she said. “Other times people are like, ‘We’re good. I’m not sure why we have to talk about this.’ We try and help them no matter where they are.”

The Maine Department of Education has also seen increasing interest and requests for guidance, leading them to add a new family engagement and cultural responsiveness position they hope to fill soon.

The position will work on technical assistance – such as writing new policies or putting together staff training – and provide resources to schools by way of best practices, access to workshops and conferences and coordination with other agencies.

At Casco Bay High School, students said having a voice to express their identities is one of the most helpful ways to create a welcoming environment.

They also said more can be done to increase diversity among teachers and staff and bridge opportunity gaps for minority students through initiatives like Teach Portland, which helps put immigrants on the path to teacher credentialing, and the district’s Make It Happen! program, which helps prepare multilingual students for college or careers.

Incorporating diversity into the curriculum, is also important, said Principal Derek Pierce.

“It’s not just the stuff outside of class,” he said. “The work should be the stuff these guys care about and that helps validate that their voices and experiences matter.”

In Auburn, the district where racist incidents at Edward Little High School were recently highlighted, the school developed a new “Cultural Think Tank” class this fall that pairs upperclassmen with freshmen homerooms to digest big issues in current events: mental health, civil rights, LGBT rights, homelessness and others.

The topics covered are largely student driven. They also spend time discussing the highs and lows of their day, an activity meant to build community and empathy, said teacher Julie Balsamo.

“Outside of high school, life is not compartmentalized the way we have it in school,” she said. “It’s important to talk about the intersection of living with a disability, the LGBT community and race relations.

“There are people out there who are not white, have a disability and stand for one of those letters in LGBT. All these things aren’t in their own bubble, so it’s important to show students how intertwined they are.”

 

 

 

 

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