Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Schools & Race Relations: A Toxic Topic by Dr. Bernard Gassaway

As an educator, I am deeply disturbed by fellow educators’ apparent fear to engage in meaningful discussions about race relations with each other and with children.

As many teachers have shared with me, discussing race relations can be challenging, if not downright frightening. Some fear that their subconscious biases and prejudices might surface during a conversation, and they might say something offensive. Others fear losing their jobs if they say the “wrong” thing.

Teachers have expressed that they welcome meaningful professional development regarding race relations. Unfortunately, school leaders do not appear to know how or where to begin because, in fact, they share the same fears that many teachers have.

Race Relations Challenges in School Communities

Discussions on race relations are practically absent from school professional development activities. While teachers admit that race relations are extremely important, school and district leaders put minimal resources towards addressing this important topic.

One challenge for educational leaders is that they do not know how to begin to address race relations. They are not aware of organizations that specialize in leading race-based discussions and strategies in the workplace.

Race discussions can be toxic if they are not organized around specific objectives. Simply talking about race issues is not enough. In fact, talk without action can actually exacerbate the problem.

Some school districts find it difficult to engage in meaningful discussions about race because they lack a critical mass of people of color to contribute to the dialogue.

Other school districts avoid race discussions until a racially charged incident occurs in their school community. Once the dust settles, they go back to business as usual.

Effects of Inaction

Some public school personnel (teachers and principals) have long sat on the sidelines during numerous racial crises. Their inaction only contributes to larger societal challenges. Here are some truisms:

Communities segregate. Schools segregate. Teachers segregate. Students segregate.

Nothing is done to establish sustainable practices for dealing with the root causes of racism, which are admittedly beyond the control of school systems.

To avoid race discussions in schools is to contribute to the seeding of segregation.

Segregation breeds contempt, distrust and fear.

Strategies to Address Race Relations in Schools

Engage in action-oriented race-based discussions. They are meaningless if they stop post-talk. To be meaningful, these discussions require continuous and strategic engagement.

Strive for organic engagement. Organic engagement occurs when people who share similar interests or causes gather to plan, discuss and act on what they believe.

Be strategic. Strategic engagement involves consistently meeting and working to prevent problems that might occur, rather than merely responding to race-based problems as they arise.

Invite and engage community stakeholders in meaningful ways. By inviting stakeholders to participate in the learning environment, you allow them to contribute to learning experiences for children and staff. Stakeholders can infuse life into a lifeless curriculum.

Work with the community (seek diversity) to infuse culture into the school environment. The ultimate goal is for the school to truly become part of the community, rather than an institution located with a community.

Be intentional about diversity in your hiring. It is not enough to talk about diversity. It must be practiced.


The responsibility for improving race relations does not rest solely on the shoulders of one people, entity or race. Rather, each individual or organization bears the responsibility for addressing this problem.

However, I believe that, as educators, we have a greater responsibility and opportunity to confront and combat racism, beginning in the workplace. Our value to society is diminished when we do not address the reality that our children and we face.

While community and neighborhood segregation are harmful to race relations, segregated schools are catastrophic. We can change this swiftly, though courage is required on the part of the school, the district, and the political leadership.

Unless we change policies and practices (particularly in public schools), to paraphrase the prophetic pronouncement of the former Governor of Alabama George Wallace, we will continue to suffer from “racism today, racism tomorrow, and racism forever.”

Our silence about racism does not make it go away.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Fariña Race Conversation by Bernard Gassaway

New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the leader of the largest public school system in United States with 1.1 million students, is not prepared to talk about race relations, even though nearly 85 percent of New York City’s public student population is of color.
Public schools seem like an ideal place to discuss race relations, particularly with children of color who may be traumatized by the recent killings of Black men across this country.
Although teachers are likely candidates to facilitate these discussions, many have expressed that they are unprepared and in many cases reluctant to delve into race issues for fear of saying the wrong thing and possibly losing their jobs.
Their fear may be justified, given the backlash that Farina faced when she attempted to publicly address how parents and educators should talk about race with their children.
When Farina recently penned a letter to New York City educators and parents stating that they have a “moral obligation” to discuss race with their children, she was inundated with hate mail. She admitted to being surprised by the public’s response to her letter.
Her surprise is a clear indicator that she, like many others, is not prepared to talk about race. More importantly, Fariña and others should realize that, when it comes to race, it is more about what you do than what you say. The New York City public school system is no beacon for integration and inclusion.
New York City’s public schools are among the most segregated in the nation. The New York City Department of Education has not embraced curricula that would expose all children and staff to the African American experience in America and in the African diaspora. Black men are not represented significantly in New York City public schools or in senior leadership.
What has Fariña done in her tenure as chancellor to demonstrate that race matters beyond conversations? She does not have much to show. Talking about race is irrelevant if an administrator has not established policies and practices to address the inherent racism that is embedded in schools’ enrollment policies, curricula, and hiring practices.
So Fariña should not be surprised by the public’s response to her seemingly contradictory “moral obligation” charge. Her failure to demonstrate the significance of race relations through proactive policies and practices is likely the source of the hate mail. Farina lives in a glass schoolhouse and should not throw stones.
I would implore Fariña to act on race and not charge others to talk about it. She has a moral obligation to practice what she preaches. Here are four specific recommendations for Chancellor Fariña:
1. Eliminate or significantly revise school zoning policies to erase the invisible color lines that serve to block school integration and sustain school segregation.
2. Embrace inclusive and culturally relevant curricula; start by adopting recommendations from the Amistad Commission. Then train teachers and school leaders to infuse culturally relevant and historically accurate information into day-to-day instruction and school-related experiences.
3. Demonstrate an acceptance of and appreciation for the value of Black men. Their invisibility in the New York City Department of Education is directly related to choices that Fariña and others have made.
4. Adopt an evidence-based approach to recruiting educators of color. The NYCDOE’s latest effort to recruit men of color is fundamentally flawed. As with other initiatives, NYCDOE does not appear to have a strategic, plausible plan.
After nearly fifty years in urban education as a student, teacher, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent, I am convinced that Fariña, teachers, and principals are not prepared to talk about race relations. This is unfortunate given our current state of emergency as perceived by many in the Black community.
Action, not rhetoric, is what is required to address the race problem in the United States. Schools, families, and communities all have a stake in the reality of the race problem.
Fariña has the opportunity to practice what she preaches, model for other school systems. I hope Fariña and others receive my message and take action.

Bernard Gassaway, former NYC teacher, principal, superintendent

Friday, September 2, 2016

Parents, Mind Your Own Business by Bernard Gassaway

School business is for educators, not parents. Parents need to focus more on
raising their children than getting too involved in what goes on in schools.

As harsh as this may sound, this is an expressed sentiment among many educators across this country in both public and private school systems. I have heard this from colleagues, and I have experienced it as a parent. 

Disconnected, Disrespected and Dismissed

Parents, in overwhelming numbers, you have expressed feeling disconnected, disrespected and dismissed by New York City Department of Education (DOE) officials. This happens for numerous reasons.

DOE officials rely on your lack of unity. Time and time again they see how easy it is to manipulate you.

They spread rumors to weaken any bonds that may exist among you. They infiltrate your organizations.

They make under the table deals with individuals and community-based organizations to influence your decisions and actions. Since they do not respect you, they will use anyone, even your children, to get their way --- A way that is often not in the best interest of your children. 

DOE officials rely on your lack of stamina. They are practically immune to the occasional protests held at City Hall or DOE headquarters. Once the protest is over, they expect you to disperse and go away.  An effective protest should last as long as necessary to achieve its goal. If officials are not inconvenienced in any measurable way, they do not care if you protest.

DOE officials rely on your blind faith. You turn your child over to them for approximately two hundred days a year, six hours a day. Yet, you spend less than two hours in the school all year. You believe in their evaluation of your child, in most cases without question. You know very little about the counselors, teachers and administrators, who are responsible for your child’s physical and mental well-being.

DOE officials rely on your fear. You fear their dominance and deprecation. You fear their retribution and retaliation. You fear their arrogance and authority. They serve as judge, jury and executioner. You and your child are at their mercy. 

DOE officials rely on your lack of options. They readily dismiss you because you have limited options.

Private school is not an option for many. They realize the majority of families whose children attend public school fall below the poverty line and can barely afford to pay for living expenses, let alone pay for an education.

Strategies for Effective Engagement with School Officials

1. Listen. Tune in to what your child says about the quality of his teachers. Children are often accurate. Schools that serve poor, Latino and Black children have a disproportionate number of unqualified teachers. If your child has unqualified teachers, fight to have his classes or school changed. Your engagement with school officials begins with your child.

2. Praise, honor and support good teachers. Tell and show them how much you appreciate what they are doing for your child. 

3. Seek support. Do not suffer in silence. Find other parents who have experienced what you are going through. They may be able to help you resolve your issues. 

3. Plan for meetings with school personnel. Never meet with them alone. Bring people, your pastor, friends, and family members. There is strength in numbers.  

4. Deliberate. Take a reasonable amount of time to think about any school-related decisions. Do not allow school officials to pressure you into making rash decisions. Confer with family, clergy or parent/child advocates.     

5. Attend and participate in school-related activities. Share your opinion. Volunteer. The staff should know you as a concerned and involved parent. When they know and respect you, they are more likely to know and respect your child. Likewise, when your child knows you are involved, he is more likely to behave and perform well.

Things You Should Expect from the School System:

1.   Request a copy of your child’s school records. You have a right to any material in her official file. This is extremely important. You need to know what is being documented about your child ñ and in some cases what may be said about you, as a parent. Read the contents of the file with your child.

2.  Visit your child’s class during school hours. Give at least one days notice. You must avoid disruption. You should not attempt to speak with the teacher during this visit. Ask for a tour of the school. Your purpose is to observe the lesson, class and school climate.

3. Schedule appointments to meet with your child’s teachers. Do not wait until the bi-annual parent teacher conferences. Prepare specific questions before the meeting. Meetings may be scheduled for after regular school hours. This may allow for meaningful discussions and fewer interruptions.

4. Volunteer to work in the parent office. Each school should have at least one office dedicated to parents. Parent friendly schools will have Parent Reception or Resource Centers that are accessible during and after the regular school day.

5. Ensure school personnel are able to contact you. It is your responsibility to inform them when your contact information changes. You should not place this responsibility on your child.

6. Meet with appropriate school personnel to deal with concerns. Decide if it is necessary to meet the principal in order to get your matter resolved. Though the principal should be accessible to parents, it may not be possible to meet her immediately. You may expedite the resolution if you target the person who will ultimately be able to help you directly. 

7. Attend workshops for parents. Parent friendly schools offer them regularly. These may include: Computer training, reading, writing, math, music, art, and others. 

8. Attend school assembly programs that honor children. You may need to take a day or a few hours off from work. Programs may also be held on weekends and evenings. You should attend with your child even if she is not being honored. It may serve as a motivation for you and her while simultaneously showing support for other children and families.

Parents, Know Your Business

1. Meet with your child at the beginning of each school year. Discuss what he is expected to learn in and out of school. 

2. Monitor your child’s development. Do not rely on school tests to define your child’s level of intelligence. Focus on whether he is acquiring life skills? How would he respond to unanticipated occurrences? Do you see and hear him thinking? 

3. Seek help for your child through local libraries, community organizations, churches and nontraditional institutions. Consider peer tutoring as an option. It is an overlooked effective strategy.

4. Schedule meaningful activities for your child. These may include family trips to the park, museum, library, neighborhood walks, and volunteering at a local food pantry or shelter. Idle time for an active child is asking for trouble. Keep your child busy. Keep him physically, mentally and culturally engaged. 

5. Stay active in your child’s life. Children with active parents are less likely to be abused by school personnel. Child predators try to avoid the kind of attention involved parents bring.

6. Train your child to think. This does not happen in traditional schools. They train your child to pass tests. They train your child to conform. The school system discourages differences and independence. Children with independent spirits generally do not function well in school without involved parents. Children who learn differently are often labeled and neglected. They are punished or dispirited by a system that mandates uniformity and conformity. 

7. Make certain your child’s educational needs are met. Be a squeaky wheel. School officials do not expect you to be persistent. Call, write and visit daily if necessary. If the system labels or harms your child, make them pay for it. Seek legal counsel and take them to court. Charge them with educational neglect, deprivation and malfeasance.


A tidal wave begins with a ripple. You serve as a ripple in your child’s life. Join with other ripples (including committed and concerned school personnel) and make waves. When parents, community and school personnel are on the same page, working together, children thrive.

www.bernardgassaway.com [excerpt from Education Denied: Children Challenges Choices]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Brainwash Black Boys to Brilliance by Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D.

I state the problem, offer seven strategies to address the problem, and conclude.


Choose any major urban city and the data on Black boys is the same: Negative. According to one Harvard University sociology professor, prison is predictable for Black boys: “About two-thirds of African-American men with low levels of schooling will go to prison in their lifetime.” A 2015 PEW study revealed that even when the poverty rate slightly declined for most Americans, it remained relatively steady for Black children.

In addition to prison, poverty, and poor schooling, negative stereotypes, statistics, and perceptions abound in the media about Black boys. Images of Black boys as being delinquent and defiant, wayward and worthless, uncaring and unintelligent, cruel and criminal, vicious and violent, stubborn and stupid, immature and incapable, dark and deceptive, a gangbanger and a goon, a thug and a terrorist, and unskilled and unemployed are ingrained in the psyches of millions of Americans. 

As these stereotypes are accepted, it becomes easier for people to literally and metaphorically destroy and kill Black boys with apathy or impunity. Some Black boys unwittingly embrace these negative portrayals and engage in reckless and dangerous behaviors.

I contend that “they” intentionally indoctrinate Black boys to accept the negative stereotypes that have retarded and continue to retard their development. Jawanza Kunjufu’s classic work Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1985.

Strategies to Brainwash Black Boys to Brilliance

President Barack Obama’s My Brothers Keeper Initiative was born out of the aforementioned reality faced by far too many Black boys. While the root causes of these alarming and often repeated statistics are the historic challenges of race, class, and economics, we can begin to implement strategies to redress many of the adverse affects of social policy and practices. I recommend the following seven strategies as a start.

1)   Train Black boys in the community to embrace their brilliance. Intentionally indoctrinate them to believe that they are:
Brilliant, persistent, ambitious, sincere, motivated, bright, educated, courageous, tenacious, perspicacious, sagacious, adroit, thoughtful, gifted, conscientious, contemplative, spiritual, strong, diligent, tolerant, trustworthy, proper, determined, deliberate, insightful, intelligent, loving, caring, humble, prayful, enthusiastic, respectful, innovative, reliable, imaginative, and resilient.

2)   Learn from the rhythms, beats and linguistics of hip hop music that have influenced youth cultures around the world to persuade and convince Black boys that they are brilliant.

3)   Acquire knowledge from the National Basketball Association about how it convinces millions of Black boys that a professional basketball career is highly likely, even when the odds are astronomically highly not likely. Utilize techniques that advertisers use to sway and seduce children to buy expensive sneakers, electronic games, and food products after watching or listening to a commercial on television or radio to teach Black boys to believe in their brilliance.

4)   Design curricula/lessons that can be taught in school, at home, and in the community to reinforce positive and enriching culturally relevant experiences that emphasize and instill pride in Black boys.  

5)   Teach Black boys to affirm their brilliance. “I affirm that I am brilliant! I value education (thinking and learning) as a means to make my family, my community, and me stronger. I strive for success to leave a lasting legacy for future generations to build upon. I strive never to harm others or myself. I strive to achieve my highest potential and promise.”

6)   Develop action plans (engage community leaders, educators, parents, clergy, mentors, and brothers-keepers) to engage Black boys in experiences that require them to broaden their mental, spiritual, and physical horizons.


Carter G. Woodson, father of Black History Month and author of The Mis-Education of the Negro said it best:

If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.

It is necessary to take control of our Black boys’ thinking. It is our moral responsibility to teach them how to think; in extreme times and circumstances, it is also necessary to teach them what to think.

Remember our Black boys learn by seeing and doing. They need to see you behave as you expect them to behave. They need to see that you practice what you preach. They need to be actively engaged by you daily to counteract the subliminal and overt negative stereotypes that influence how they are perceived and how they behave.

We need to do whatever is necessary to protect and nurture Black boys so they can grow to become healthy Black men.