Racism exists in Vermont — and school districts must do their part to address it.
That's how Martha Allen, past president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, described the importance of a "deep dive" multiple-year training program in racial equity, which the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is undertaking.
The SVSU had its first training as part of the program on Aug. 29, for teachers and administrators from Mount Anthony Union Middle School.
The two-hour training functioned as an overview of the program, why it was being offered and what could be expected going forward, said Allen, who now works as the Vermont-NEA's racial equity liaison.
"Nobody's ever done this before," Allen said of the training. "There isn't a set program necessarily. There are lots of different workshops and themes and topics that we'll use, but we're going to tailor it to the needs of the [SVSU]."
The specifics haven't been decided yet, but teachers will learn how to critically evaluate their classroom reading material, including what perspectives it represents — or doesn't.
The NEA asked the Vermont chapter to be one of six state affiliates participating in this training, which stems from a national initiative that began in 2015 to eradicate racism in public schools nationwide, according to a press release from the SVSU.
Over the next several years, the plan is for all staff in all the SVSU's schools to receive racial equity training, Allen said.
"It's not a one-shot thing," she said.
Organizers also hope to work in the community, but that's part of preliminary planning.
"We're working on that as we go," Allen said.
The NEA will lead most of the trainings, at least initially, with the hope to train interested staff members in the district to train others, Allen said.
The SVSU was suggested for the program by State Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington,in her capacity as a member of the Vermont-NEA's Racial Justice Task Force.
"She suggested that we look at Bennington," Allen said.
There were concerns with the middle school in particular — specifically, about racist remarks that had been made, not necessarily intentionally.
"Basically, what was happening was, students of color were feeling as though they weren't being understood," Allen said.
SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen, along with Tim Payne, principal of Mount Anthony Union Middle School, welcomed the training to come to a better understanding of how to work with students of color, Allen said.
Late last February, there was a forum held at MAUMS about racial disparities in Vermont schools.
There, a panelist said their child had been sent out in the hallway in response to other students throwing around the n-word.
"It brought up a lot of issues," said Derek Carson, public information coordinator for the SVSU.
That's not to say issues of racism are any more prevalent in the SVSU than they are elsewhere, he said.
But the SVSU considers itself an inclusive, accepting supervisory union — and these things are still happening, he said.
He said the SVSU is excited for the training, as it is important to its mission.
"In order for students to get the most out of their educations, classrooms have to be inclusive environments, in which every student has to feel welcome and able to participate fully," Carson said.
The SVSU hopes that this training will make the district better, he said.
The training is important not just in the SVSU, as racism has reared its ugly held across the country, Allen said.
"Our country has not faced the issues of racism and white privilege in the way we all should," she said. "We are doing an injustice to people of color, and it needs to come to a stop."
One of the best ways to make a change is through students, as when they are younger, they often haven't formed negative ideas about race yet, Allen said.
Through this training, teachers can help bring about change through examining their own curriculum and what perspectives it utilizes, along with their own biases and behaviors, she said.
"Teachers need to examine that, and their behaviors, so that students will learn it," she said.
A lot of people say training on racial equity is not needed in Vermont, as the population is mostly white, she said.
"That just makes me think, 'yeah, we need it even more,'" she said.
Vermont's population, especially cities like Burlington and Winooski, is also becoming more diverse, she said.
Besides the SVSU, the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools school district was also chosen for the training.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.