When Black History Meets Professional Development

A field trip to a museum helps staff refine their inclusion and equity lens.

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Professional Development

“How can I bring more meaning to our annual back-to-school staff development day?” That is the question that Clemens Crossing Elementary School principal Edward Cosentino wrestled with as he prepared for the 2019-2020 school year. Cosentino was inspired by a Leading Lessons staff guide in which NAESP Center for Innovative Leadership fellows Andy Jacks and Hamish Brewer urged principals to plan exciting activities for staff to kick off the school year.

The result? Cosentino planned a staff field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. While tickets are notoriously difficult to secure, especially for large groups, Cosentino was able to transport the 75 staff members from their Columbia, Maryland, school for a day of professional learning.

“For four and a half hours our staff was immersed in the history of this nation—African-American history, but it’s all of our history,” he said. “It was more powerful than what you can do in a one-hour PD.”

The museum field trip was the first day of a new job for special education teacher Melanie Matthews. “When I heard we were going, I was shocked,” she said.  “There was a boldness to it. As a black teacher, I really appreciated that.”

Matthews attended segregated schools in Kansas through second grade and has seen recognition for black history evolve. “I remember when black history was just a week [celebration],” she said. Matthews had visited the NMAAHC several times before the staff field trip, but this time she went strictly as an educator. “The section on Brown vs. Board of Education spoke to me because of the work I do with special education students,” she said. “Separate but equal is not OK for students of color, or for special education students.”

Shannon Keeny, who is the facilitator in the office of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), also attended the staff field trip. “I was there as a support to him to think about how to have conversations with staff around diversity, equity, and inclusion and how our actions promote a sense of belonging and fairness.”

Many in education look to the HCPSS’s Learning and Leading with Equity strategic plan as an experiment in large, diverse, suburban school districts.

Keeny says that in addition to looking at instructional practices the district is exploring how to create a restorative culture—what it means and what it could look like in school buildings. They are also helping students be a part of the conversation and looking at the extent to the district is serving communities. Critical questions are: What barriers are in place that exclude some members of the community? To what extent are we valuing diversity?

Reflection and Impact

Back at their campus, the Clemens Crossing staff followed up on the museum experience by discussing its impact. “Some people may have been uncomfortable, but it was a good time to reflect on that and talk about why,” said Matthews.

According to Matthews—whose children attended Howard County schools—the diversity in curriculum is much better now. She recounts that this year for Black History Month a third-grade student dressed up as African-American entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker and even had a straightening comb in her pocket. “Twenty-five years ago there would have been shame [about the straightening comb],” she said. “Now it was very matter of fact—this is because a lot of things have been demystified—the kids have a different level of comfort with difference.”

Cosentino believes that teachers used their learning about black history to provide diversity-rich experiences in the classroom—which benefits black students and students of all backgrounds. “The more students are immersed in cultures that are not their own, and multiple cultures, the better off they will be when they are in the real world,” Consentino said.  “It also goes beyond race. We’re also talking about gender and stereotypes,” he said.

Next Steps

According to Keeny, principals who want to strengthen their equity lens must be purposeful and strategic and must create windows into other people’s lives. She is also big on relationship-building, because without it she says you can’t have necessary critical conversations. “You must [be a] model and set up spaces that help build the efficacy for people to engage authentically.”

What’s next for the Clemens Crossing staff now that they have broadened their lens on the African-American experience? Cosentino encourages staff to look at different perspectives of other groups, dig deep, and ask questions, especially when engaging with parents. “Everyone doesn’t have to be in the same stage on the continuum but must continue to learn,” he said.

Kaylen Tucker is associate executive director, communicatons at NAESP.