When Lela Chavez moved her family from Wisconsin to Southern Oregon in 2012, some of the differences her children would experience in their new schools were immediately obvious.
“When you have families come from bigger cities ... you want your child to feel welcomed,” she said. “Teachers who are minorities can be role models to other minorities, who are like, ‘Oh, I could be a teacher one day.’”
In Central Point and Medford school districts, where Chavez’s children have attended, teaching staff are 94 percent and 95 percent white, respectively. In Ashland, teachers are 93 percent white.
“There was always a teacher of color” where Chavez went to school, she said. “I think that I want my children to experience the same thing.”
Diversity among teaching staff, and eliminating racist comments and disparities in discipline or achievement rates are among the goals Medford and Ashland school districts are trying to tackle with the help of a $100,000 African-American and Black Student Success grant.
Chavez said she was encouraged when she first heard that the districts were focusing on equity.
“I thought that was the most wonderful thing,” she said about the grant, which the Oregon Department of Education awarded to the two school districts in March 2018.
Ashland and Medford collaborated with Southern Oregon University and the Health Care Coalition of Southern Oregon to create specific goals to “alleviate the disparities in achievement” and “create a more welcoming environment,” according to their project goals.
Since then, the work to implement its goals has proceeded in multiple directions.
One of the earliest steps was hiring local civil rights scholar, professor and trainer D.L. Richardson to lead several of those initiatives.
Richardson has worked to improve equity among local students for years, often in unpaid capacities. It’s a job that drives him, he said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you pay me or not,” he said. “This is the work I would be doing. If it takes sacrifice, so be it.”
In his position as equity specialist, he’s being paid to help lead a number of initiatives, including professional development among teachers to increase what’s called “culturally responsive” curriculum.
Richardson said that one of the first priorities in the beginning of the effort was to build trust. He regularly meets with parents from diverse communities, sometimes over coffee, to hear their concerns and ideas and let them know he can advocate for them.
“Last year, that was our goal: build as much community with the parents as we could,” he said. “We need that community within the valley. We haven’t had it.”
The American Community Survey, which serves as the annual update to census data, estimated in 2017 that completely or mixed-race black residents accounted for 1.3 percent of Jackson County’s population.
“I could move to an area where there’s more black people, so (my kids will) feel more comfortable,” Chavez said, “but I was like, no. I like it here. They like it here. I see there’s a huge influx of people who are acceptive. And then you know who are not.”
Some of the districts’ goals with the grant are more readily measurable than building a sense of community or training staff and students in cultural understanding. They include reducing the number of discipline incidents, increasing attendance, increasing freshman on-track rates and raising graduation rates for black students.
Nationwide, data from the 2015-2016 school year, collected and released in 2018 by the Civil Rights Data Collection, showed that black students experience disproportionate rates of discipline in public schools.
That year, black students made up 1 percent of the Medford School District student body but accounted for 1.5 percent of in-school suspensions, 2.6 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 5.4 percent of expulsions.
Of the 23 students referred to law enforcement, 8.7 percent were black.
In Ashland, the data show a more mixed picture from the 2015-16 school year. Black students comprised 2 percent of the student population, but made up zero percent of the in-school suspensions and expulsions.
But black students experienced disproportionately high rates of stronger disciplinary actions: Roughly 6.3 percent of the students handed out-of-school suspensions were black, and 17.6 percent of students referred to law enforcement were black — that’s almost nine times higher than the proportion of black students in the student population.
Michelle Cummings, Medford’s chief academic officer and key member of the grant committee, said that all disparities matter.
“We have the honor of educating every child who walks through our doors,” she said. “We also have a responsibility to create schools that are bias-free.”
Graduation rates for 2018, which the Oregon Department of Education will release Thursday morning, will deliver the latest update on equity in another key student achievement metric.
In Medford in 2017, black students graduated at a rate 7.9 percentage points below white students and 4.8 percentage points lower than the overall graduation rate. In Ashland, black students’ graduation rate was 13.27 percentage points lower than white students’ and 12.6 percentage points below the overall rate.
Richardson and other community leaders working to lift up students of color say that providing opportunities to connect with cultural experiences and fostering a sense of leadership and accomplishment also have an impact.
That’s at the heart of the upcoming Black Youth Leadership Summit that Southern Oregon University’s Marvin Woodard, Richardson and others have organized in February.
“We want people to know, this is home, this is your family,” said Woodard.
The summit aims to offer black and African-American students in grades eight through 12 a chance “to explore their cultural history” and “identify personal strengths,” as well as network with professionals and peers throughout the Rogue Valley, according to the event description. It will take place from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at Southern Oregon University.
“It’s important for them to get that and know there are people who look like them who have their best interests in mind and want to make sure they’re prepared for the future,” Richardson said.