Aurora superintendent: Schools can’t fix nation’s race problem alone

Coming off a tragic week that again exposed fault lines over race in America, one of Colorado’s only African-American school superintendents said public schools need to honor students’ experiences and work in tandem with the community to address societal problems.
7 min. read

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Coming off a tragic week that again exposed fault lines over race in America, one of Colorado’s only African-American school superintendents said public schools need to honor students’ experiences and work in tandem with the community to address societal problems.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn spoke to Chalkbeat on Friday about how schools — especially those that educate black students — should respond to ongoing racial tension across the United States. The district has the highest largest proportion of African-American and black students in the state.

Earlier this week, two black men, one in Minnesota and another in Louisiana, were shot by white police officers. Then in Dallas, five police officers were shot by a black man who said he was “upset with white people.”

In the interview, Munn also addressed the intersection of schools, the criminal justice system and race; the district’s relationship with the police force; and the district’s work to install equity in the classroom.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As the superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, which has the largest proportion of African-American and black students in the state, what goes through your mind when you hear of events that happened in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas?

In all honesty, I don’t think first about them as superintendent. For anyone who loves this country like I do, you can’t help but feel anger and sadness.

I’m a black man in America. That has some context in these stories. I’m the father of a young boy. That has its own context. And then I do think about it as an American and how it affects the children in my community.

The schools are part of the community. These aren’t school issues. These are larger societal issues. And schools tend to be a reflection of our society. It’s not as if it’s a direct correlation.

This is not the first time a black man has been shot by a white police officer and most likely not the last. How should these issues be discussed in the classroom?

In any classroom setting, our teachers and teachers everywhere need to be aware of the experiences of their students — both individually and collectively. Good teaching takes those experiences and helps put it into context. Good teaching helps students understand the world around them, and how they can affect change in the world around them.

A cornerstone of your work since you joined APS has been equity work in the classroom. For those who aren’t familiar, what does that look like and what impact do you believe it’s had?

The cornerstone of our work is that we can’t teach students unless we engage students. And you can’t engage students if you don’t understand who they are and how they experience the world around them.

We talk about engagement in three areas: affective, behavioral and cognitive. Unless you can engage students at all three levels, then you can’t get them to achieve higher levels of academic success.

The easiest example is if a student is distracted by what’s going on in their community, it’s not enough to ask a student to forget what’s going on outside and focus on their science project. You have to draw that line of relevance from what has their focus and that science project. But you can’t do that unless you understand what they’re focused on.

From the objective viewpoint, we’re starting to try to understand how we measure engagement. From a subjective standpoint, I’m hearing stories of teachers and students connecting in new ways that can help students achieve the outcomes we want.

There’s an intersection between schools, the criminal justice system and race. We know, African-American men are suspended far more than their white peers. That can often put them on a particular path. What should that relationship look like?

I think we’re becoming an example of what we want it to look like. I’m not going to say we’re there, but if you look at our discipline data from the last three years, we’ve had a dramatic — dramatic — decrease in behavioral incidents. Meanwhile, our climate is much better. And we’re starting to see positive trends in achievement data.

What we think it needs to look like is: behavior has a different context when students and teachers understand each other, when teachers understand the difference between disrespect and disengagement.

We started two years ago working with the Metro Center out of New York with Dr. Pedro Noguera and Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge. (Both men are considered experts in school equity issues.) And last year we partnered with the Cherry Creek School District to have Dr. Stembridge work here full time, to work with our teachers in both districts. We’ve gotten into a lot of schools.

We don’t see engagement separate from achievement.

I don’t pretend that we have solved all the problems. But we do feel very good about the trends and results we’re seeing preliminarily.

What steps, if any, has Aurora taken during the last year or two to change its relationship with the police department? Do you think there are unique challenges or benefits to being a more suburban school district?

I think we’ve quietly had a great relationship with the Aurora Police Department for a very long time going back to our former superintendent and police chief. I credit the relationship that was here when I arrived and I’ve done everything I can to keep it that way.

We in the Aurora community participate in a few different partnerships to keep that relationship. One example is a monthly meeting of first responders. And Police Chief Nick Metz, if there is any sort of issue in the community, sends out a blast that says “this is what’s going on and this is how we’re going on.”

(Metz regularly visits APS schools to speak with students, a district spokeswoman added.)

On a personal level, the facts that Chief Nick Metz and I are both new to Aurora and African American helped create a personal relationship. But I’d like to think whoever is in this seat and that seat recognizes we have shared outcomes to meet the needs of this community.

Taking a further step back, what if any role should public education play in the race conversation in this nation?

We are part of the community and we can’t be viewed separately. We’re not the solution to societal challenges. We’re often a reflection. So I think we have a responsibility to be part of the conversation, to be part of how the community takes on the issues. But we shouldn’t be the place for people to look to where this will be taken care of. Historically, that’s never been the case.

Schools and the education systems can’t do it independently. This is something the community has to say: “This is who we want to be,” and ask the schools to help. I don’t think anyone wants me, let alone any superintendent, to say I will decide what are the key cultural elements of our community.

If you look at the core value in our strategic plan, those are the values that our community chose. One of those is “diversity is strength in our community,” and that is imbued in all we do.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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