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K-12 Education

Detroit Kids Deserve Culturally Responsive Education

Joy, connection, self-expression, excitement, curiosity, love. These are all experiences that belong in our classrooms and set the stage for deep learning. That’s right, these are experiences that belong in our classrooms right here in Detroit. In our classrooms filled with Black and Brown students—students with dynamic identities and diverse experience, values, and aspirations.

Detroit students know these are the experiences they deserve, and the conditions that allow them to thrive in the classroom.  As much as Detroit students have been clear about the foundational conditions of quality and equitable educational experience, it has been abundantly clearer throughout history that these are not the experiences our education system was designed to afford our students. Rather, Black and brown students’ identities and experiences are often policed, silenced, and minimized. “Standard” curriculum centers White authors and narratives and teaches Black and Brown students that our history begins and ends with the worst offenses committed against us. Widely accepted “best-practices” rely on managing Black and Brown expressions of joy, curiosity, and excitement to maintain control.

For decades, our community has stood behind our students and pushed against these types of inequities in the system. Educational justice advocates including teachers, community leaders, and families have advocated for curriculum and school experiences that validate students and celebrate Black and Brown communities. They have been advocating for culturally responsive schools and classrooms before it had a fancy name. It is time we get behind them to reimagine a system that makes culturally responsive education the norm.

What is culturally responsive education?

Lindsey Barrett

Educator and curriculum expert Zaretta Hammond writes that CRE “is one of our most powerful tools for helping students find their way out of the [opportunity] gap.” It does this by affirming the histories and identities of all students to foster deeper connections with teachers, schools, the curriculum, and every aspect of their educational journeys.

Culturally responsive education (CRE) is a student-centered approach that is rooted in connection and belonging. It focuses on creating safe, identify affirming, learning environments for all students. It develops educator mindsets to listen and responds to students’ needs, engage in learning partnerships with students, and foster student leadership and engagement. Its purpose is to disrupt and dismantle systems of racism and inequity within the classroom by fostering deep learning that ultimately boosts academic mindsets and capacities.

Why CRE is vital in Detroit

Young people bring rich experiences and a wealth of knowledge into the classroom—for too long, schools and curricula have undervalued these experiences—particularly those of Black and Brown students. Many teachers, community leaders, and others who serve youth have been leading work for years to champion CRE in schools and we know that the system needs more resources to build from the groundwork they have laid. Teachers and school leaders need supports to reimagine the system, to shift mindsets and practices to be culturally responsive.

A culturally responsive education validates the experiences of students by accomplishing the following:

  • values, affirms, and invites inall facets of students’ diverse identities and experiences into the classroom and curriculum.
  • acknowledges and leverages students’ genius—it puts young people at the center, incorporating their talents, interests, and agency to shape a rigorous curriculum that encourages young people as critical thinkers and leaders of their own learning.
  • creates mirrors that see our young people’s truths—that reflect students’ brilliance and perspectives and views them as capable contributors to their school and community.
  • provides windows for young people to look through and envision (and reimagine) their future in a world where they are embraced and can aspire to can shape a more equitable world.

CRE is responsive to what students bring into the classroom and rejects expectations that students of color drop their identity at the door and conform to a system that centers Whiteness.

Our aspirations for CRE in Detroit

We know that schools can be places of belonging with a safe, affirming, and connected school culture experienced by students and teachers. Our aspiration is that CRE practices and mindsets will be embedded throughout the system and that every student will have access to curriculum that affirms their identify, is thought-provoking, and positions them to thrive.

We aspire to build on the seeds that have been planted along the way to reimagine more equitable schools and classrooms. Our work and partnerships on this front will build upon the incredible work of Detroit educators and schools to make their classrooms more welcoming to and reflective of the students they serve.

Making CRE the standard in DPSCD

Detroit Public Schools Community District has announced the Detroit Perspectives Project, an initiative to accelerate the district’s adoption of culturally responsive curriculum and instruction within its English Language Arts high-school curriculum. With the help of a $654,000 grant from The Skillman Foundation, the district will be able to adapt CRE practices in classrooms.

Detroit Perspectives is about affirming the identities of all our students. It is equally about boosting academic achievement. We believe that if schools get stronger in the mindsets and practices of CRE, then instruction and school climate will improve for both teachers and students. This should lead to more student engagement, increased student performance, and ultimately contribute to our deepest aspiration for young people: that they graduate high school prepared for postsecondary and/or career success.

This work isn’t easy. And it is not a silver-bullet solution to issues in our education system. But our education system must affirm and celebrate the histories and identities of our students to best serve them. We want Detroit students to engage in thought-provoking curriculum, develop and share their individual perspectives, and see themselves as the past and future of their country.

Lindsey Barrett

Lindsey Barrett is a partnership manager of Ground Building with The Skillman Foundation. She leads the Foundation’s efforts to build power with Detroit youth.

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