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Getting to Inclusive Schools: An Interview with Timani Richardson

Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

Education Forward DC believes that schools in DC should reflect and serve the citywide diversity of students’ needs and interests so that every student can grow and learn in a setting that works for them. Our Public Engagement grant making efforts are focused on supporting and amplifying the voices of students and families to inform school decisions. We asked Timani Richardson, a native of Ward 7 and a DC Public Schools (DCPS) and DC public charter school alumnus, to give her perspective on how DC schools can be more inclusive and reflect the citywide diversity of students’ needs and interests. Timani is working at a law firm in Downtown DC while also pursuing her Master’s degree at American University’s Kogod School of Business. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University at 19 years old.

Why is it important to have inclusive schools?

School is the institution where students are socialized into the norms of their respective society. Given this, it is important that the school’s environment reflects the real world. We live in a very diverse and interconnected society where people of all cultural backgrounds interact on a day to day basis, so it is important that from an early age, students learn to love and value this diversity. Hatred, intolerance, and prejudice are concepts that are taught. No person innately hates another because they are different. Thus, schools serve as an important point in a child’s life because if you instill in children values of love and respect and acceptance of things and people outside of themselves, it is easier for them to be more accepting of differences that they will encounter in the future.

Does the degree of inclusivity at a school affect learning?

The degree of inclusivity at a school definitely has implications on a student’s learning. It may not always be their ability to learn but rather their desire to learn – the motivation. My GPA dropped from my first year of high school to my second year. The only change over that year, other than my grades, was my motivation to go to school. I was not happy at school, so I was never really motivated to go. I missed school a lot, skipped classes sometimes or if I went, I did not want to participate in class discussions as much. I did not put in as much effort into work and projects. It was hard to focus and feel energized to go to school and do well because I did not feel wanted or that I belonged there. Lack of motivation to be in an environment makes it hard to succeed in that environment. A lack of inclusivity has that effect of decimating motivation and general happiness which in turn affects ability to want to learn and succeed.

What does “inclusive” look and feel like to you in a school setting? What comes to mind when you think about building more inclusive schools?

When people talk about increasing diversity or inclusivity in schools they focus on numbers, making sure that the demographical statistics of schools reflect “a picture of diversity.” In reality, throwing minority students into a predominantly white space does not inherently foster inclusivity. Inclusive schools go beyond just tolerating differences but celebrating all cultures, their uniqueness, and the value they bring to our society.

In an inclusive school setting I would expect to see diverse groups of people talking and laughing together, versus all the Black kids in one corner, all the Asians in another and so on. People are respectful of each other’s cultural backgrounds and traditions and they are even celebrated. I would expect that Black History Month is celebrated not just with events for the Black students, but for everyone to learn and celebrate. I would expect that Hispanic Heritage Month would be used as an opportunity for all students to learn about important cultural traditions and figures in Latinx heritage and so on. There are many ways to show appreciation of another culture’s traditions and value how they’ve added to society, especially in a place like America where there are so many diverse cultures and stories to learn from.

What was your experience with public schools in DC? Was there anything that the school leader or teachers or other students did that made it feel more or less inclusive?

Up until high school, the schools that I attended were majority Black. By the time I got to high school I was in for a real culture shock. I went to high school on the other side of the city at a magnet DCPS school. Most of the students lived in northwest DC in areas like Georgetown, Tenley Town, or Friendship Heights. The school was diverse by the numbers but it never felt like it. I was a poor kid from East of the River, raised by a single mom amongst peers who grew up in mansions with chauffeurs. Students were nice, there were never any direct acts of exclusion based on race or background, but it just naturally seemed that the social cliques were very divided. The divide was sometimes by race, but class also played a big role. Socioeconomic status was a huge factor in the social cliques formed, probably more so than race (but it just so happens that the socioeconomic divides corresponded to racial divides in some instances). I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt “too Black” for the white kids and “too white” for the Black kids. I didn’t feel like there was anyone to relate to. The teachers picked up on the divisive dynamic but there was not much done to alleviate it. It’s so strange trying to describe the dynamic honestly – because no one was mean or prejudiced, nor were they exactly friendly and welcoming. Everyone was nice, treated each other with respect but not too much went on beyond that as far as intercultural mingling. Even to this day when I visit it feels the same; everyone is nice and respectful but there are obvious socioeconomic factors that influence interactions.

Why is student voice important for policymakers in the city? What value does it add?

I feel that it is very easy for policymakers to become removed from the real-life effects their decisions have on real people. They get caught up in numbers and graphs and statistics and may forget that behind each of these statistics is a real person’s story and experience that has physical and psychological effects on them that policymakers should consider. Students live and experience the effects of these policies firsthand so policymakers should strive to get student input on what their experience has been and what they would like it to be. There is inexplicable value in a student voicing their story to a room full of policymakers who have probably been out of school for a while and perhaps cannot take their minds back to that time in their lives. Student voices serve as a reminder to policymakers just how impactful their work is. It is not simply voting and signing a bill, you are changing lives!

Given your experience within public schools in DC, what are two things on your 2020 wish list for DC community members and policymakers to consider?

  1. I think it is a beautiful thing to want to diversify top-tier schools and increase the preference for at-risk students in the lottery for these schools. However, there are only so many seats at each school. The focus should be to make sure that every school in any zip code affords the same opportunities for success.
  2. Policies are more than just numbers. Please never forget that there are real people out here who will be impacted by the decisions you make. It is not simply bargaining with your co-workers and making political allies and trying to get reelection bids. We are real people, with real experiences.
Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

Every DC student deserves to thrive.