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RBHS students, parents, staff talk race and diversity on Zoom

More diverse hiring, initiatives to invite and include families of color mulled

July 7th, 2020 11:42 AM

By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

For the past three weeks, Riverside-Brookfield High School Principal Hector Freytas has been leading Zoom video conference discussions about race and the equity at the school. 

The first week Freytas moderated a discussion with students, the next week he moderated a discussion with parents, and on June 30 he moderated a final call with RBHS staff.

The takeaway seems to be that there is much work to do, and that hiring a more Black and other minority teachers at RBHS needs to be a priority. At present, the school has just one Black teacher, special education teacher Jordan Mack.

"We're going to make sure that RB has a diverse hiring pool," said Freytas on the call with parents, which the Landmark was allowed to listen in on. 

Freytas said the school needs to be do a better job recruiting at colleges and universities with large numbers of minority students. 

Parent Rashida McKelvin, who is a member of the Komarek District 94 school board, said a diverse faculty is important.

"I think staffing should be representative of the student body and the population," McKelvin said during the parent call.

According the 2019 Illinois School Report Card, 53 percent of RBHS students were white, 36.6 percent Hispanic, and 5.2 percent Black. Meanwhile, 86.6 percent of teachers are RBHS were white, 7.2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Black.

Parent Quantansha McCottry said the lack of Black role models has an impact, mentioning that her 13-year-old son asked her whether Black people could be teachers around here. 

McCottry also said her son, Kentay, who just graduated from RBHS, wants to become a special education teacher, but told her that he has little hope of coming back to RBHS to teach, because there are so few Black teachers at the school.

"How can you strive to be something if you've never seen it," McCottry said. "My kids have never seen another Black male at their grade school, at their high school."

At the end of the discussion with parents, District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis made a commitment to seek out a more diverse faculty.

"We're trying to make an effort to bring in a more diverse administrative staff, and we're going to continue to work to bring in a more diverse teaching staff," Skinkis said.

But it will take time as RBHS typically has only a handful of teaching vacancies a year.

The Riverside Brookfield Education Association, the union representing RBHS teachers, issued a strong statement in support of the school's Black students and their desire for a more diverse faculty, urging the administration to recruit more people of color.

"Our ever-changing demographics require a staff that is more representative of our student body," the RBEA statement said.

A more diverse curriculum is something that students are asking for.

"Our students want to see literature representative of Black authors, Latino authors, diverse authors," Freytas said.

The RBEA supported this desire.

"Our curriculum continues to evolve to include the experiences, ongoing challenges, and achievements of people of color," the statement said. "African-American history is American history."

Students told Freytas that they have heard racial epithets, including the N-word, in the hallways of RBHS.

"I won't tolerate that," Freytas said.

It appears that only six students, four of them recent 2020 graduates for RBHS, participated on the student call with Freytas, Skinkis, and Assistant Principal Dave Mannon.

Shalah Russell, one of the 2020 graduates who was on the call, told the Landmark that more returning students need to get involved and continue to push issues forward.

"There aren't many students who know about these meetings or the efforts that the administration is putting forth or they just aren't interested," Russell said. "We need to let as many students know as possible, so all of these efforts aren't in vain." 

During the call with parents, Freytas urged them, particularly parents of color, to join parent groups at RBHS. Sometimes, however, some Black parents say that they don't feel very welcome in parent groups such as the PTO, Boosters, and Music Sponsors.

McCottry said she felt she was receiving weird looks from PTO officers a few years ago at registration.

"I felt awkward; I felt weird in PTO," McCottry said. "I had parents looking at me strange."

A white parent, Lauren Breit, suggested that RBHS establish a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, an idea Freytas seemed interested in.

Russell that she and other students felt listened to during their call.

"The students did most of the talking," Russell said.

She said that she thinks that the RBHS administration is committed to making changes.

"I think it will lead to something different." Russell said. "We're on a good track right now,"

At the end of the call with parents, Skinkis said the administration would continue to address issues of race and equity.

"We're going to continue to strive to get better," Skinkis said.

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