By Carol Z. Shane
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 1, 2018) - Second United Methodist Church hosted more than 100 participants for its latest workshop in the “Conversations on Race series,” begun at Church Street United Methodist in 2016.
Special guests at the Sept. 16 event were Chonika Coleman-King, assistant professor of urban multicultural education at University of Tennessee; Denise Dean, project director, East Knoxville Freedom Schools; and the Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church youth drummers led by the Rev. Elston McLain. The Rev. Leah Burns, associate pastor at Second UMC, facilitated the event.
The program began with a lively performance by the Lennon-Seney drummers. Wearing colorful traditional African dress, the children invited the crowd to clap along.
The workshop focused on the church’s ministry with poor children and children of color in greater Knoxville. Burns said the intent was to “embrace the possibilities, stimulate the senses, and identify pockets where you can make a difference. Our goal is to bring people together across boundaries.”
Burns used an exercise introduced by retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson in which the imagery of a train on its tracks helps illustrate historical apartheid in American education. It was an effective, moving way to explain the cultural and academic game of “catch up” that schoolchildren of color are still playing.
After participants were invited to get to know others at their tables, Coleman-King gave a talk: “Working in Service of Our Children: Examining and Addressing Educational Disparities in Our Community.” She presented district-wide statistics in academics and discipline, demonstrating disproportion between white children and children of color and economically-disadvantaged and disabled children. She spoke of how hidden bias among teachers can be damaging and stressed the importance of making room for cultural differences in the learning environment.
Coleman-King, who graduated from high school at 16 and earned multiple college degrees, remembers being accused of cheating when she excelled at her New York City elementary school. “I’ve been in classrooms as a researcher where I’ve seen kids of different races exhibiting the same behavior, yet the responses from teachers are different. And I’m in the room. And they know me as ‘the race lady.’ They don’t even know they’re doing it.”
She believes that training for teachers, staff and administration is the best way to address these and other issues in educational disparity. “What we do is teach teachers how to engage across difference. It’s teachable. We just have to put in the effort,” she said.
Guided by its own Disparities in Educational Outcomes Task Force, the Knox County School System approved a five-year plan, presented by Coleman-King and her students, addressing topics such as race, class, gender, ability, disability, sexual orientation, language and culture, all which may impact effectiveness in teaching.
“I want to stop at the sexual-orientation piece because in the religious community, this is something we need to talk about,” she said. “Children and young people who have different orientations and identities are committing suicide at about 40 percent higher than the rate of other young people. So whether or not we agree or disagree with their lifestyle, kids are hurting and they need our support,” she said.
“We need educators who see and validate the whole child. We cannot tell children to leave their language, culture and families outside the door when they come to school and expect them to perform. Children need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum -- in books, on the walls, in textbooks,” Coleman-King said. “Some kids go through their entire schooling experience and they’ve never been in a classroom with a teacher who looks like them.”
Coleman-King urged the church community to support cultural competency training in schools. “We need folks out in the school-board meetings, joining local advocacy groups and supporting quality programming. Children need to feel confident, smart and capable despite their circumstances.”
Next, Dean presented a talk about Freedom Schools, a program produced by the Children’s Defense Fund which seeks to reduce learning loss over the months when kids are out of school, largely by fostering a love of reading. Begun in 1995, the program has helped more than 150,000 underserved children.
“It’s a six-week summer program for [grades] K through 12, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Dean said. “We use the Integrated Reading Curriculum: a researched curriculum that identifies culturally responsive literature,” she said.
“What we want our children to do is engage with literature that acts like a mirror. They want to see stories that they can relate to based on themselves and their families. And we want them to engage with literature that acts like a window -- to be able to view other cultures, other situations, so they can have a greater understanding,” Dean said.
Dean presented statistical evidence of the program’s effectiveness.
“Children who attend Freedom Schools on a regular basis perform better on standardized tests. We know that 85 percent of our scholars maintain or gain in reading ability over the summer. Ninety percent of our parents believe they see improvement in their child’s confidence in reading and in their own parenting skills.”
The program also addresses health care, spiritual and moral foundations, and social and civic responsibility. The children -- many of whom depend on free or reduced lunch during the school year -- receive breakfast and lunch.
Dean and five Freedom School students then sang and danced to “Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre as a demonstration of “harambee,” a Swahili word meaning “let’s pull together.” “It’s how we start our day,” Dean said. “We want our scholars to be pumped for all the learning that’s to come.”
For the cost of $1,000, a donor may send a child to Freedom School. “My vision is to make the American dream a reality for everyone.”
After a closing performance by the Lennon-Seney drummers, Burns encouraged continued engagement. “I love the conversations. Keep the dialogue going when you leave here. It doesn’t have to stop.”
Carol Z. Shane is a writer for The Shopper-News in Knoxville and winner of four Golden Press Card awards.