Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools noticed a troubling trend, one that's common across the country. Although the district’s overall performance on standardized tests and other achievement measurements are high, when the data is broken down by race and ethnicity, students of color are being left behind. In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 83 percent of the white high school students in the district passed the end of year tests, but just about 48 percent of the Hispanic students did and only 28 percent of the African-American students passed.
The district decided to address the problem using a personal approach. Starting in fourth grade all the way through senior year of high school, students are paired with a mentor, someone in the community who spends time with them and exposes them to diverse cultural activities, like going to the museum or sporting events, with the goal of nurturing untapped potential in students by giving them someone to rely on outside of their school, family, and friends.
Apart from the mentoring, another big part of the program is creating more culturally sensitive classrooms. But rather than taking the top-down approach, the students themselves have had a big hand in creating a set of guidelines based on researched-based strategies and using their own experiences to distill the research down into the six most important components.
The process of creating the guidelines, called the Student Six, has brought up issues that neither students nor teachers had ever addressed before -- at least not in school. And the act of allowing students to take ownership of the process gave them a better understanding of their teachers' perspective.
“I didn’t know that [teachers] felt so uncomfortable talking about it until we started doing this,” said Alexa Parvey, a junior at Chapel Hill High School and one of the Student Six facilitators. “It helped me understand that teachers aren’t doing it because they don’t want to include you, they just don’t know,” she said. Now that she and other student facilitators spend a lot of their free time training teachers about race sensitivity, she feels like it's her job to help educate her teachers even when they aren't asking for it. But she also understands that most of her teachers are well-intentioned but lost when it comes to talking about race.
“It’s necessary to talk about race because most of the time race takes the backseat to everything,” said Jotham White, another Chapel Hill junior and student facilitator. “Once they know that we need to talk about race, we can help students build a positive race identity.” The students described how uncomfortable they feel when teachers ignore blatantly disrespectful comments from other students or when it’s clear that their teachers don’t trust them. Volunteering as Student Six facilitators has helped students understand where teachers are coming from and has strengthened relationships with many of them so they can check in beyond the seminar.