Richfield School District introduces new equity training program

Students exit a bus at Centennial Elementary in Richfield Tuesday, Sept. 6. Transportation staff at Centennial are among employees in the district participating in a new professional development program in the district focusing on equity. (Sun current staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Students exit a bus at Centennial Elementary in Richfield Tuesday, Sept. 6. Transportation staff at Centennial are among employees in the district participating in a new professional development program in the district focusing on equity. (Sun current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

Staff in Richfield Schools are being taught to treat kids like kids.

That concept is at the crux of Innocent Classroom, the equity program the district is subscribing to this year for the first time. Staff gathered Aug. 30 to hear from the program’s founder, writer and educator Alex Pate, and have the opportunity to take professional development classes that might open some eyes to the realities behind the achievement gap and inequities in education.

The Richfield School Board voted in April to replace equity training that staff used to receive through the West Metro Education District with the Innocent Classroom, which was launched in 2012 and is used in more than 170 schools, according to the program’s website. The course is open not only to teachers and building administrators, but to all types of staff throughout the district.

“Innocent Classroom program is really a program that relies even more upon growing and building our own expertise in terms of delivering equity for our students,” Board Chair Peter Toensing said when the school board approved the switch to Innocent Classroom.

“It’s not a curriculum course, it’s a different way of thinking,” Assistant Superintendent Leadriane Roby said in an interview last week.

Part of the idea behind the Innocent Classroom, Roby explained, is understanding “there’s a reason for all behaviors.”

“Our children deserve to know what it’s like to feel innocent,” Pate says in a video providing an overview of the course.

Pate is best known for writing “Amistad,” the bestselling book-turned-movie about the slave ship of the same name. The slave ships are gone, but racism isn’t, he reminds teachers.

Innocent Classroom instructs staff to look at the bigger picture of systemic racism, said Roby, who is black.

Over 20-some years as an educator, “I’ve seen it in several organizations and schools,” she said.

“We as educators are really well intentioned,” she added, but those intentions can bring lowered expectations, manifested in teachers “making things sometimes easier or making assumptions.”

Students also make assumptions about themselves, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies based on negative stereotypes, Roby explained. Acknowledging students’ innocence is meant as a way of undoing that narrative, she said.

Innocent Classroom also aims to help teachers build trust.

“It’s kind of taking a step back and looking at our practices,” Roby said, “making sure that children understand that when they are here and interacting with us, we are making sure they are reaching their full potential.”

That approach even extends outside the school buildings. In particular, bus drivers at Centennial Elementary are participating in the program along with other staff members.

Bus drivers are an important point of contact, Centennial Principal Lee Ann Wise said, because “they’re the first ones to meet and greet our families every day, and sometimes the last ones to say goodbye.”

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.