Here’s How Schools Can Promote Racial Literacy

Color-blindness is out! The focused approach to race relations should be race-consciousness or racial literacy: the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters when they happen. People of color can face challenges regarding race, class, privilege, and power and often find themselves on the receiving end of harmful microaggressions — those subtle but painful race-based slights.

Typically, these slights rise out of erroneous but widely shared views of people based on race, synonymous with the construct that I call, “immaculate perceptions” — and are designed, mostly subconsciously, to underscore dominant and subordinate cultures. The aim of acquiring and promoting racial literacy is to prepare children, parents and teachers to identify unfairness and become academically assertive. It becomes a reading practice, a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily. The classroom is a perfect place to start to promote racial literacy in our schools.

When we gain racial literacy in any context, we have the ability to:

  • recognize,

  • name,

  • challenge, and

  • manage various forms of everyday racism.

Achieving racial literacy means understanding many interrelated concepts. One example of this would be the ability to analyze barriers to equal opportunity in education that could include institutional racism in K-12 schools, the achievement gap, income inequality and other factors.

Beginning racial literacy: Dispelling “immaculate perceptions” about race

Elementary-level students might not have the cognitive or critical thinking skills to understand racial disparities that are not surface level. It is a teacher’s job to help rid younger learners of incorrect beliefs surrounding race.

Teachers should:

  • Provide curriculum that details historical events surrounding racism as well as the governing ideas that allowed racist laws and policies to develop.


  • Teachers should educate students about equality so that they better understand the similarities that bind humans together rather than focusing on differences.

Racial literacy requires a certain level of critical thinking in order to be able to assess situations or texts for inequalities. As such, students must have the ability to think critically before they are able to become racially literate. If teachers plant the seeds of racial literacy in elementary school, assignments and processes can become progressively more complex as students move onto middle and high school.

As students begin to develop advanced reasoning skills, teachers can ask them to think critically about texts read in class that demonstrate racial or cultural bias. Initially, teachers can model this technique by giving students an example of a text that has been approached with a critical eye and been found to illustrate racial inequality. From there, teachers can ask students to approach texts — literary, media or other formats — from a critical standpoint and facilitate discussions on racial inequities.

Deconstructing racial issues in literature, social studies and history

Teaching racial literacy reaches across multiple academic subjects. English Language Arts teachers can have students read texts containing issues pertaining to race, while history and social studies teachers can approach instruction by dissecting race from a structural standpoint.

Obtaining racial literacy will help to prepare students to engage in social justice practices. When we stop avoiding it, when we stop pretending it’s not there, when we stop thinking that it’s not an issue that deeply affects schools, we can advance race relations within a genuine respect for the strengths of our diversity.

Teaching and promoting racial literacy allows us to provide an authentic, quality and empowering education that fosters ALL students a more healthy, safe and inclusive learning environment, and helps schools to provide a world-class 21st Century education.

Why ALL Students Are “AT-RISK”

The label: “at risk” student…. What does this concept look like? Who does it look like, and  do we know when, where or how to make this determination?

we are the world kids

The term at-risk is often used to describe students or groups of students who are considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school. The term may be applied to students who face circumstances that could jeopardize their ability to complete school, such as homelessness, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, serious health issues, domestic violence, transiency (as in migrant-worker families), or other conditions. It may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, grade retentions, or other learning-related factors that could adversely affect the educational performance of some students.

While educators often use the term at-risk to refer to general populations or categories of students, they may also apply the term to individual students who have raised concerns—based on specific behaviors observed over time—that indicate they are more likely to fail or drop out.

When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “at-risk” is referring to. In fact, “at-risk” can encompass so many possible characteristics and conditions that the term, if left undefined, could be rendered effectively meaningless.

Yet in certain technical, academic, and policy contexts—such as when federal or state agencies delineate “at-risk categories” to determine which students will receive specialized educational services, the term is usually used in a precise and clearly defined manner. States,  school districts, or research studies may create definitions that can encompass a broad range of  characteristic ‘risk factors’, such as the following:

  • Physical disabilities and learning disabilities
  • Prolonged or persistent health issues
  • Habitual truancy, incarceration history, or adjudicated delinquency
  • Family welfare or marital status
  • Parental educational, income levels, employment  or immigration status
  • Homes in which the primary language spoken is not English

In most cases, “risk factors” are situational rather than innate. With the exception of certain characteristics such as learning disabilities, a student’s perceived risk status is rarely related to his or her ability to learn or succeed academically, and largely or entirely related to a student’s life circumstances.  Attending a low-performing school could be considered a risk factor. If a school is under-resourced, under-funded and cannot provide essential services, or its teacher performance record is poor, the school could contribute to higher rates of student absenteeism, failures, and attrition.

If these factors are largely circumstantial, the best thing that we can do for these students, in order to meet their needs, is to address these circumstances.  Generally speaking, the behaviors and characteristics associated with being an “at-risk student” are, in most cases, based on research and observable patterns in student demographics and school performance. Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between certain risk factors and a student’s likelihood of succeeding academically, graduating from high school, or pursuing postsecondary education.

Quite imprecise, I dislike the term at-risk because it may stigmatize students AND may perpetuate the very kinds of societal perceptions, and stereotypes that contribute to students being at greater risk of failure. If students from lower-income households are consistently labeled “at-risk,” schools and educators may respond by treating them in ways that could inadvertently perpetuate their at-risk status. And believe me, it happens!

Schools may enroll ELL students in specialized programs that separate them from their English-speaking peers. While the intention is to provide the specialized language instruction that the students need, the program may also give rise to feelings of cultural isolation, or it may lower academic expectations so that they can fall behind academically even more. Consequently, these students may drop out because they don’t feel connected to the larger school culture or see the value of education, or they may lose hope that they will ever catch up or graduate. Ever heard of “Pygmalion in the Classroom”?

Different individuals within the same demographic or risk categories may have very different innate abilities, familial resources, support systems, or other personal or situational characteristics that can lead them to be more resilient or successful than others; consequently, these students would be less “at-risk” than many of their peers. In this view, at-risk is an overly broad label that inevitably fails to take into account the true complexity of any particular student’s situation.

If we act on general assumptions, rather than diagnosing the specific learning needs of individual students and using that information to provide targeted academic support or more personalized learning experiences, we will certainly continue to be ineffective educators. Otherwise, we will continue to fail our children To help ensure that at risk students succeed, schools will need a clear understanding that collaborative, comprehensive, and community-based services, providers and resources must supplement, reinforce and co-exist along with the curriculum. The range of services offered to students and families must extend to areas beyond academics and more than a nurse in the building.

Establishing collaborative partnerships across systems is a great start.  With access to service providers and community-based resources at or near the school, student performance may result in more engaged, active learners. In turn, ‘AT RISK’ students graduate high school better prepared for college, career and life success.  By the way, aren’t all students “at risk” for academic failure?






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Harvard Family Research Project[HFRP], has discovered that there are programs out there that are taking family engagement to the next level. In fact, HFRP has an upcoming release of  Quilting Stories of Innovation in Family Engagement in which they have collected an array of success stories in family engagement practices and programs from around the country.

A common thread tying the stories together in this innovations quilt is the idea that supporting family engagement is a shared responsibility of families, schools, and communities. These stories highlight a coordination of efforts and the establishment of partnerships. Through these partnerships, diverse sectors and stakeholders work together and optimize their resources to support children’s learning and development anywhere, anytime.



Parentopia creates a blended learning environment for families of young children. With an ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education) site in St. Paul, Minnesota, they have developed the first blended learning environment for parents and families of young children through the creation of Parentopia. ECFE offers families once-a-week parent education, early education, and parent‒child interaction with licensed early childhood teachers and parent educators. The program begins at birth and continues through age five. It is open to all families (universal access), and engages with families who live in the neighborhood.

Through the use of Parentopia, teachers have a virtual space for engagement with all families in classes and across the program through integrating communication, collaboration, and content-sharing tools for learning. Parents are able to continue learning about parenting through discussions with teachers and with the parents who are part of their trusted learning communities.


The ability to include family members who can’t attend the face-to-face classes allows information for learning and engagement to be extended and shared and for all family members to feel involved. The virtual platform then offers opportunities for individual enhanced learning and engagement with the program and with teachers―for social engagement, support, and the building of social capital with a community of peers―and for a wider community of families and staff to be built through blended offline and online interactions. HFRP is currently implementing that platform that was designed through a program‒university partnership and observing the contextual factors required for full, organic use of hybrid learning in a community-based non-formal education program (e.g., staff technology comfort and competency, support for content and platform updates, value of instructor presence in parent use, and administrative support).

What makes this practice innovative?
This is the first attempt to offer a blended engagement and learning experience to families in an early childhood parenting experience. We should seriously consider adopting this kind of engagement. We can examine and measure its impacts on parenting and parent well-being and indirectly on children’s outcomes. Because of the continuous, universal access, community-based, and school district‒sponsored nature of the ECFE program, it should become a national standard and a new best practice.

Unlike other programs that may be short term, ECFE builds relationships with families that continue actively for up to five years, and for many families for their whole lives. And because ECFE is a product of the schools (and many families stay within the school district for primary and secondary school choices), and since much of engagement is based on trust and familiarity, the blended learning and engagement experience has the potential to strengthen early relationships between parents and school staff and the school district that can be a “head start” to the family‒school engagement efforts down the road.

Now, that is innovation at work in the best interest of  children and families! This is exactly the type of initiative that I have been asking for, and the exemplary practices needed for meaningful partnerships with families! What do you think?


Children and Polyvictimization: Proactive is Better than Reactive!


When one thinks of children’s exposure to violence and abuse in the home, that is usually as far as our imagery extends. Nothing else. Either it’s a home where instances of abuse, violence or criminal behaviors occur or IT occurs elsewhere. One instance;one type.  Most likely, one accompanies another as co-occurring traumatic experiences for children and family members. Polyvictimization is a much neglected component of child victimization trauma.

Children in the U.S. suffer higher rates of victimization and crime than adults. Actually, 1 in 4 students will experience some type of trauma or victimization before the age of 16, and is directly responsible for a variety of physical and mental health related consequences affecting them well into adulthood.

Efforts to help traumatized and victimized children tend to be fragmented, as they tend to focus on one type of trauma. For example, intervention and prevention programs will focus on bullying, dating violence, sexual abuse, alone. While these are important areas of focus for such programming, it would be most effective to incorporate a holistic and integrated approach to existing and proposed services. By focusing on polyvictimization, teachers, counselors, family and child advocates can provide the best interventions and prevention services.

Children are resilient and many can overcome negative effects of violence and trauma. However, some who are exposed to these events will suffer from traumatic stress long after the trauma has ended. Emotional symptoms such as, depression, anxiety, behavior problems, learning difficulties and attention problems can arise. Physical symptoms including sleep and eating disorders, and even nightmares are often frequent occurrences.

The primary goal of schools is to educate students, and this makes them the most natural places to implement prevention programming strategies,particularly since trauma directly affects the academic achievement of children. Trauma is the greatest cause of underachievement in schools with kids suffering from decreased reading ability, lower GPAs, and higher absences, suspension and dropout rates. Unfortunately, though, not all schools are implementing comprehensive prevention programs-for students AND families/adult caregivers.

It is important to understand that bullying, cyberbullying, sexual assault and abuse, and other types of victimization experienced by kids do not occur in isolation. Trauma-sensitive programming in education usually follows a highly publicized tragic event in a community, as a reaction to a single type of victimization. Focus in school settings should encompass a broad spectrum of victimization and traumatic stress-producing situations and events. Embedded into the guidance program, family engagement services and the general curriculum, as well. Proactive is better than reactive! School staff must become more trauma-sensitive, trauma-focused, and also know what signs to look for, such as:

Young Children (5 and younger)

Young children’s reactions are strongly influenced by their caregivers’ reactions. Children in this age range who are exposed to violence may:
■ Be irritable, fussy or have difficulty calming down
■ Become easily startled
■ Resort to behaviors common to when they were younger (for example, thumb sucking, bed wetting, or fear of the dark)
■ Have frequent tantrums
■ Cling to caregivers
■ Experience changes in level of activity
■ Repeat events over and over in play or conversation

Elementary School-Age Children (6–12 years)

Elementary and middle school children exposed to violence may show problems at school and at home. They may
■ Have difficulty paying attention
■ Become quiet, upset, and withdrawn
■ Be tearful or sad and talk about scary feelings and ideas
■ Fight with peers or adults
■ Show changes in school performance
■ Want to be left alone
■ Eat more or less than usual
■ Get into trouble at home or at school

Teenagers (13–18 years)
Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:
■ Talk about the event constantly or deny that it happened
■ Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency
■ Complain of being tired all the time
■ Engage in risky behaviors
■ Sleep more or less than usual
■ Demonstrate increase in aggressive behavior
■ Want to be left alone, not want to spend time with friends
■ Experience frequent nightmares
■ Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law

What can we do?
Understanding the prevalence and impact of polyvictimization can help families, advocates and practitioners identify the most seriously victimized children and protect them from additional harm. It will also help target intervention and prevention to the full range of trauma-causing events that children are at risk of or have experienced to provide needed services and supports.

Expand Assessment Beyond the ‘Presenting’ Problem
Agencies working with vulnerable children need to ensure that they are not responding only to the “presenting” issue (i.e., sexual abuse) because it is likely that they are also experiencing other types of victimization concurrently (i.e., bullying and physical assaults).
It is critical to recognize the need for more comprehensive assessment to identify them as potential victims of violence and to ensure that their treatment accounts for this possibility.

Emphasize Prevention and Early Intervention

We know that not all children who are exposed to violence require mental health intervention. However, because of their higher vulnerability for problems, children who’ve been exposed to multiple types of trauma, must be formally assessed and referred for intervention when needed. In fact, children and their families should be referred to preventive services, as they may also address individual, relationship and community factors that predict and prevent future exposure.

Provide Comprehensive Services

Treatment and related supports should address the underlying factors for victimization.Reducing stigma and reminders need be strategized and applied to the full range of exposures through developmentally appropriate programming and culturally responsive support services.

Develop Community-Based Partnerships

Services for children exposed to multiple types of victimization and violence must recognize that these kids not only suffer from trauma, but are often stuck in families or environments that may increase the likelihood of repeated victimization. It is therefore best to involve the family, school and work together with other community based providers[e.g. agencies, CBOs, schools, churches…] to assess the environmental conditions Develop strategies to address them, like teaching parenting skills, anger management, self and child advocacy, mental and behavioral health awareness, disseminate information, etc…. Not limited to school or clinical settings, but offer services close to home and in the community. Provide both ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces for children and their families.

Protecting children from abuse and neglect alone is a much too narrow approach to address the ‘whole’ child, because no matter the environmental setting, all children are whole-right then and right there. We mustn’t forget that children are still developing,and their are greatly impacted and influenced by every environment, which includes schools, home, out on the playground. And, whatever happens in one will influence the other.

Break the Cycle
Working with families, the vulnerable and ‘at-risk’ or working with the most vulnerable children and youth, makes it a professional responsibility to help build the protective factors and enhance the capacity of parents, caregivers, teachers, and any adult who may be in a position to intervene and stop the progression toward polyvictimization. Increase awareness of disrupted families, without regard to structure, and be mindful of the communities in which incidents of violence are prevalent. It is under these environmental conditions that we may see early indicators and warning signs of present or future polyvictimization. Proactive is better than reactive!

For more information and resources, please contact the Safe Start Center, a National Resource Center for Children’s Exposure to Violence:

Questions: In the Midst of Life-Threatening Opioid Addictions

Some people are fortunate or ra

The city of New Haven, Connecticut, in an 83 page lawsuit,  is suing the makers of Oxycontin. Their claim is that they hold the blame for the epidemic that has swept the country and boasts responsibility for overdoses, deaths, child abuse and neglect and all other damages associated with opioid abuse. Children are rendered unsafe, unhealthy, adultified and eventually uprooted in its wake.

Without getting into the science of pharmacology, in everyday language, Oxycontin[oxycodone] is a semi-synthetic opioid pain killer. Often referred to as a narcotic, it is used to treat moderate to severe pain symptoms expected to last for an extended period of time. Related to Percocet, Vicodin, and Methadone, in the midst of the present opioid epidemic, declared a national health emergency, it is astonishing that Oxycodone is still being  prescribed by physicians across the country.

The pharmaceutical industry’s primary concern clearly must be about ‘business’, and of course, business is money. Despite the numbers of people dying and overdosing on these ‘legal’ drugs, they are still in production. So, what about the large multi-billion dollar companies, or one in particular, Purdue Pharma, LP, the drug’s manufacturer? This family-owned company makes but one widely prescribed drug-Oxycodone, and has amassed tens of billions of dollars since it hit the market. According to the CDC, over 90 people die every day from opioid use. While people die, companies like this do nothing to curtail or prevent the continuation of the drugs’ devastating impact on the lives of individuals, children and families.

Where is the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], charged with regulating, and approving medically prescribed and over-the-counter medications? Are they fulfilling their role in  determining which drugs are released to the public,  or are they too sitting back and pointing fingers and ‘blaming the victims’? The CDC[Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] collects the data, but is anyone listening?

All I seem to have are questions. Who’s minding the store? At one time, there was a food additive commonly called, Red Dye #2. It was linked to all types of health problems and contained some carcinogenic-cancer causing properties. Ultimately banned, removed from the market and since has ceased production. That was in the 1970’s, I believe.

It’s 2017 and medical science has advanced by leaps and bounds. We have more advanced brain and body monitoring technologies, and the science of addiction, and pain management treatments have also provided us with such detailed data. Yet we have teens, adults, and families being impacted to devastating proportions by a substance which didn’t originate on the black market, an underground delivery system, but from your family physician.

Different from illegal substances,  most people are prescribed opioids because of legitimate physiological pain associated with surgery or some type of injury. Some develop a high tolerance for the medication and experience an increased dependence upon opioids. And as perceived or real somatic need increases, so does frequency and prescribed dosage… until we get to this point. All types of maladaptive behaviors ensue, and though the cost is high, the desire or the need seems to overshadow the risks.
When prescriptions run out, there are ‘druggists’ who stand on street corners and sell opioids to addicts via a black market delivery system. The dangers are greater for overdose and death when they are bought illegally. Counterfeit versions, usually cheaper, are unregulated. Who knows what is being put into the pills sold on the street. But, the demand is there, and as goes supply and demand, someone will always be there to meet the demands.

In the early 1980’s, Quaaludes [Lemmon 714] [a barbituate, also called a ‘downer’] was sung about in the song, ‘SuperFreak’, by Rick James. Another example of a pharmaceutical drug rendered obsolete and banned by the FDA. Why can’t we hit the drug companies where it hurts and prevent them from hurting others. Ban it. Take it off the market, or impose stricter guidelines and regulations regarding its availability. Educate physicians on the potential and real dangers of these drugs. Before a diagnosis indicates treatment modalities in which opioids may prove more effective, doctors must exhaust all alternative treatments first.

In my opinion, the city of New Haven, Connecticut along with a string of other cities and states have the right idea. Progress and change begins somewhere, and if not at the federal level, then states and cities must advocate for its citizens. Bankrupt them or make them pay for deceptive marketing and contributing to the destruction of the lives of families in middle America and from the East to West Coasts. Although there is no magic wand to wave and fix this mess, New Haven is also endeavoring to be a part of the solution. Someone has to step up and proactively prevent more tragedies, before they happen.This is truly a heartbreaking and controversial topic, but what would you do?

How to Put Cultural Competence into Practice

Starting in the late 1980s, the mental health profession responded to the issue of disparity, as does education and other professions and service providers today, , with a new approach to care called cultural competence. Initially defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals to enable people to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.

Intended to do the following, cultural competence should:

  • Improve access to care
  • Build trust and
  • Promote engagement and retention in care.

Defined in general terms, cultural competence is:

” …the delivery of services, responsive to the cultural concerns of racial and ethnic minority groups, including their language, history, traditions, beliefs and values.”( U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001)

Mainly, cultural competence refers to guiding principles developed to meet the needs of diverse communities, including ethnic and racial minorities. While, in theort, the need and purpose for cultural competence or proficiency is valid and is critical for equitable The Surgeon General says that evidence-based practices are intended for every consumer regardless of his or her culture. Practices need to be adjusted, however, to make them accessible and effective for cultural groups that differ in language or behavior and traditions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, which means that we must ‘tweak’ our evidence-based practices according to the target audience and the mutually-identified goals. This is where cultural competence comes in.

To deliver culturally competent and evidence-based services, we tailor our interventions to the unique communities we serve-either the practice itself or the context in which the practice is delivered. Since the goal of all programs is to be culturally competent, here are a few strategic steps to take which illustrate that responsiveness.

  • Understand the racial, ethnic, and cultural demographics of the populations served
  • Become more familiar with one or two of the groups you most commonly encounter
  • Create a cultural competence advisory committee consisting of consumers, family and community-based organizations
  • Translate your forms and brochures
  • Offer to match a practitioner with a consumer/family of similar background
  • Use bilingual staff when needed
  • Ask your consumers/families about their cultural background and identities
  • Incorporate cultural awareness into assessments, interventions
  • Tap into natural networks of support, such as extended family and community groups that represent the family’s culture
  • Reach out to religious and spiritual organizations to encourage referrals and sources of support
  • Train staff in culturally responsiveness in communication skills
  • Understand that some behaviors that one culture deems psychopathology, maladaptive or disrespectful are perfectly acceptable in another culture

The word competence implies a set of criteria to evaluate a program, but in this context, it means to tailor care, practices, strategies to different cultures, and places THAT responsibility on the system itself, not the consumer. Therefore every provider or program/school/agency administrator bears the responsibility to make programs accessible, appropriate, appealing and effective for diverse communities served.

Many do it naturally, and deliver culturally competent, evidence based and individually tailored services. Within these environments, there is certain to be what we tend to label, ‘quality’ care, education and services accessed and provided to consumers-children, teens, adults and families. In these cross-systems-strengthened communities, the entire population will tend to be healthier, academic achievement and school performance will likely be less problematic, family and community engagement will likewise rest at higher levels.  Services delivered in the absence of intentionally responsive evidence based practices, procedures, strategies and interventions do not support families, children or their respective community. Why?

When services are delivered within the framework of evidence-based practices which reflect cultural responsiveness and competence, the consumers served by that provider will increase empowerment and enhance life quality. Since cultural competent service delivery is a growing concept, there is no definitive formula or standard set of practices to follow. However, with self-awareness preceding cultural awareness and organizational mission and vision of success accompanying evidence-based practices, respect and appreciation for diversity should optimize service delivery. Ultimately, professionals will    equip all consumers with tools, skills and provide the appropriate supports that will lead to stronger, healthier, and more empowered collective.

Last thought: How will you know which practices apply to different ethnic, racial or cultural groups? The answer is that we won’t know if we don’t try, and we keep trying, tweaking, modifying strategies and adapting interventions- until successful goal attainment.