As children in pre-kindergarten take out their crayons to color, teachers at the College School make sure to point out a few specific shades, ranging from beige to brown. They want to make sure their youngest students understand that any of these can be the skin colors of figures in their drawings.
Kids have already noticed these differences, according to Vincent Flewellyn, the director of Equality and Inclusion at the College School. It is up to educators to make sure they can address them in the best way.
It’s part of the school’s approach to addressing race at every educational level, a goal the school also extends to its teachers and administrators. Many employees at the College School are participating in a program called Witnessing Whiteness, a discussion group designed to help white people rethink how they see and talk about race.
The program, facilitated by the YWCA, provides a forum for white people to educate other white people, and themselves, about race. It is based on the book “Witnessing Whiteness” by Shelly Tochluk.
Most Witnessing Whiteness programs are held in community spaces, not in schools, but the College School is taking a direct approach to making sure its teachers eliminate the unconscious biases that often affect education. The group is voluntary and meets after school for a 10-week period, but despite this extra commitment, nearly half of the school’s staff has signed up.
Flewellen said he noticed after the Ferguson protests began in St. Louis that many people felt like there was nothing they could do and they were not equipped to have conversations about race. At the school, he helped introduce Witnessing Whiteness as a way to address that.
“I think they saw participating in this as the first step in understanding and unpacking some of their own biases about race,” Flewellen said.
“As a person of color, it gets exhausting at times trying to help folks who are well-intentioned.”
Jaclyn Stewart-Strothmann, the director of Institutional Advancement at the College School, said the program has helped her and other white faculty members become more aware of others’ perspective on race.
“Maybe a student of color might need something different from their white counterpart,” Stewart-Strothmann said. “We’ve started talking about what support structures we have within our community that help people get what they need to be successful.”
Stewart-Strothmann said the program helps faculty and staff learn the same lessons they are trying to teach their students: how to empathize with others and have productive conversations about important topics.
The majority of the College School is white, with 26 percent of students identified as racial minorities. However, Flewellen said this does not make it any less important for the school to work for anti-racism.
“Equity and inclusion are key components for us here, but we also don’t have students of color in large numbers here,” Flewellen said. “I want our faculty and staff to then understand what it must be like for those students of color to be a part of a population that is not so well-represented in most spaces for them.”
Flewellen said it is also important for white students to learn about race from an early age so they are able to think critically about inequality in the world around them.
“In order for us to dismantle racism, white folks have to change,” Flewellen said.
Kate Polokonis, a parent with two children at the College School, also participates in a Witnessing Whiteness program. She said it is important to her that her children’s school prioritizes racial equality and the leadership at the College School makes a significant difference.
“They are people who keep justice in mind,” Polokonis said.
The College School is an independent school that often enrolls students whose families come to them looking for an alternative to public schools. The administrators hope introducing more programs dealing with racism and other social issues will help attract a more diverse student body, as well as addressing concerns which are important to all families.
For example, Flewellen said, addressing what was happening in St. Louis after the verdict in the Jason Stockley case was released was a concern for students of all races.
“What’s been surprising to me is the number of white families who come through our admissions office and ask what are we doing around equity and inclusion issues, because those are important to them,” Flewellen said.
Founded in 1963, the College School was originally a project of what is now Webster University, with the partial goal of implementing new, experimental teaching methods. Flewellen said the school’s independent status and historically progressive approach to education has allowed them to implement programs like Witnessing Whiteness. The approach, he said, should be more widely adopted.
“I don’t understand why we can’t, as educators, really move to having these conversations,” Flewellen said. “It’s almost irresponsible.”
Jessica Karins is an editorial intern for the American from Webster University.