Local ‘student champions:’ fighting racism and apathy


Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

Madera Unified School District employees gather at Maltilda Torres High School on Wednesday and gave a standing ovation after listening to a speaker share his story.

 

For two days this week, Madera Unified School District employees gathered at Maltilda Torres High School for the purpose of learning how to better become “student champions.”


They listened to the MUSD superintendent Todd Lile and some of his top administrators talk about building relationships with students. They listened to each other as they explored ways in which they can better understand Madera’s unique student population. They also heard from two former students who shared troubling personal accounts of racism and discrimination in Madera.


It was all part of the district’s effort to deal with tough topics such as racism and prejudice in Madera schools and the broader community. District leaders liken the effort to the Phoenix who, in Greek mythology, rose from the ashes to new life.


Two events in Madera Unified’s recent history have created the moral imperative among its leaders to rise from the ashes of bigotry and better understand the adversities facing the students they are charged to educate. Having been stung by evidence of racism on some of its campuses, the district’s staff has determined to eradicate this blight on the community’s educational system.


The first indication that something was amiss on the racial front came in October 2019, from a report by WestEd, a research, development, and services agency that had been invited by the district to conduct a review of the efficacy of its learning program. WestEd discovered a significant disconnect between some of the students, primarily the African-American students, and some of the adult employees. One African- American student asserted, “There is nothing here (school) for me.”


WestEd made four recommendations to address the problem:


1. Create a sense of urgency within the district staff to improve academic outcomes for African-American students.


2. Develop a district-wide culture of equity.


3. Improve professional development training.


4. Develop better relationships with African-American students and their families.


While Madera Unified was taking these recommendations to heart, in August 2020, the next blow to race relations within the district came with the COVID pandemic.


Distance learning was the order of the day, as teachers and students communicated by Zoom (computers). Somehow a rogue student hacked into the program and posted an especially vile, racist attack.


This was brought to the attention of the school authorities by a student, which was almost as disconcerting as the message itself.


From that point on, Madera Unified, with some help from WestEd, began to plan a counter attack in the form of a “Student Champion” course for all of Madera Unified’s 2,400 employees, credentialed and classified alike.


That course was launched on Monday and Wednesday this week. At its core, the goal of the course is to build within each employee the capacity to be a champion for all of the students.


The tone for this unique in-service was set each day in a two-hour general session in the Torres gymnasium by Lile and two former students, Jeremiah Goodman and Giovanni Prudente.


Lile laid out the rationale for the Student Champion course, while Goodman and Prudente related how racism and bigotry affected them as Madera Unified students. The general session was followed by breakout sessions in which the employees divided up and met in various classrooms to further explore the road to becoming student champions.


Much of the content in the breakout sessions dealt with what has been labeled MUSD “identity documents.” They include the district’s “Community Compact,” the “Student Bill of Rights,” the “Student Believer” document, and the “Student Champion” document.


According to Lile, the Student Champion course “will help all staff begin to see our students in new ways and actively challenge us to be the best educators we can be.”


The Madera Tribune will dissect the Student Champion course for readers in a three-part series beginning next week.