WJCC Schools staff is mostly white – with an all-white school board. Here’s how that’s impacting students

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Xavia Carter (WYDaily/Courtesy of Xavia Carter)
Xavia Carter (WYDaily/Courtesy of Xavia Carter)

When Xavia Carter graduated from Lafayette High School in 2017, she looked back on her time in the Williamsburg-James City County school system as a mixed-race student feeling out of place.

“I feel like I was confused going into the real world because I hadn’t learned a lot about diversity in school,” she said. “As someone who doesn’t necessarily look like everyone else, it kind of felt like you had a bullseye on your back.”

Post graduation, Carter has become a member of The Village Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at creating an equitable learning environment in WJCC. She said now that she has a child who will eventually be going into the public school system, she worries her son will have a similar experience.

But she became a member of the Village so she could finally have a voice for change against structural barriers in WJCC.

“We are fully aware structural barriers exist,” said Lisa Ownby, a member of the school board. “And we are looking to improve diversity at all levels. In an ideal world we would have a building that represents the students inside.”

During a school board meeting Tuesday, members of the Village came before the board to shed further light on issues of structural barriers in the district.

Jennifer Bickham Mendez, Village member and sociology professor at William & Mary, defined a structural barrier as a condition in place that has a disadvantageous impact on a group of students based on their social position.

“If education is truly public then that means it should be accessible to all and we need to think creatively about those barriers and find best practices and solutions,” she said during the meeting.

The evidence of those structural barriers is clear in the numbers, said both Ownby and Amy Quark, another member of the Village.

Data from the Village showed in the 2017-2018 school year, minority students, students identifying as African-Amercian, Hispanic or two or more races, accounted for 68 percent of short-term suspensions and 79 percent of long-term suspensions. However, those students only make up 38 percent of the district’s student population.

“I impress upon you that these numbers do not speak to the failures of the individual students but to the failure of our school system in educating these groups,” said Kayla Aaron, a senior at William & Mary, during the meeting.

One of the main issues that contributes to those numbers, Quark said, was that the staff at schools in the district do not represent the diversity of the students.

At each school, the numbers of minority students greatly outweighs minority teachers, with the most drastic difference being at Laurel Lane Elementary School where in 2017-2018, 45 percent of the students were minority and yet zero percent of teachers were, according to data from the Village.

That’s something that Carter said she noticed on a daily basis in the WJCC school system.

“It was harder to have guidance when it came to teachers,” Carter said. “I didn’t see anyone that looked like me that could be an authority figure when I couldn’t speak up for myself.”

Having individuals that represent students is key to creating equal success, Quark said, adding even the school board lacks diversity with an all-white membership.

Ownby said the district is already trying to correct the issue, by sending recruiting staff to local schools such as Hampton University or Norfolk State.

In addition, to address the issue of diversity, as part of the district’s new strategic plan they have defined the second goal as one to “foster a learning environment that respects the diversity of students and provides targeted, equitable opportunities for success.”

Ownby said there are issues with structural barriers that still need to be addressed, like the handling free and reduced lunch, but the district will continue to work toward a more equitable district.

Something parents like Carter hopes will happen sooner rather than later.

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