So You Want to Talk About Racial Literacy?

Jordan Millar, Managing Editor

In January 2019, Poly had a racist incident in which a video of students in blackface surfaced, outraging students and faculty. Director of Engagement and Communications Jennifer Slomack said in a statement to the Brooklyn Paper that Poly was “committing to working with an outside organization that will evaluate the school’s efforts to advance diversity and inclusion.”

The summer of 2020, intensified by a global pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests set off by the police killing of George Floyd, created a push for the acknowledgement and reevaluation of the role that racism plays in American life. 

In the midst of the movement, Black alumni and current students at New York City’s top private schools began creating social media pages such as “Black at Brearley” and “Black at Chapin” to expose their experiences with school racism and discrimination. 

As schools sought to address racism, the focus shifted from diversity to racial literacy, and the skills to constructively talk about race and respond to incidents of bias. Many schools turned to the New York based non-profit Pollyanna, including Avenues, Brearley, Dalton, Horace Mann and Riverdale. Founded by Casper Caldarola in 2015, the organization supports schools in fostering inclusivity through its racial literacy curricula.  

Over three years later, though Poly has hired third-party DEIB consultants, it has not partnered with Pollyanna or any outside racial literacy organization, nor has it maintained a consistent Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). These factors have left racial literacy in the Middle and Upper School unsteady and largely ineffective, while the Lower School has independently implemented its own formal racial literacy program. The disparities in racial literacy implementation across grade levels means that awareness and conversations about race, issues of racism, and microaggressions are not being uniformly addressed.


What Is Racial Literacy? 

Racial literacy is “the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful social interactions, ” according to Dr. Howard C. Stevenson, a psychologist and University of Pennsylvania professor of Education and Africana Studies in his book Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference. 

In a recent interview, Dr. Jackson Collins, Executive Director of Prep for Prep, a program that gives students of color an equal opportunity to attend independent schools, said “I see diversity as who is included in the community, and I see racial literacy as how you respond to the racialized world around us.” 

Stevenson emphasizes the importance of having a clear diversity mission and racial literacy strategy in school environments. “Educational leaders who cannot articulate a vision, plan, and educational curricular goal for diversity may be setting up their schools for failure in race relations.” He also states “It is my contention that without an explicit racial socialization strategy, avoidance will remain the default and most practiced coping option.” 

In 2020, Poly Prep faculty attended a presentation by Collins, in which he noted that microaggressions discourage students of color from participating in school activities or asking for help. Collins cited a 2018 study, indicating that girls of color have a more challenging time than boys. He explained that with racial literacy as part of the curriculum, students are less likely to internalize negative stereotypes, and instead focus on academic achievement and engagement. 

In a Poly Prep website article about the presentation, Michal Hershkovitz, Assistant Head of School, Academics said “I was struck, saddened, and challenged by the data, all of which point to a pressing need for us to actively eradicate microaggressions and other manifestations of racism in our school.”

Two years later, Hershkovitz, reflecting on the current state of racial literacy at Poly, stated in an email to the Polygon “Since the well-being of students and employees is our chief priority, we continue to explore multifaceted means of improving the community’s racial literacy, and our administration and faculty in all divisions promote it in various ways. But there is always more to learn.”


Racial Literacy at Other New York City Independent Schools 

Independent schools throughout New York City have taken varying approaches to implementing racial literacy. According to Horace Mann’s Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity, the school has “adapted selections from this [Pollyanna] curriculum in order to allow us to think more critically about the ways we teach our students.” Nightingale-Bamford’s website states racial equity (literacy) is “defined by Teaching Tolerance as having the skills and dispositions that allow us to create and sustain equitable and just learning environments for all families and students’’ and provides an outline of how it is implemented across grades.

Comparatively, at Poly Prep, while there is a “Commitment to Racial Equity and Social Justice” on its website, there is no mention of a racial literacy policy. There is a section titled “Dismantling Racism Requires Education,” which states “From Nursery to Grade 12, inclusion and equity are woven through our curricula and across our academic, arts, and athletics programs.” 


Racial Literacy in the Middle and Upper School 

According to Poly’s website, 47 percent of its students and 34 percent of its teaching faculty identify as people of color. In the Middle and Upper Schools, there are 16 affinity and alliance groups for students to “talk about topics surrounding race, prejudice and equity,” said Head of Middle School Andre Del Valle Jr. in an email to the Polygon. 

“We looked carefully at our curriculum to ensure that we didn’t perpetuate a narrative of white supremacy, systems of implicit and explicit bias,” according to Hershkovitz. The goal of these curriculum changes was to achieve a sense of inclusivity that all students would feel. “And our curriculum today looks very different than [it] did even five years ago. We are very intentional in our departments, and notably the departments where so much of the conversation has to directly address issues of race. And we’re also aware how much further we have to go,” Hershkovitz added. 

While the school has made a concerted effort to improve overall diversity within the Middle and Upper School curriculum, its implementation of racial literacy across classes and grade levels is unclear. 

“I wish I could say that — Yes, Poly defines racial literacy as this. It’s a really hard question because we don’t have one definition of it yet, and we need to work towards that for sure,” said Head of Upper School Sarah Bates. 

Though subjects such as history and English naturally lend themselves to conversations regarding race and racism, emphasis on racial literacy is sporadic. “If we’re thinking about the current United States, obviously our U.S. history courses probably cover it [racial literacy] more than our world history courses,” said History Department Chair Maggie Moslander. She acknowledges that the department still needs formal methods to properly implement racial literacy education holistically. “I know that we don’t have sort of an explicit racial literacy guide. [But] we’re always looking at the most up to date research on building positive identity development for students, [and] in equipping students with these skills.”

English Department Chair Peter Nowakoski said that “part [of racial literacy] is ‘how do we write sensitively about identity in mature ways?’…We’re never going to say the N-word out loud… but we acknowledge this exists in texts because we want to deal with difficult material.” As of addressing ways of measuring the effectiveness of the department’s approach to racial literacy, Nowakoski said, “I don’t know and I haven’t come up with anything.” 

Science Teacher Erika Freeman, who took on the role of Interim Chair of DEIB following the departure of former Director Dr. Omari Keeles, said “I certainly haven’t defined racial literacy. I know [in] the Lower School that’s a part of their regular practice. I don’t know that it’s a part of anyone’s regular practice in academic context up here [at the Middle and Upper School] except for our departments.”


A Comparison of Racial Literacy in the Lower School

Poly Prep’s Head of Lower School Dr. Francis Yasharian, is taking a more formal approach, implementing five steps towards achieving racial literacy, diversity, and anti-racism. He explained that these include cultivating a positive racial identity development for all students, introducing and understanding fairness, developing an understanding of agency, and establishing perspective through the examination of history and current events from a variety of viewpoints. 

The concept of shared terminology is the last of the Lower School’s five steps. “We want to have shared terminology, so [when] we talk about empathy, race, microaggression[s]…we all know what we’re talking about,” said Yasharian. 

According to Yasharian, “The anti-racist read aloud program is their main vehicle for teaching and developing those five skills with our students.” The monthly initiative was first introduced in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. A committee of Lower School teachers selects books for classes to read together, and creates related discussion questions and activities. But the work extends beyond the classroom – read alouds are recorded and shared with parents to continue discussions at home. 

Pre-Kindergarten Head Teacher and Lower School Diversity Coordinator Olugbala Williams, was part of the push to establish Lower School affinity groups. He noted plans to further diversify the Lower School curriculum, which will be “for everyone’s benefit but particularly for people of color.” “You have to understand that in order to learn well and feel good about your education, you have to see yourself represented. There’s literature, history, and also deconstructing the lies that have been told and reintroducing the reality,” Williams added. 

In explaining the contrast between racial literacy at the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools, Yasharian stated that in the younger grades “everything is embedded and integrated. One set of teachers is teaching every day.” This year, the Lower School’s five steps will be a part of students’ report cards for the first time.  


The Challenges of Implementing Schoolwide Racial Literacy at Poly 

According to Bates, an overall lack of shared terminology makes a schoolwide racial literacy program challenging. “We all need to have the same answer to that question [of what racial literacy looks like at Poly] in the same way in which we have a mission statement for the school…across all divisions, including our parent body and our alumni.” 

Head of School Audrius Barzdukas agrees. “Those four letters – DEIB: Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. I think it would be helpful if we had a shared understanding of what those words mean…I’m not sure that we do as a community.” Recently, the school hosted Poly Connected and Civics Day, which included an activity in which students defined and developed an understanding of the acronym DEIB. 

Faculty and members of administration have also attributed the school’s lack of racial literacy to the inconsistency of the DEIB Director role. Without a steady faculty member to oversee its implementation, racial literacy efforts have remained relatively static. Freeman says “There have been different people in this position over the years who have had different kinds of priorities” and consistency is “probably really helpful when we think about programs and plans for school as opposed to things that happen for a short amount of time.” 

Similarly, Bates stated “I would venture to say that the…turnover that we’ve had over the past few years in our DEI directorship definitely contributes to not having some sustainable programs in place.”

She added that the school’s history of race and diversity related incidents have made racial literacy implementation difficult, especially in working with outside organizations. “Moments of crisis are not a great time to start implementing new systems, and we’ve had a few different very unfortunate crises over the past four or five years. In retrospect, if we had some of these programs in place, restorative justice organizations, that sort of thing…” Bates said.

When asked about Poly’s handling of racial incidents, Junior Danielle Jason said in a text message to the Polygon, “I feel like Poly has been trying to get better with their responses over the years, but I feel like they’re known for having a very reactionary approach rather than being clear about how they could just avoid the problem altogether”(Jason is a layout editor for the Polygon).

According to Collins, a lack of racial literacy within independent schools poses threats for not only students and faculty of color, but the community overall. “When people in the school community don’t have a set of racial literacy skills, it leaves the school community open to a more challenging time if and when something happens. It’s better to do the work beforehand so if something does happen, people can engage in a constructive way.” 

Hershkovitz said in an email to the Polygon, “There was [and] is no particular reason why we have not worked with Pollyanna.” In an in-person interview, she added, “While we haven’t worked with Pollyanna, we have worked with excellent DEIB consultants who have impressed upon us the value and multifaceted nature of their work. In other words, we have chosen consultants based on our needs.” In addition to Collins, other consultants have included Erica Corbin, head of school at The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, and Camille Gear Rich, Professor of Law and Sociology at USC. 

“We want to use approaches that work…So we want to take the aspects of those that work for us, and use those to help achieve better racial literacy,” Barzdukas said. 

With a newly founded DEIB Department led by Freeman and composed of faculty members, the administration hopes diversity work will become easier. 


The Future of Racial Literacy At Poly 

Upper School Dean and History Teacher Dr. Alex Carter acknowledges that the school has an awareness of how to talk about race and racism, and an understanding of what words should and should not be used in classrooms. However, he states “I think maybe having some very specifically outlined [guidance on] what is our approach to racial literacy would be really good.” 

Carter added “We can’t just say racism is bad. We have to have an approach to understanding why. Then that’s racial literacy right, understanding why these things happen.”

When asked if she felt Poly could benefit from a formalized racial literacy plan, Jason responded “I think yes…Obviously they’re trying with things like Poly Connected and all of the assemblies, but I feel like it could be a lot better. The administration could help in encouraging these discussions and give more space for them,” she said. 

Junior Chantal Guthrie is a co-leader of Lemonade, Poly Prep’s Upper School affinity group for black female-identifying students. She said in an email to the Polygon, “Our community has come a long way, but not enough to actually care about racism. I feel like people treat DEIB work and literacy like a class and not necessary skills for survival.” 

When asked if she had thought about developing plans for improving racial literacy at the school, Freeman responded “I haven’t. And now that you’ve brought it up, I will.”

“I am very thankful and looking forward to Mrs. Freeman’s leadership of this work,” Bates said, noting that Freeman “knows how to speak to groups of us in a language in which we can all understand. And I say that because everyone’s at a different place with this work [racial literacy].” 

“I have a lot of faith,” Bates continued. “I’ve had faith before and been disappointed, but this feels a little bit different. The faith that I have and the hope and belief feels anchored in something that it wasn’t anchored in [before].”