Hartford teens explore racism in their schools during a summer study
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
August 22, 2007
This year’s Institute of Community Research’s summer youth research program got off to a later start than usual. Each year, the ICR has a group of Hartford youth look into a topic through interviews, surveys and other field research, then analyze the findings. Past topics explored during the six-week programs have included teen hustling, teen stress and students dropping out from school.
For the 2007 session, the topic was a matter of intense debate, with one faction wanting to explore drugs and alcohol abuse and another wanting to explore racism.
The two sides debated. The passionate arguments presented by Sherrie Mark, 15, who argued that racism should be the topic, swayed the crowd.
“She was real emotional. She talked about how racism isn’t just in the schools and things, but it’s in general. She said it’s hurting other people, and affects the community,” said Yaritza Flores, a 15-year-old Hartford student and part of the project. Flores, who initially sided with studying drugs and alcohol abuse, said she was swayed by Mark’s argument.
Speaking with Mark, it was easy to see how she could be so persuasive. She’s a smart and articulate young woman with an acute awareness of the way racism has factored into her life.
“I see it. I feel like when people are in situations, they don’t realize something is racist. They don’t see that someone is talking down to them. I guess I’m more aware of it,” Mark said.
She gave an example from when she was one of few black students in a predominantly Hispanic elementary school classroom with a white teacher.
“When I was younger, in second or third grade, a teacher wouldn’t acknowledge me as her student. She had to pay attention to me, but when it comes to doing my work, I know I did really good in the class,” Marks said. “She didn’t care, and I didn’t get the grades. She paid attention to what the other students did.”
The study reflects the answers of 133 Hartford teen survey takers, who answered questions divided into three categories: race, media and attitudes. Some of the most striking results were the ones pertaining to race in the schools.
The respondents stated that while they viewed the schools as predominantly Hispanic and black, 70.3 percent of the respondents said most of their teachers are white.
The survey also indicated that about a third of the respondents would feel more comfortable with more teachers of color, and 22.5 percent said they felt they had at some time been picked on by a teacher or a staff member because of their race.
Robyn Belek, the chief communications officer for Hartford’s public schools, said that the city actively tries to recruit minority teachers.
“Of course we’d like to have the teachers, as well as administration and whatnot, be reflective of the student population.” Belek said.
Belek pointed to several programs designed, at least in part, to get more black and Hispanic teachers, including the Grow Your Own Program and Teach for America. Minority recruitment is still difficult, Belek said.
“Recruiting minority teachers is a challenge,” Belek said, adding that Connecticut’s unique teacher certification program makes recruiting out of state teachers difficult. Teachers certified in Connecticut, Belek said, aren’t certified to teach in other states, and teachers certified in other states aren’t certified to teach in Connecticut. In addition, Hartford also loses teachers to other parts of the state.
“The issue we have in Hartford is that when minority, highly qualified teachers, other districts are competing for them as well. A district that has more money, like some of these smaller suburban districts, can offer more compensation,” Belek said.
The study also resulted in Docin’ Da Beat, a short, but impressively slick documentary made from the summer’s study. Hartford-area educators like Steve Perry, the principal of Hartford’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School, were interviewed in the 20-minute video as well as participants in the study and people found during field research.
Perry provided one of the most telling quotes about the pervasiveness of racism.
“Racism is like the weather. It’s always there. You’ve got to be prepared for it,” Perry says in the documentary, which the ICR plans on uploading to video Web sites YouTube and Google Video.
In the documentary, the teens talk about how racism creates subtle divisions among inner city high school students. Hispanic and black students, while they are in the same classes, separate themselves socially. That separation, the teens say, creates tensions that sometimes erupt into slurs and fights.
The schools themselves, the students said, were examples of racial inequality.
“One of the main issues we talked about was funding for schools and the type of education you get at public schools in the city as opposed to the ones out in the suburbs,” Mark said.
In the the study, the teens in the program began to explore how racism acts in their own lives. They divided racism into two categories, covert and overt.
“Overt racism is when it’s obvious, when it’s in your face,” Flores said.
Covert racism, Mark said, is more difficult to recognize than overt, but can hurt even more.
“With covert, it’s something that you don’t even notice is racism until you reflect upon it,” Mark said.
The teens said they had noticed how covert racism can worm its way into many aspects of their lives, even shopping.
“I’d be walking around Abercrombie and Fitch, and every ten seconds someone comes up to me and says ‘Can I help you? Need any help?’ ‘No.’ ‘Need any help?’ ‘No,’” Flores said.