Diversity and inclusion is not just a concern for colleges: How advocates hope to bring change to local high school

Days before entering his junior year of high school, Henry Lu watched as protests erupted just 30 minutes away in Ferguson, Missouri. Even though Mike Brown’s death was the talk of the whole nation, Lu and other Edwardsville High School students were told to keep quiet. 

“I remember in 2014 when the Ferguson protests happened,” Lu said. “The administration actually told us we were not allowed to discuss it in class, which I think was a huge lost opportunity in my opinion.”

Asher Denkyirah, 2015 EHS graduate and SIUE graduate assistant for the School of Business’ Department of Management and Marketing, said this was not the only time the school was silent on issues of race. 

“[One year], the school hadn’t done a single thing for Black History Month at all and I was concerned about that … So I emailed the principal and he was apologetic. Then, the next day, I get called down to his office. Basically he was like, ‘Thank you for bringing this month to my attention, but do you want to lead the Black History Month,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, what? … This isn’t my job as a student to do this,’” Denkyirah said. 

Experiences like these inspired Lu, who graduated from EHS in 2016, Denkyriah and other alumni to advocate for EHS to create a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator position. Lu said this was in hopes of not only empowering Black and Indigenous students, but also to create more student allies. 

Denkyriah also said she hopes the new position will improve the experiences of minority students who attend EHS. 

“We were wanting [the district] to work on being more inclusive …. having a system that minority students have a racial and equality and equity officer or administrator that has the tools and understanding to combat those kinds of [uncomfortable situations] on school grounds,” Denkyirah said. “One of the concerns that [minority students] had [was] that they would have to deal with those things at Edwardsville High School and then go to the administration and they wouldn’t do anything.”

According to the 2019 Illinois Report Card, District 7 schools were made up of students that were 79.77 percent white, 7.65 percent Black, 4.10 percent Hispanic, 2.67 percent Asian, 5.50 percent two or more races and 0.07 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Of those 7.65 percent of Black students, roughly 6.70 percent of them have dropped out. Considering this data, Denkyriah said a DEI coordinator would be especially valuable at EHS.

“There was nothing celebrating the diversity of our country and of course EHS is predominately white, but there are sprinkles of minorities in [the] school systems … We could at least get that chance for a minority to feel like, ‘Oh wow, they’re recognizing me,’” Denkyriah said.

Lu said that DEI coordinators are fairly common within primary and intermediate schools. 

“I worked a little bit in Nashville public schools and they have a racial equity, diversity and inclusion person. I know that most schools in the Chicago district have it as well, because they are a larger school district … They are able to tackle these issues more head-on,” Lu said.

Kristen Dowell, 2014 Edwardsville graduate and academic coordinator for Wichita State Athletics, said the group felt they were closer to reaching their goal after a meeting with the school board. In the meeting, they voiced their concerns to Jason Henderson, superintendent of District 7, and he responded that he wanted to bring a DEI coordinator to the district. However, Dowell said there was later talk of budget concerns. 

“As time went on …  all of a sudden we heard that there were going to be budget restrictions and [the school board] didn’t know if they could put this position in place,” Dowell said. “So that is really when we became even more active because District 7 saying that there [are] budget issues and not hiring someone for diversity, equity and inclusion is very on-brand.”

However, when The Alestle contacted Henderson, he said that  currently, the budget is not a primary constraint.

“There is really not any budget concerns, we have had the plans to do this position pretty much the entire year,” Henderson said. “It’s just a matter of timing, [and] the [school] board has been supportive of it.”

Doris Houston, interim assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion at Illinois State University, said that problems relating to racial and ethnic inequalities at universities often carry over from high school. 

“Some of the same disparities that we are seeing at higher ed, in terms of students who [are] admitted to programs at a university level [and] the level of students who are remaining in programs, all of those disparities really start at the elementary and high school levels,” Houston said.

Additionally, both she and Henderson said having a specific position dedicated to diversity concerns ensures a school’s focus on diversity does not fall by the wayside. 

“To try to have existing staff take on those roles is not likely going to happen,” Houston said. “People, when they have other jobs that they are charged with, and [although] diversity is something that is nice to do, it then becomes secondary if there’s not a designated person to oversee [operations].”

Dowell said EHS’s commitment to diversity should reach beyond obtaining a DEI coordinator.

“There is no one thing that could really bring about diversity, equity and inclusion. But a good starting point would be a diversity and inclusion coordinator for District 7,” Dowell said. “I really feel as if [a curriculum focused on diversity training] is a good route, but also just implementing a more diverse curriculum would serve its purpose. Right now, I would say a lot of the things that I learned about being Black in America is Black history through my parents.”

Visit the SIUE Institutional Diversity and Inclusion website to learn more about diversity at SIUE. 

 

 

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