Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

The New Haven public school system — along with Students for Educational Justice, or SEJ — were recently awarded a $600,000 grant over three years to bolster their anti-racist teaching efforts. 

The two organizations plan on working closely with the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective to develop and implement a more diverse curriculum throughout K-12 public schools in the system. The grant was provided by the Advancing Community-School Partnerships fund of the Nellie Mae Foundation, which emphasizes collaborations between the public school system and community organizations. Grants awarded through this branch are often shared between two or more groups. For the anti-racist teaching project, which will be allocating funds to professional development training and community advocacy projects for racial justice in schools, New Haven Public School Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Ivelise Velazquez will be overseeing the $272,168 going into the school district, with the remaining $327,832 going to SEJ.

“Systemic racism is something that impacts every part of education,” Velazquez said. “In order to dismantle systemic racism, we need to consider every piece of it policy, practices and procedure.” 

Current education standards in the United States capitalize on the “white, male perspective,” leaving other cultures out of the conversation in the classroom setting, according to Velazquez. She added that we need to do more than adhere to educational “objectivity and neutrality,” especially when such neutrality is “narrow” and fails to capture the histories and stories of communities of color.

Rather, schools should shift their attention towards designing a more diverse curriculum that includes ethnic studies, said Vy Tran, the lead organizer of SEJ. 

To combat the educational norms present in the public school system, the district plans to utilize grant money to create a multi-faceted project that involves parent, student and teacher participants alike.

“This effort will require the commitment and insights of the entire community,” New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Iline Tracey said. 

According to Velazquez, the project will consist of four distinct areas, which includes continuing professional workshops on culturally relevant pedagogy and working with school administration to uphold anti-racist policies and teaching.

In an email to the News, SEJ Executive Director Rashanda McCollum wrote that the district is awaiting approval from the Board of Education to pilot a 12-week Anti-Racist Teachers Institute, where cohorts of New Haven Public Schools’ high school instructors will reflect on personal racial identities, learn about racism in educational history and analyze teaching models “for liberation.” According to McCollum, this particular program is scheduled to be in place by mid-November and will take place at least three times — once during each year of grant funding. 

Velazquez said that a big part of fostering community engagement involves partnerships with local youth groups committed to classroom equity, such as the SEJ. 

“[SEJ] will develop a new series of trainings designed and led by NHPS students,” McCollum wrote. “Our goal is to … elevate the experiences and voices of educators and students, utilizing collaborative planning and decision-making processes, and holding shared accountability in operating with a racial equity lens.” 

McCollum emphasized that the grant represents a shift in attitude from students sitting at a table sharing their concerns to having their opinions heavily considered in district education policymaking.

The SEJ is also working on projects outside of the grant that seek to achieve racial justice in public schools. Since 2019, board members of the organization have solicited feedback from New Haven public high school students on barriers to academic success and happiness. The two overarching responses alluded to police presence in schools as well as a lack of mental health resources, Tran said.

With these concerns in mind, the organization is also spearheading a new effort called the S.O.S. campaign. The campaign advocates for the removal of student resource officers, stating that schools should instead be hiring more school therapists of color, counselors and social workers to support students with their mental health and self-image.  

The next SEJ event, “Dismantling the Culture of Policing in Schools,” is scheduled to take place on Thursday, Oct. 27. 

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!