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Public school data shows that black students are less likely to be labeled gifted than their white classmates and more likely to be suspended. An elementary school teacher in Indiana is trying to break that cycle by getting her colleagues to talk openly about race and discrimination. Peter Balonon-Rosen of Indiana Public Broadcasting has the story.
PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: Suspension for many black students can be for things like disrespect, non-compliance - situations that require a judgment call. And that's important because what happens if a teacher's attitude towards race clouds that judgment?
AYANA COLES: Just fill in wherever.
BALONON-ROSEN: That's Ayana Coles. She's a teacher here at Eagle Creek Elementary in Indianapolis. In her room after school, it's hot, and the fans are on.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are we just sitting around here, Ayana, or...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Anywhere.
BALONON-ROSEN: Coles is black and one of just four teachers of color at the school. Throughout last year, she gathered co-workers in her classroom for open discussions on race.
COLES: We are going to experience discomfort. We may or may not experience it, but if we have it, it's OK.
BALONON-ROSEN: Her goal - talk about race and biases that teachers could unconsciously bring to class. Coles says her son's schools have left him behind, that he's been suspended for minor reasons, that his teachers have never really connected with him. She wants teachers here to do better. Each meeting hits a different topic.
COLES: We talked about unquestioned assumptions like some parents or groups of people have no value of education or their parents are uneducated.
BALONON-ROSEN: This isn't a formal program. The 20 teachers gathered, including speech pathologist Dorothy Gerve, are here on their own time. She's the only other black teacher in the room.
DOROTHY GERVE: I actually had someone ask me, why don't black people speak right? And it threw me.
BALONON-ROSEN: Coles steers the group toward a discussion about Ebonics. When students use it, she says, it can trigger biases from teachers - who's smart, who's not.
COLES: I can remember being younger and if I used standard English, I'd feel like I was acting white. And so I was opposed to it because I wanted to embrace my culture and heritage, so...
BALONON-ROSEN: Coles says understanding cultural differences and privilege might get teachers to acknowledge then address their own biases.
COLES: I'm going to stop in a moment and let people - do you want to talk?
JASON COONS: Yeah, can I ask you something?
COLES: Yeah, go ahead.
BALONON-ROSEN: Jason Coons, who teaches music, tells the group that in a school where most students are students of color, he feels some don't trust him as a white teacher.
COONS: At the end of the day, I'm just frustrated...
COONS: ...With the fact that I don't feel like I can do anything about it. It's just...
COLES: I think that the - I have no answer for you, but this is what I will tell you. I absolutely was taught to not trust white people until I got to college.
COONS: Well, I was taught not to trust black people, so...
COLES: (Laughter) I get it.
BALONON-ROSEN: These sessions can get raw. But Jason Coons, who grew up in Alabama, says he's looking at things a little differently.
COONS: Like, what I think is misbehavior - OK, is this really actually something that needs to be addressed, or is this just because it's so different from what I grew up with that I view this as offensive?
BALONON-ROSEN: He says he's still learning.
COONS: I mean I'm thinking about the kids, but I mean I'm still growing as a person quite a bit, too, so...
BALONON-ROSEN: And Ayana Coles says she's helping her students break the silence on these tough topics, too. So I ask her, which group is it easier to have these conversations with?
COLES: Kids because they're honest. They're just like, this is what I think, so this is what I'm going to say - absolutely kids.
BALONON-ROSEN: Kids, like 9-year-old Lynae Gude. She says Coles, her teacher, helped her think a lot about the role both power and perspective have in the world.
LYNAE GUDE: Like, if you look at the world and you see negativity, you can be an advocate and say something about it.
BALONON-ROSEN: For NPR News, I'm Peter Balonon-Rosen.
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