Students call for ‘anti-racist’ curricula override, increased diversity in School of Education

Two people walk by the VCU sign on Shafer Street. Photo by Jon Mirador

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

A group of VCU students are awaiting a plan from the School of Education three weeks after releasing a petition that asked for “anti-racist” curricula and practices as well as diversified course readings and training.

Erin Hanley, a doctoral student in VCU’s counseling education program, said The Collective is an organization of School of Education students who feel as though they have a duty to promote anti-racist education in academia.

Hanley said the killing of Black people, including incidents that led to summer protests in cities across the county, paralleled the silencing of Black voices within the school. 

“There are certain personal instances and instances of others that I can say have definitely made me feel like I was unimportant, unheard, misunderstood,” Hanley said. “I think the same can be seen with the murder of Black people that we see.”

Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police during a raid of her Louisville apartment in March. George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody in May with an officer’s knee on his neck, which sparked protests against racial injustice.

We want to emphasize that this is hard work, but we’re asking for things that are necessary,” –– Aliza Lambert, doctoral counseling education student

The organization released a petition on Sept. 16 that asks the school to address what they call “evident” institutional racism and “oppressive, dismissive, and offensive” responses to calls for equity and anti-racism in curricula and research. 

Dean Andrew Daire said in an email the School of Education will have a plan to share with The Collective by Oct. 28. Daire said the plan will address student engagement, course evaluations, incident reporting and structures to hold others accountable.

Daire said the School of Education aims to diversify curricula and facilitate conversations about racial equity and injustice as part of a two-year plan.

“The VCU School of Education takes student concerns and requests very seriously; and I believe we do better as an academic institution,” Daire said in an email.

The petition states the school researches minority groups without an understanding of their history and lacks diversity in student population and course readings. The group is demanding development in courses, career offerings and faculty training. Points include:

Course Development

  • Develop curricula that covers the history of white supremacy and includes Richmond context 
  • Allow students to review syllabi three weeks prior to start of spring 2021 classes 
  • Choose required readings authored by less than 40% white males and less than 60% men
  • Incorporate theories and philosophies of diverse critical theorists
  • Create course evaluations that specifically address diversity, equity and inclusion of diverse perspectives
  • Develop a process for reviewing course complaints  

Career Development

  • Enforce annual training on human rights and employment law for professors and graduate students offered assistantships, which involve part-time teaching or researching
  • Starting in October 2021, release a report of assistantships that discloses percentages of marginalized groups in each program
  • Conduct a semesterly review of graduate school advisors and advisees

Faculty Training and Development

  • Offer professional development that addresses racial identity and discrimination, systemic and institutional racism, power hierarchies and white supremacy
  • Give students the ability to opt-out of classes with professors who are not meeting anti-racist standards

Music education major Derek Cobbs Jr. said he felt most of the demands could be accomplished feasibly, however, he had doubts about being able to successfully diversify course documents in the music department. He specifically mentioned music history and literature.

Cobbs said he has never experienced racial profiling as a Black student, but he is disappointed in VCU’s lack of transparency on the issue. He said VCU could do more to acknowledge their role in systemic racism in the Richmond area, particularly through the gentrification of the city.

“Their efforts aren’t as big as I would like them to be,” Cobbs said. “But it is something, and for me that means more than nothing.”

The senior said he had conversations with french horn professor Patrick Smith about expanding diversity within the curriculum.

Smith, the VCUarts coordinator of music history, knew diversifying course material was his call. He and music history and oboe professor Alyssa McKeithen teach two of the required music history classes for music majors and came up with changes together. 

In order to include more women and people of color, Smith and McKeithen decided to split the music history curriculum into themes rather than time periods. Smith said the curriculum needs to include major names like Beethoven and Mozart, but there should be more than one or two non-white male composers discussed.

“We want to be much more inclusive,” Smith said. “We want to be able to show a lot more diversity and show a bigger picture.”

Aliza Lambert, doctoral counseling education student and member of The Collective, said permanent change takes time but that she believes the School of Education is taking action to create anti-racist poliices.

We want to emphasize that this is hard work, but we’re asking for things that are necessary,” Lambert said.

1 Comment

  1. I commend the Collective’s efforts. I hold an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from VCU, and completed requirements for a teaching certificate while in the M.Ed. program. I hope VCU teacher preparation since my time (1992) has added courses and other training opportunities to help teachers better understand the needs of students, as well as understand the dynamics of being a white teacher (I’m white) in a majority Black school. I emerged from the program very unprepared to help my students, mostly Black, and most of whom (Black and white) who were reading way below grade level, and some who were returning from juvenile detention programs to re-enter the regular classroom. I admitted defeat after just a few weeks of “teaching” which was mostly my effort to keep peace in the classroom. I had little support from the principal of the school (middle) and the other teachers were not able to help me. It seemed like we were all drowning, and I made it to shore and never got in the waters again. I believe better preparation from VCU and better support, from VCU and from the middle school administration, would have helped me stick it out in the classroom. Thankfully, I was able to use my graduate education preparation in higher ed., working with adult students. But I wonder how many other beginning teachers have had similar experiences to mine.

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