As a Park Hill high school junior, Shereka Barnes was denied a role in a play. She said her drama teacher told her the school couldn’t handle the controversy of a Black girl kissing a white boy.
Now, 30 years later, Barnes sits on the school board for Park Hill School District — one of two new members elected in April.
But the drama teacher’s comments have stuck with her. Her two daughters — now in college — also experienced incidents of bias in Park Hill schools.
Barnes’ history with the district has convinced her that its racial justice issues go much deeper than the recent incidents that made the news.
“Everybody wants to act like a lot of the stuff that’s going on now is new, but I think the difference is that it’s just (on) social media and more recorded,” she said.
But Barnes hasn’t given up on Park Hill’s potential, and there are signs the district is building momentum around equity and inclusion.
“Current events in society and in our nation and in our community have definitely proven to us that we have greater work to do,” said Terri Deayon, the district’s director of access, inclusion and family engagement. “But it’s been encouraging to see our work and the things that we’ve been doing this year begin to take shape.”
Barnes and Daryl Terwilleger, the other newly elected school board member, both highlighted issues of diversity and belonging in their campaigns. They each received more than 22% of the votes, beating out the other six candidates.
Terwilleger declined an interview for this story.
Educating Park Hill school community on helping, not hurting
Several incidents at Park Hill have garnered media attention.
In February, a teacher was allowed to retire after he repeated the N-word to a student. In September, students circulated a petition to bring back slavery.
Other area districts and private schools have also made the news for similar issues, including teachers using slurs or making racist comments.
But the district wants to address less public examples of bias as well.
Barnes said parents tell her stories about inappropriate comments made to them or their children, like a teacher preemptively worrying about a young Black student causing trouble.
She has some stories of her own, too.
In one case, a teacher didn’t intervene when a student told her daughter her opinion didn’t matter because she was Black.
A counselor questioned why Barnes’ other daughter wanted to take Advanced Placement biology. When she explained she wanted to be a doctor, the counselor said there weren’t many doctors who looked like her.
“She came to me, and I had to go up there and say, like, ‘Who are you to discourage a student who wants to be something or do something with herself?’” Barnes said.
Her daughter got the highest grade in the class and is now a pre-med student, Barnes said, but she’s worried some students don’t share their experiences or don’t have support to address them.
Deayon — who spoke with The Beacon alongside her fellow co-chairs of the Park Hill Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Council — said the district is working to educate people on how comments can hurt people or make them feel they don’t belong.
Examples include asking to touch someone’s hair or expressing surprise that someone speaks English well.
June LeBlanc, a council co-chair and parent of three in the district, said students aren’t always encouraged to be respectful of others through pop culture and social media.
“What we want to do is to make sure that when students come in through those doors, when teachers come in to teach, when vendors come into the doors, they feel like they can be their authentic selves, they don’t have to feel like they have to put on or they have to prove themselves,” she said.
“If I am an African American 12-year-old and I told my teacher, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ I shouldn’t have my teacher say, ‘Well, are you sure you can do that?’”
Instead, the teacher should react with understanding and refer the student to opportunities and resources, LeBlanc said.
Danny Todtfeld, a council co-chair and principal at Prairie Point Elementary, said kids can’t focus on their schoolwork if they have to devote two-thirds of their brain power to assimilating.
“We just want to make sure (that) when kids come to school, nothing adds more stress that stops them from learning,” he said.
The commission strives to address all types of diversity, including gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, ability and language, Deayon said.
Elisa Neilson, a parent who founded Park Hill Parents for Public Schools and is part of a parent DEIB council at Park Hill South, said LGBTQ students need particular focus.
“They’re getting mistreated by (the) legislature … social media, everywhere,” she said. “I think it’s important for our schools to make sure that they feel safe.”
One struggle for those doing diversity work in the district is pushback from some community members.
“When we sit down and actually have, like, one-on-one conversations with people, no one can really argue with what we’re doing,” Todtfeld said. “We’re trying to make a place where all students feel safe, all students are accepted and all students are respected.”
But he’s become more aware of ways the district’s actions could be mischaracterized.
For example, when parents learned that elementary students had come out at LGBTQ, some of them thought the district was teaching young children about sexual preferences.
That isn’t true, Todtfeld said. But it is true that LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ parents need to feel like they belong.
Tracie Rezzelle, a parent of two district students who worked on Terwilleger’s campaign and also supported Barnes, said the election revealed to her the resistance facing the district. Some candidates and their supporters equated Black history with critical race theory or referred to DEI efforts as “reverse racism.”
But Rezzelle said she sees the election results as a hopeful sign.
“I also believe that there are many people who recognize that we have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Deayon said she was encouraged by how informed and engaged voters were around DEI topics.
“I think our crisis situations have shown our community that we’ve got work to do and room for growth,” she said. “And so therefore, I think that was a huge and significant factor in this recent school board election, as far as what community members were looking for and listening for.”
How change happens
Deayon said the district has made improvements related to DEI over the years, but that the efforts now are more organized and intentional.
For example, after realizing the gifted program wasn’t diverse, the district worked to change that — not by lowering the IQ standards but by inviting a broader pool of students to test for the program and ensuring the tests weren’t biased.
Park Hill also incorporated equity and access into its strategic plan, worked with consultants and community partners, and is removing barriers to students accessing programs — for example, by providing transportation and eliminating fees.
The district Access and Inclusion page also notes that it’s working on improving staff diversity and eliminating disparities in discipline.
A Beacon report last fall found the district referred Black students to law enforcement at more than twice the rate for white students, though it reported no arrests.
A district timeline of access and inclusion efforts begins in 2015 and becomes more detailed with Deayon’s hiring in mid-2021. One of her initial projects was to begin assembling the DEIB Council.
The council has encouraged broader participation by holding forums for the community, staff and students.
Ryann Banks, the student co-chair on the council, said the forums are a comprehensive attempt to improve.
“We’re learning from incidents that have happened in the past, and things that are coming up now,” they said. “This isn’t just something that, ‘Oh, here’s an incident, let’s just create something to cover that up.’ No, this is a part of us. We are growing as a district.”
One trend emerging in conversations is that people want more diverse staff.
Barnes said she wants the district to set goals and targets to improve teacher and staff diversity.
There’s a shortage of teachers of color nationwide and statewide, but she suggested Park Hill could work on recruiting its own students and helping to support their education if they return to the district as teachers.
Barnes, who’s serving a three-year term, said the district can’t delay moving from gathering input to enacting real change.
“The point of me telling my story isn’t to make people feel bad,” Barnes said. “The point of me telling my story is to say, look, this has been going on for 30 years. We need to get it together.”