Challenging Racism Seeks to Meet Demand in Arlington

Funding is in question.

“The budget is very obscure. Ten years ago you could see line items for every single person and what they were getting paid. You could look in the budget and know what was funded and what was not.” — Martha Swaim, Challenging Racism Executive Director

“Challenging Racism,” the program designed to battle racism in Arlington, is sponsoring a 5K run/walk on May 4 to raise funds for programs it thought Arlington County would be funding. But they aren’t. Or they might be. No one is quite sure.

“Budget cuts are not tied directly to Challenging Racism (CR), as we are a contractor,” said Marty Swaim, Challenging Racism’s executive director. “The way the cuts manifest themselves for us is that only one group of conversations on race and equity for parents is put out for bid, instead of three. So in 2017-18 we were paid by APS to do three groups. Last year we were paid for one group. In the base budget, $40,000 was included for parent conversations on race and equity, but it was not all spent. Seventy-five thousand dollars was added by the school board last year for conversations on race and equity for teachers and students. To my knowledge, no contracts were put out for bids for conversations on race and equity with students. The sole contract for teachers was for five individual lead teachers to be trained.”

“The other budget impact this year is on Equity and Excellence Coordinators (formerly minority achievement) being deleted at the high school level, and a position in the central office for this service being deleted,” Swaim said.

The 2016 program evaluation for Minority Achievement recommended that these coordinators be increased to full time because parents whose students used their services were very satisfied. This budget increase was made.

Swaim got involved in the program “Challenging Racism” for a number of reasons: she was raised in an active civil rights family in Pennsylvania. Her family was at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. “I never knew I was White,” she said. Swaim was a member of the DC School Board and worked on budgets. She knows there is always money in the budget, somewhere. “You just go to the Administration. Board members found money for the Equity and Excellence program last time from the furniture budget. APS had budgeted money for furniture but in a completely different part of the budget, they had decided against furnishing the space. So there was a pot of unspent money. The budget is so opaque, particularly in the Teaching and Learning section. There are 305 or more positions there,” said Swaim.

“I ran for the D.C. School Board because my kids were playing with kids who were in the school system and they were being failed by the system. We moved to Arlington then because we had four children. I started teaching at Wakefield High School and had kids in ninth grade history class who could do it all except they couldn’t write. I started nosing around. It wasn’t about money or the quality of teachers, and it definitely wasn’t about the kids. I found out the key is teacher expectations. That’s when I realized how socialized we are about race to the idea that, ‘Black is lesser, White is better’, whether we intend it or not.” and “how we often don’t expect these kids to be able to write. We need to change those attitudes.”

“Part of our issue with the school system,” she said, “is that two years ago we did four programs — three were paid for by APS and the fourth was paid by us. That year there were still 40 people on the waiting list. We would like to be able to get those parents talking about race, racism and building the skills to disrupt it.”

Arlington students have spoken in the last few weeks of budget meetings about the difficulties they faced being the only African Americans or Hispanics in their AP classes, and how they had arrived at local high schools feeling they couldn’t connect with students who had lived in north Arlington all their lives.

“Parents are interested in this, for themselves and for their children. They want to be able to talk with their children about race and equity. More dollars for race and equity training were in the 2019 budget passed last May than have been spent. Twenty thousand dollars remained in the budget for conversations with parents that never happened. Why not?”

When asked about this, Frank Bellavia, Arlington County Public Schools spokesman said the funds were allocated to support opportunities for staff, students, and families to engage in professional learning and conversations related to equity and diversity. The funds were not specifically allocated to Challenging Racism. “Through a ‘Request for Quotes’ process, Challenging Racism was selected to facilitate two parent groups on this topic and Gary Howard was selected to provide equity training to an APS staff leadership team.”

Swaim commented that Bellavia may not have known that one contract for parents for conversations on equity and diversity was offered, not two.

One of the reasons Swaim is concerned about this year’s budget involves the EIP/GMU Equity and Excellence program that works to identify students from families with no previous college graduates. The program sends students who follow it through high school to George Mason University.

Bellavia said the Equity and Excellence EIP Program is not being cut. There are some proposed staffing and program reductions, but the focus on equity and excellence as supported by the team will still be in place. These reductions do not have an impact on the George Mason program.

“Parents are interested in Challenging Racism and the community wants programs like this,” Swaim said. “The Arlington Community Foundation has provided funding for some of the programming. But it would facilitate planning if Arlington County Public Schools, whose strategic goals dovetail those of Challenging Racism, would pay more dollars for race and equity training, a goal that can be fulfilled by this important program.”

The APS strategic goals highlight excellence, equity, inclusivity, integrity, collaboration, innovation, and stewardship.

Upcoming meetings on the budget process are: April 9 – Budget Work Session #6; April 11 - School Board’s Proposed FY2020 Budget, April 12 - School Board’s Presentation to the County Board, May 2 - Public hearing on School Board’s Proposed Budget, and May 9, School Board’s Adopted FY2020 Budget.

To learn more about Challenging Racism, see: www.ChallengingRacism.org.

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