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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

African-American education leaders address inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the plight of many minority students and their families, a statewide panel of African American educators agreed during a webinar this week.

Among the panelists was Spokane Public Schools board of directors president Jerrall Haynes, who sounded a tone that was at once critical and hopeful.

“This is one of the very few times in history that the vast major of our community members are experiencing some heartache and struggle at the same time,” said Haynes, the only panelist from east of the Cascades.

“But at the same time, there is an awakening by some community members … who were not able or willing to understand the struggles of our most marginalized community members, especially in 2020.”

Another panelist, consultant Thelma Jackson of Lacey, Washington, was more direct.

“COVID has yanked the scab off what has been happening around the country” in terms of awareness, said Jackson, a former school board member who served on task forces and advisory councils for five Washington governors.

Wednesday’s webinar, sponsored by the nonprofit League of Education Voters, began shortly after news broke that a grand jury declined to file homicide charges against Louisville police in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman.

The panelists didn’t bring up that controversy, but discussed education issues in the context of Black Lives Matter.

The Spokane Public Schools board has already done that, noted Haynes, who this summer led discussions that brought about a board resolution centered on racial equity.

That work is “really changing the very foundation and the backbone of our historically racist educational institution,” Haynes said.

Haynes was quick to note that this was a national problem, that “racism was built into the very foundation of our educational system, and now we have to be very intentional about embedding anti-racism into the foundation … so that we can truly make sure that we are providing excellence for everyone.”

The other panelists were Debrena Gandy, a best-selling author and former college trustee; Rashad Norris, director of Community Engagement at Highline College; and Timmie Foster, head of the College and Career Readiness office at the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Haynes set the tone for much of the discussion. Putting himself in the shoes of a student of color, he said that if a teacher “believed in me and genuinely trusted me, I would go to the ends of the earth to get an A … but if I felt that a teacher didn’t trust me or was out to get me, even to my own detriment, I could care less.”

In Spokane, Haynes said, the district is attempting to build that trust through anti-racist and culturally responsive training for all staff – “ongoing, not a one-time thing,” he said – and working to increase student voices and make students “feel safe and supportive enough to be able to bring forth conversations.”

The panelists also tackled the immediate issue of distance learning during the pandemic. At the top of the list is the lack of connectivity for many families.

“There doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgment about the digital divide,” Jackson said. “It’s an assumption that parents are home, and that can’t be farther from the truth.

“Many families don’t have the help they need,” Jackson said.

Jim Allen can be reached at (509) 459-5437 or by email at