Essay: K-16 Public Education Must Embrace All Humanity

I grew up circa 1980s-90s on Manchester’s West side, where I always lived close enough to walk to school. My French-Canadian parents adopted me from Korea, and I arrived on American soil sometime in 1977. Though my own mother never went to college, she dreamed of her children getting the chance she never did.

Ours was a home of love, and yet, I was raised to not see color. My parents let me know that I was loved just like my natural-born brothers. And they made sure I knew I was just like every other American girl — just as smart, maybe even smarter.

I tried to be the epitome of an American girl, but ultimately by high school, my grades slipped, my behaviors grew risky, and I failed every class during the fourth quarter of my senior year. I felt alone, numb, and I hated myself for not being able to deliver on the promise — whose promise I didn’t know. Manchester was just not equipped to embrace me in my full Korean-French-Canadian-adopted-awkward humanity.

Despite my lackluster high school performance, Plymouth State College accepted me. My first class was College Composition with Dr. Petersen and was known for being a lot of work. And though it was, we chose our own topics. We were allowed to use the word “I.”

We were taught that objectivity isn’t objective; instead, it was much more productive and authentic to name our biases and work hard to be mindful of when those biases influenced our perspectives. We were taught to see color.

Dr. Petersen pushed me to write about my lived experiences and use language to shape the “so-what factor.” Translation: “Why does this matter to you? Why should this matter to me?”

She pushed me to define the edges of the experience in a way only I knew. The more specific the detail, to take something we think we know, and make it new and original, ultimately is what will build connection with your reader. Illuminate the unseen and the invisible — that’s the job of the writer.

This practice pushed me to see myself. I wrote about how my third grade teacher threw markers at me for winning the spelling bee. I wrote about times when people told me how I look like a little China doll, I smiled and let them touch my hair. I wrote about how I washed my elbows and knees crimson so I wouldn’t look so dirty. The writing was raw, painful yet exhilarating.

Tina Philibotte

Courtesy photo

College helped me develop a learner mindset and gave me access to the skills and knowledge where I felt seen in the books I read and the issues discussed. The goal wasn’t to ace a test; the goal was learning.

Manchester today is the Manchester I wish I had. But in New Hampshire, we are currently managing the “Banned Concepts Law,” or what is formally known as “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education.”

“It bans advocating or teaching that certain groups of people are inherently racist, sexist or otherwise oppressive, even if unconsciously,” according to NHPR’s Sarah Gibson. “And it also promotes teaching that people should treat others without regards to their differences. So, basically equal treatment of everyone, regardless of race, gender, disability, any other category.”

Gibson goes on to explain “that most of what’s been outlawed is not in curricula in New Hampshire now. Supporters of the law say it’s been creeping in. Critics of the law say it’s so vague that it will scare people away from having frank and very needed conversations about race, racism and discrimination.”

This law creates a cloud over developing that kind of connection for BIPOC and marginalized identities. In protest to this law and in my individual capacity as a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) educator, I am a plaintiff in a lawsuit along with fellow DEIJ educator Andres Mejia working to abolish this ban.

We are represented by a diverse group of advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union, GLAD (a nonprofit that takes on legal issues for LGBTQ+ people), the National Education Association — the largest teachers union in the state — and the American Federation of Teachers.

Together we argue that New Hampshire’s banned concepts law is a thinly veiled attempt to censor a truthful history and to punish teachers for ensuring students the very education myself and my classmates were denied 25 years ago.

Colleges and universities play an important role in this effort to ensure all students feel represented in the books they read and the issues they discuss. Higher ed has a long history of influencing K-12 education for the better. The dream of going to college definitely colored my K-12 experience.

In the 1990s, the SAT was the well-established deciding factor for whether you went to a “good school.” I took this test no less than four times in some form or fashion. Fast forward 25 years later and, by 2020, the racial awakening brought on by George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders at the hands of the police, alongside the pandemic on Black and Brown communities, the public could not look away from the righteous protests initiated by BIPOC communities.

Social determinants of health, including race, socioeconomic status and housing instability, put front and center how institutionalized racism shows up within our housing, justice, health and education systems including higher education. Colleges and universities had to reckon with practices that were producing discriminatory outcomes, including the admissions process. As a result, the reign of the SAT began its downturn and rightfully so.

Today, post-George Floyd’s murder and post-Covid, policy is evolving. The SAT test has been exposed for contributing to discriminatory outcomes, as its origins are grounded in the racist construct of meritocracy. In 2020, the University of California system ended its 60-year use of the SAT admission requirement, and now over 80% of United States colleges and universities no longer require the SAT.

Because the focus is less on test scores, more meaningful and intentional strategies that have the potential to yield equitable outcomes for BIPOC youth are being innovated. In New Hampshire, Manchester Community College is co-creating high impact programs alongside the Manchester School District geared to support and welcome BIPOC youth.

The Composition 110X early college pilot engages MCC adjunct professors to be on-site through a dual college and high school enrollment program. MCC isn’t just throwing money at a “problem,” though the program is fully funded, MCC is working in collaboration with communities of color and the National Writing Project for meaningful outcomes.

This is what equity-in-action is all about: A collaboration that refuses to tell BIPOC communities what will fix them but instead supports conditions to engage BIPOC stakeholders in co-creating a solution. This partnership transforms College Comp from what was once known as a “gatekeeping” course often seen as a gauntlet to cull college-material candidates, to a “gateway” experience toward more equitable outcomes.

My college experience was transformational and ignited a passion for public education, but I acknowledge that my ability to attend college was connected to my proximity to whiteness, being East Asian, cisgendered, straight and able-bodied. One’s race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender or marginalized identity should not be a factor in college access, yet too many continue to experience barriers.

The aim of DEIJ is people-centered work designed to define the human experience. It is a culturally mindful practice where we think critically about what we think we know and what really is. Naming and understanding our own humanity and the humanity of those we say we want to have equity is what builds connection and community.

Ultimately, the collective work of public education, K-16 and beyond, is to understand the human experience by providing the skills and knowledge to make it mean something.


This article is featured in the fall 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.603 Diversity Fall 2023

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