Anti-Racist Action at WESS

Black Lives Matter by B71 PHOTOS is marked with CC PDM 1.0

“Black Lives Matter” by B71 PHOTOS is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Pia Sharma

Instances of racism, microaggressions, slurs, stereotyping, et cetera in an academic setting is a frequent experience for students of color, students with minority ethnic backgrounds, those who practice non-Christian religions, and students who have parents with nationalities who are not American. 

Ainyr Benedis-Grab wrote an article called ‘Racism at WESS and Responses from Students,’ speaking out about her own personal experience with prejudice, along with the experiences of other students at WESS. After reading Ainyr’s article and conversing with a number of students of color at the school about this subject matter, it’s very obvious that this is a common issue. It is experienced by the majority, and is not ‘new,’ but rather deeply rooted in a racist social culture. Some students reported being called “every species of monkey out there” by their own friends, stereotyped as ‘terrorists’, having people make fun of their food, slanting their eyes to mock east Asian features, along with a multitude of other examples. Over the past year, our school’s leadership has been working in consult with the school’s equity team and various organizations outside of WESS to consider the best possible resources and supports to implement antiracist curriculum. 

Before these programs, organizations, training, curriculum, etc are introduced, it is important to note that it might be challenging for staff members and parents to read this article when hearing about what’s happening in the school while it might equally as challenging for students to read this article without growing frustrated at the fact that the school hasn’t implemented these resources sooner (since racist culture had obviously been an issue long before Ainyr’s article was published). Although all of these emotions towards this issue are completely valid, Jessica acknowledges that prior to WESS’s larger plan to implement antiracist curriculum,  issues raised took place through 1:1  intervention.  However, she noted that these 1:1 conversations needed to be part of a larger school plan to raise awareness about what it means to be antiracist.  Joe Rodriquez, WESS’s Assistant Principal, emphasized that “it would be ignorant to assert that racism is solely a school-wide issue when it is a global issue and one that is centuries old.” One cannot entirely place the blame of racist culture on a school when the issue is rooted in centuries of social prejudice. Joe also pointed out that “Some people have social circles that reflect only their background and can cause the perpetuation of a superiority narrative or the social hierarchy of our country because they haven’t been educated otherwise.” The purpose of this well-planned embedment of this antiracist action is to educate students, staff, and the larger parent body on prejudice so that they are not left in the dark, but also to ensure that students of color aren’t left to bear the burden of their peers’ lack of education. The primary responsibility of teachers and school staff is to guarantee that students are and feel safe. 

The next layer of responsibility pertaining to how a school must respond to racist culture, besides education of course, is to ensure that these critical conversations are happening at the dinner table. Jessica Jenkins, the principal of West End Secondary School says, “We don’t expect parents to be experts but we expect them to partner with us so that they don’t perpetuate this culture within our families and within our society.”  She is hopeful that the conversations that are happening at the school level will continue at home and to do so, WESS leadership partnered with Elevating Voices to engage parents in this critical conversation.  


While the school is responsible for the education of their students, they cannot control external factors that could possibly account for their prejudice such as the friends they surround themselves with, what they learn at home, what they learn from social media and the internet, et cetera. WESS aims to combat those external factors by implementing action such as: the Belonging Survey, integrating the novels Ghost Boys (middle school) and Stamped (high school) into our crew lessons, building upon the work of our Equity Team, The Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative, diversifying faculty, reforming admissions screening processes, and the school’s partnership with the Teaching Matters organization and their ‘Elevating Voices’ program. 


Equity Team

The Equity Team is composed of teachers and faculty and will be extended to students in the spring of the 2020-2021 school year. The equity team administered the belonging survey and are currently working on educating students and interrogating belief systems of parents and staff pertaining to the school’s anti-racist action. Joe Rodriquez states that “the administration has begun conducting workshops with families beyond the antiracist curriculum currently being integrated in crew and teacher training.  This began with a recent presentation to the PA by Maria Underwood, a leading writer and advocate from Teaching Matters.  It was a powerful presentation and it will be published to our website for folks to view who could not make it to the meeting.  


The Belonging survey

In collaboration with WESS’s Equity Team, the school has recently conducted a belonging survey in the fall term of our first semester of this year. The administration partnered with Outward Bound, the creators of the survey, to collect feedback from students so that teachers and faculty could derive general trends from the results. The data was disaggregated by race to get a feel of how students were experiencing their classes and teachers, and specifically how students of different races were finding a sense of belonging in their classes as well as the WESS environment in general. WESS made modifications to the original survey crafted by Outward Bound by adding open ended prompts designed to receive more specific, anonymous feedback from students. 

The data and trends derived from the survey will be used to better accommodate and provide a sense of belonging for all students and address any areas of concern and dissatisfaction of individual students and the student body as a whole. Data from the survey is currently being analyzed by faculty and teachers. WESS’s equity team will review the results, and then will share the data with parents and students so that everyone involved with WESS will be able to address the needs of students reflected in the survey. The purpose of the survey is to involve student voices as much as possible in the creation of curriculum. The November administration of the survey was a baseline and students will be asked to retake the same survey at the end of May or beginning of June to measure growth and progress of belonging within the student body.


The Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative

WESS is currently in collaboration with a program at NYU called Education Justice and Organizing Research Collaborative (EJ-ROC) that provides tools for teachers to engage in curriculum audits.  According to Jessica, “They created what we refer to as ‘a culturally responsive scorecard.” The purpose of these curriculum audits is to help teachers determine the extent to which certain curriculum is or is not culturally responsive. The goal is for teachers to look at their current teaching resources, rubrics, books that we teach, etc.. to essentially audit what we use to teach students to ensure that our rubrics are anti-bias, lesson plans are inclusive of multiple perspectives and voices, lifting the voices of those who have been historically underrepresented” (opposed to over represented white sources and authors who get to frequently rewrite and reteach history however they may choose). If the curriculum is found to be culturally unresponsive, uninclusive, or culturally under-represented, teachers make adjustments to their lesson plans and curriculum accordingly. Jessica identifies that the goal “ is to ensure that our curriculum is planned in a  way that all students are included and represented while we continue to teach standards through the lens of relevant and real world topics.” 


Selected/diversifying faculty

Diversifying faculty would not only increase the amount of perspectives and voices of teachers and staff, but it would also elevate the perspectives and voices of students of color. WESS has partnered with a company called Selected.   The main goal of this partnership is to bring a diverse teaching body to schools, specifically WESS. This platform makes it easier to find teachers for hiring and helps to match teachers with schools who are committed to diversifying their teaching staff. In addition to utilizing the resources Selected offers, WESS faculty and administration continues to go to NYC fairs for schools to attend with the sole purpose of diversifying their teacher pool and bringing diversity in terms of their staff and faculty. The major benefit of diversifying both the student body, staff, and administration is that students can see themselves in their educators and feel represented by who they are told to look up to.


Teaching Matters

Teaching Matters is a non-profit organization that works to ensure students have access to quality teaching and education. Teaching Matters is currently working with schools nationwide, now including WESS, with their program called “Elevating Voices.” According to the Teaching Matters website and Elevating Voices curriculum, “Three Grade-level Book Options for Grades 5-12.” Students at WESS are reading two of the three options: Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. The curriculum comprises of “Student-facing Lessons that promote discussion based on each book, Unit Pacing Guide with lesson-by-lesson supports, Asynchronous Professional Development for each lesson, Social Justice Project-Based tasks for students and culminating celebrations, Five Webinars for teachers focused on Race, Racism, and Social Injustice, Depending on book selection, Elevating Voices timeframe ranges from 10-16 weeks.”. The goal of this particular curriculum is to accomplish exactly as the title suggests: elevating student voices to start opening up classrooms to the discussion of racial prejudice in our society so that everyone in the school, both students and teachers, feel comfortable addressing and combating the issue. Jessica says this partnership with the Elevating Voices program is “a partnership long-term, this curriculum will be embedded in an ongoing part of our [WESS’s] dialogue.” All crew teachers are currently being trained in the subject matter so that they can educate themselves and students about racism in our modern society in an academic setting.

In addition to the administration’s academic and educational anti-racist work, WESS has gradually and continuously been revising the screening process over the years that is required from students who applying to the school. The screening process of admission has been criticized nationwide for ‘gatekeeping’ certain areas or school districts. WESS aims to combat the segregation of New York City schools by modifying and reforming aspects of the screening process to diversify the student body in addition to the staff and faculty.  For the 2021-2022 school year, WESS ihas set aside 60% of its seats for incoming 9th grade students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and has eliminated test scores from its criteria for admission to 9th grade. 

  The student body has also created initiatives of their own such as the Social Justice Club and the POC affinity club to pioneer antiracist culture at WESS. While the Social Justice Club at WESS advocates for a broader range of social inequity issues, including those pertaining to race, the POC Affinity Club specifically creates a safe space for students of color and different backgrounds to share their experiences of racism at the school, outside the school, and in their own social lives. 


Important Contacts for More Info and Joining Student Led Clubs:


Jessica Jenkins (Principal)

[email protected] 

Joe Rodriguez (Assistant Principal)

[email protected]


POC Affinity Club

Ainyr Benedis-Grab

[email protected] 

Kiki Datoma

[email protected] 


Social Justice Club

Ava Napach

[email protected]

Avery Teano

[email protected]