When Cynthia Moore walks into a room to speak, it’s often to a group of white educators. What precedes her into the space is her “awareness of the stereotypes and narratives around how black women rise to higher levels of leadership." The discomfort these ongoing narratives bring to her embodies what her job aims to “identify, lean into, and confront”—systemic inequity. In her job as a Madison school district Universal Systems Strategist, she seeks to build awareness around how implicit bias and overt racism impacts student achievement and sense of belonging.
In simple terms, Ms. Moore’s role is an underpinning for the district's Behavior Education Support staff that implement systems to support social emotional development of all children. There is nothing simple about this job. With two other systems coaches, Ms. Moore supports Kindergarten through 8th Grade with the challenging end game of helping staff facilitate calm and healthy school-wide systems and classrooms where all students have an equitable opportunity to learn.
“I connect with PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) coaches to find out what’s going on within their school’s behavior system,” says Moore. ”We look at their data—by race and location, and discuss where problems are occurring—as data helps inform decision making and how we will monitor progress.”
That translates to regular check-ins with individual schools and attending meetings to discuss how their systems are functioning—-such as why behavior incidents are disproportionate for Students of Color. Her work has helped facilitate the move away from “code of conduct” discipline measures with a zero tolerance rule and exclusionary practices that disproportionately suspended and expelled students of Color, to a more progressive policy. Currently Moore's team seeks to understand the behavior and help children learn from their mistakes versus automatically removing the student from the environment.”
“There are clear situations where a child needs to be removed from the environment when the safety and welfare of others are at risk, so it is not to say that exclusionary situations are always unwarranted, she says.”
Ms. Moore’s day to day routine is anything but routine. One day she may facilitate a restorative circle with staff members the next she will be discussing classroom systems and routines with a PBIS coach to define the source of a classroom challenge. She then provides strategies for responding to these challenges. She also facilitates professional development training for schools to delve into various topics, like the development of the whole child at a systemic level or at the district level. In doing so, she asks how can we better support our teachers?
“Many teachers want to know how to better support children who are struggling with behavior and supporting students who have experienced trauma,” she says. “We need to understand why the child is doing this instead of just automatically suspending them so they then return to the school environment and exhibit the same behavior. This is just a vicious cycle, which is not solving anything,” says Ms. Moore. “We need to dig deeper to learn what is the function of this behavior, what is this child trying to communicate. We need to provide thoughtful interventions that then move this student forward. That is the intention.”
After decades of contributing to social structures that academically marginalized students of color, manifested in an academic gap between them and white students, the district now aims to dismantle those structures. One of those strategies is to encourage and celebrate “Black excellence.”
Moore is thoughtful about what “Black excellence” means. She says it is about recognizing that students already have talents, skills, abilities and wisdom, and it is up to educators to cultivate it.
“It is about honoring the worth, dignity and wisdom in Black students. It is the work of adults to recognize and honor this excellence by seeing the whole child, celebrating the whole child—even our children who present with the most challenging behaviors have gifts, strengths and talents that need to be recognized. While academics are an important part in Black excellence, we also need to pay attention to excellence in other areas such as arts and leadership.”
Among students who attended the 9-week micro-school last year, one the district developed to reengage students at La Follette who were involved in a series of discordant events, Ms. Moore found stories of hope where others saw only despair.
“These are students that are billed as the roughest of the rough, as incorrigible,” she says. “There’s a lot of “othering language” to define those kids. When you sit down with each child, though, one on one, it’s the stories that they’ve had, the challenges, and the barriers that they’ve had to overcome, their hopes and dreams—even dire situations in terms of graduation. And you’ll find they still have hopes. They still saw themselves being successful or finishing school—some even going off to college—far more than the story that was told about how dangerous and violent they are.”
She also points out the importance of avoiding a white-centered definition of excellence.
“We need to continue to have brave conversations around race as our teaching staff does not mirror the racial demographics. We have to continue to check our assumptions and biases.
And we need to reach out to families and the Black community to ask “What does Black excellence mean to you?” Ms. Moore says. “Some of our Black students are struggling, our behavior data is disproportionate, so we need to ask ourselves as educators, what movement would we expect to see in this data if we are truly fostering Black excellence?”
Moore cautions that Black excellence can’t be viewed as a “one and done or one more thing that the district puts on people’s plates, like a check list where people will say, all right, we did black excellence, versus this is who we are, what we believe and we do it because it’s what we value. We also must understand in order to do this well we have to focus on examining beliefs and mindsets.”
There are varying levels of comfort in these discussions from school to school. For some, approaching the discussion of race is a challenge. There are also varying degrees of understanding racism—some still deny it exists. Some seek to explain it away or minimize its impact. Others believe we now live in a post-racial society because we had a Black president. While others, who are aware of its history and how it continues to impact People of Color, are pushing themselves to challenge it.
In talking about race with staff, Moore acknowledges fears of saying or doing the wrong thing, and she challenges those fears. Reflecting on her own experiences she says, as an example, “When I come into a white space or predominately white space as a black woman, I don’t always have that psychological safety, I can’t say, “Oh I’m uncomfortable and don’t want to have this discussion in this space.” If you’re always living in a place where you’re always comfortable, and you are not being challenged, growth is not occurring.”
The issues are deep. The solutions are complicated. The challenges ongoing. And educators already have heavy weight on them. So how does a Universal Systems Specialist integrate solutions without it being one more thing for a teacher to do? That’s tricky. But Moore points out a method that’s not a quick fix, but one that is accessible to all—social emotional learning that crosses generational and racial barriers.
“We have some children with some really challenging and disruptive behaviors, and while we can’t always control some of the factors that occur outside the school setting, we can focus on things we can control when children are in our environment. We have to think supports that address a multitude of issues without it being one more thing a teacher has to do. That’s social emotional learning, mindfulness, and restorative practices. If they are rooted in equity, they are all practices that can support the needs of the adults and students in our schools.”
- Pat Dillon