Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: We Can’t Stop at a Name Change; We Need Multicultural Education

By Martina Day

From New York to San Francisco, school name changes have become a hot topic. Here at home, the Falls Church City School Board voted on the new names for George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on April 27 of this year. This month, Meridian High School and Oak Street Elementary School will welcome their first students since the new names took effect on July 1.

Whether you voted in favor or against the renaming, the new names are here to stay. So now what?
As a future educator and a graduate of the former George Mason High School, this question has burned in my conscience throughout the renaming process. In an “Update from Letty” published on November 20, 2020, Falls Church council member Letty Hardi wrote that “the decision to rename the schools should be coupled with a commitment to meaningful anti-racism policy changes – not an either/or.” Hardi hits the nail right on the head — our work is not done. In fact, it has only just begun.

The school board has recognized the importance of combining the name changes with reform in our schools. In a letter to the FCCPS community on December 10, 2020, Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan wrote: “moving forward, we will continue to revise and restructure curriculum through an equity lens.” These conversations are important, and now that the new names are in effect, it is critical for FCCPS to go beyond the cosmetics and enact deep and lasting changes in our schools.

But how?

Through my coursework as a Master’s student in English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education, I have become familiar with the foundations of multicultural education and see it as a powerful way to inspire meaningful change.

James A. Banks, the “father of multicultural education,” writes in 1993 that one of its major goals is “to reform schools and other educational institutions so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups will experience educational reality.” More recently, Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode in 2018 defined multicultural education as a “process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students” that goes beyond mere curricular and instructional reforms in order to challenge and reject inequity while placing special emphasis on the “democratic principles of social justice.”

So why does this matter to a high-performing, predominantly White high school in one of the richest cities in the country?

Contrary to popular belief, multicultural education is for everyone. Researchers agree that it can impact the White, upper-middle class students of suburbia just as much as students of color learning in urban, under-resourced schools.
What is more, Nieto & Bode argue that excluding the diverse perspectives of our nation’s dominated communities leads schools to “miseducate” all of their students by reinforcing “unrealistic view[s] of the world.” As a community that places so much value on education, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to ensure that students are receiving a complete and accurate education?

Diverse perspectives and social justice issues are realities in the world we live in. Multicultural education provides the opportunity for future leaders and advocates to engage with these realities in ways that are meaningful and that inspire action. My critics will be quick to point to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme as providing the cross-cultural perspectives that characterize a good education. However, I believe that the multicultural efforts of the IB Programme just barely scratch the surface of deeper systemic issues faced by dominated groups in our modern society. Having completed the IB Diploma myself, I don’t deny the value of the knowledge and skills it teaches students, but using it as an extension of multicultural education could give students a more complete and accurate worldview.

Some of the values of multicultural education are already embedded in our FCCPS’ philosophy. In his statement last December, Dr. Noonan emphasized the school board’s promise to “respect and uphold the dignity of every student, staff member, and community member in FCCPS so they too can achieve in a system unbridled from the legacy of slavery, discrimination, and systemic oppression.” This promise bears a striking resemblance to the goals of multicultural education, suggesting that it has a place in our schools.

Multicultural education is not a silver bullet for issues of social justice, but embracing it allows us to go beyond name changes, inspire reform, and encourage students to take an active role in the fight against systemic inequity and injustice in our society — now and in the future. Multicultural education is a high and long bridge that can help us cross the “meridian” that separates performative action from meaningful systemic change. In renaming our schools, we’ve taken the first step — now we have to keep going.

Martina Day is a Master’s student at the College of William & Mary who is working toward a career in education