On a cold December evening in Gwinnett County, Georgia, my mother and I rushed to find good seats in the auditorium of the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center. I’d been here many times for various meetings and celebrations as a high school student, but I’d never seen it quite like this. I was greeted by a sea of Black and Brown faces, and I could sense the room brimming with excitement. I was excited too. We were all there to witness history in the making as my long-time friend Everton Blair was sworn in as the youngest school board member in Gwinnett County history. That night, he also became the first Black person to serve on the County’s board.
Gwinnett County has the second largest population in the state of Georgia and boasts one of the state’s highest performing school districts. I grew up there and attended Gwinnett public schools for my entire K-12 education. During family trips to see extended family in Alabama, my mother would often express how fortunate she felt to have such great public schools. To a large extent, her feelings were justified. Gwinnett County Public Schools is a two-time recipient of the million-dollar Broad Prize, for gains in student achievement while narrowing achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color.
Given that more than 50 percent of Gwinnett students are students of color, it’s particularly troubling that until Everton’s election, the school board never had any people of color.
Gwinnett County is not alone. A 2018 study by the National School Boards Association found that across the country, 78 percent of board members are White, while only 10 percent are Black, and 3 percent are Hispanic. These numbers are truly stunning and reveal that school boards do not reflect the growing diversity of the nation’s K-12 student population.
During my entire K-12 education, my district, like so many districts, ignored school board diversity even as the student population grew more diverse each year. There’s recent data and anecdotal evidence to suggest that school boards are becoming more diverse, but the pace of progress is far too slow.
School boards have the power to govern what students learn, the conditions under which they learn, and the rules students have to follow. It is imperative that school boards are diverse so that there are people at the table making decisions through an equity lens.
Let’s take school discipline as one example. The research shows that students of color, and Black students especially, face disproportionately high suspension rates compared with any other student group. New research from the University of Florida has found that when school boards are more diverse, suspensions decrease for all students. The researchers also found that when school boards are diverse, the disparity diminishes in suspensions between students of color and their peers.
It’s not just school discipline where this matters. School boards also make important decisions about special education placements and resources for English language learners, and school board diversity will likely have an impact on how these decisions are made.
Governing a diverse student body requires asking key questions about policies and practices: “How are diverse populations in my district affected by a new policy or practice?” or “Are there certain student groups that are disproportionately impacted by our school discipline code?” Increasing board diversity increases the likelihood of these kinds of questions being asked and brings new perspectives to the work.
I’m excited for Everton. In the deep south, where the residue of Jim Crow and the pain of present-day racism still hang in the air, it’s easy to understand why many qualified applicants of color feel discouraged from running for any public office, including school boards. In the future, I hope to see school boards diversify in all ways, including age, class, ability, sexuality, and gender, because I believe that lived experience directly impacts the decisions people make. That’s a future worth fighting for and one that our students deserve.