Education inequity is the focus of a new podcast released by the Vermont Education Equity Project.

“Back To Freedom School,” hosted by Infinite Culcleasure, is a new, ongoing podcast series that uses the issues exposed by the COVID-19 crisis to explore long-standing problems in Vermont’s educational system.

In each episode, Culcleasure discusses topics such as curriculum, racial justice, literacy and community schools with various stakeholders, including parents, students and teachers. The first episode premiered earlier this month.

Launched in 2017, VtEEP is a joint endeavor of Voices for Vermont’s Children and the Public Assets Institute. The organization aims to raise awareness about how systemic inequities like poverty and racism affect Vermont schools and students, as well as develop and support policies that make education more equitable for all students.

The podcast title is a reference to the Freedom Schools that arose in the South during the Civil Rights Movement to provide a more equitable education to African-American and low-income white children at the time. A description of the series states the title “reflects the podcast’s focus on historical and ongoing institutional racism in education.”

Culcleasure is a community organizer and policy advocate for Voices, and a member of the state’s Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group.

He said the podcast idea “struck me as a way to educate people and amplify other people’s voices,” as well as the work being doing in the working group.

The series starts out by assessing Vermont’s education system pre-COVID, before moving on to process people’s educational experiences during the stay-at-home order, and then looking ahead to envision how education might be radically reconstructed in the future.

“I think it’s fair to say, due to COVID-19, our public schools will never be the same,” Culcleasure said.

Culcleasure, 46, has lived in Vermont — mostly in Chittenden County — since he was 18. (He still lives in Burlington.) During that time, he has witnessed both demographic shifts within the state due to refugee resettlement, as well as how the complexities of class dynamics among white Vermonters have played out around the state.

It’s through that lens that he calls for the “decolonization of education” — a concept that can be understood as the deconstruction of white, Eurocentric systems and the rebuilding of an education system that supports all students, teachers and staff.

“Our public education system is laden with white-normative expectations that even most white kids can reach,” Culcleasure said, noting that students from affluent families tend to have more access to academic opportunities, like AP classes and postsecondary, four-year education.

“Our public education system, not just in Vermont (but) across the U.S., is monumentally fragmented,” he said.

He believes that fragmentation is part of why there has been so much “inertia” when it comes to school reform.

Through the podcast, Culcleasure hopes to start a conversation about that reform.

“I think the more conversations we have and the more we are able to connect the dots, the better able we are to bridge our schools to the community (and) to the state.”

When addressing issues of race, Culcleasure is keenly aware of Vermont’s distinction as one of the whitest states in the country.

He believes it’s helpful be intersectional in discussions of issues of racism and racial justice — to look at where they intersect with issues such as sexual violence or white poverty.

“What I try to avoid in my own personal and professional journey and exploration of racism in Vermont is that it not be at the expense of anyone else,” he said, noting the historical tendency in America of pitting various groups of people against each other.

He also doesn’t presume to have all the answers.

“I’ve been Black all my life and I still can’t really describe what racial equity should look like,” he said. “But I think when we talk about racial equity and racial justice, it’s going to be highly contextual … it’s going to be very different in Chittenden County than it’s going to be in Washington County.”

In the debut episode, Culcleasure interviews Judy Dow, a French-Indian Vermont native and educator.

During their 37-minute conversation, Dow emphasizes the inequities she sees around how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students are treated, and offers insight on how to address them.

“It all comes down to education for teachers,” she says. “Teachers often think they know the answer … but they don’t always know things around ethnic studies and understanding different cultures because they’re coming from an outsider perspective, not an insider perspective.”

Dow recommends more extensive training for teachers, as well as a reexamination how students are being taught and assessed.

“Children of various cultures learn in various ways,” she says. “Teachers need to be made aware of that.”

She notes how something as simple as a teacher telling a student, “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” could be interpreted as offensive to some cultures where making direct eye contact is considered impolite. Lacking cultural context, the student’s conduct can be perceived by the teacher as behavior issue rather than a sign of respect.

Dow picks up on Culcleasure’s thread of decolonizing education, which she characterizes as “tearing things down and looking at it in a different light, from a different perspective, from a different angle, and how it might impact many, many people.”

She says the current moment of disruption caused by the pandemic presents “an ideal time” to make such changes.

Podcast collaborator Brittany Lovejoy invites guests to talk about their individual literacy experiences and take a deep dive into literacy inequities in Vermont.

Lovejoy, whose four children are dyslexic, holds a graduate degree in foundations of education/dyslexia studies and has taken trainings aligned with the science of reading.

“I thought being a special educator would teach me how to better advocate for my children and, at the same time, make a positive difference in my students’ lives,” she wrote in a recent email.

What she found were many barriers to getting there, some of which are highlighted in the podcast.

“I sought outside evaluations for my children, paid for tutoring, hired an advocate, moved my family from one school district into another and still do not feel (nor does the data show) that my children’s literacy/learning needs are being realized,” she wrote.

She added that she has yet to see a sense of urgency to help close the literacy gap for both her children and the students she worked with.

“Urgency is a burden I carry with me,” she wrote.

She stated that, through the podcast, guests “reveal fixable flaws in our current educational system.”

“I hope that Vermonters hear our desperate plea for change to what science indicates our struggling readers need,” she wrote.

Culcleasure said he is approaching podcast conversations about equity as a listener and with curiosity, and added that he is open to being constructively challenged to rethink his positions on a given issue.

He hopes others will do the same.

“Ideally, I hope that it either inspires (listeners) to engage or agitates them to engage,” he said.

Episodes of “Back To Freedom School” are available to stream at edequityvt.org and on the WBTV-LP Radio website.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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