T.C. Williams students tackle prejudice, bias head on

T.C. Williams students tackle prejudice, bias head on
(File Photo)

By Melissa Quinn

The image of a stop sign stood before hundreds of students in Denver, as the group said “stop” over and over for 10 seconds — identifying the image — before the red octagon suddenly became a green light.

Yet the students kept saying, “Stop.”

The activity, conducted by Calvin Terrell at the Minority Student Achievement Network Conference, sought to teach students — including seven from T.C. Williams — how stereotypes can become part of their subconscious.

The Alexandria students, part of T.C.’s Minority Student Achievement Network, traveled to Colorado earlier this month to delve into the issue, as well as problems like the achievement gap between white students and their peers, which plagues American high schools.

Local MSAN chapters address racism, stereotyping, prejudice and the achievement gap at their respective schools. At T.C., 39 percent of students are black, 30 percent are Hispanic and 22 percent are white. While administrators work to ensure all students — regardless of race — achieve the same levels of academic success and achievement, Alexandria City Public Schools has struggled to bridge the gap in recent years.

“Overall, we have a lot of work to do in making sure all of our students get the support to achieve,” said Helen Morris, vice chair of the school board. “I think that [what] these students are doing is taking charge of their own learning, and taking charge of other students’ learning, and I fully support them.”

Together, the students — five seniors, a junior and sophomore — will begin tutoring at city middle schools. By spending time with younger students, said senior Palla Dedios, the group hopes to lay the foundation for closing the achievement gap.

“We want to be proactive and an eye opener for younger children in order for them to have a bright future,” Dedios said. “If we target them at a younger age, we can tackle it.”

The seven high schoolers also developed an action plan with their peers from across the country to tackle prejudice and stereotypes within T.C.’s walls.

“We came up with a mission statement to take back to our own schools,” said senior Miranda Jones.

The group wants to set aside a week for daily activities designed to end stereotyping among students. They plan to bring in a motivational speaker to work with the students and offer one-on-one mentoring sessions.

Along with ideas for tackling ingrained biases and the achievement gap, the group saw how stereotyping can affect people subconsciously. People, Jones said, are conditioned to stereotype from a young age, though they may not realize it — as demonstrated by Terrell’s stop sign exercise.

Terrell, in addition to speaking about stereotyping, challenged conference attendees to admit their prejudices. He asked students if any of them were prejudice, and a majority of the hands went up, Dedios said.

“Because we’re so diverse [at T.C.], people let the stereotypes get in their way of learning,” said Morgan Lataillade, a senior. “[People] don’t even know they’re being prejudice. If we open their eyes more, they’ll stop letting the stereotypes get in the way.”

Though the Alexandria delegation focused on stamping out prejudice in the high school’s halls, the group believes T.C. is sheltered compared to schools around the country. From their peers at the conference, the T.C. students heard of white and black students getting into fights and exchanging racial slurs — events they said rarely occur at T.C.

“Our eyes were opened because we felt like we were in our own little bubble,” Dedios said.

After returning to Alexandria, the students presented their action plan to the school board. Morris applauded their efforts.

“It’s part of the entire community’s work to make sure we can support students who don’t come with all the advantages,” she said. “And as a community, they’re in the forefront of accepting the challenge.”