by Maura Campbell ’22
On Sept. 18, the Providence College Coalition Against Racism held a press event addressing issues within the Providence College Department of Elementary and Special Education.
Members of the student body and faculty received an email on the same day from Dr. Hugh Lena III, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, addressing this press event and its content.
At the press event, members of the Providence College Coalition Against Racism argued that the discriminatory practices of the Department of Elementary and Special Education contribute to the low percentage of teachers of color in the state of Rhode Island.
According to the press release, these practices include denying equal access to the major “based on race, ethnicity, and bi-lingual status.”
Kai Burton ’18 said at the press event, “While I never thought that it would be this difficult, I recognize that the adversity I’ve been facing has been deficit-based criticism, racially charged rhetoric, and feeling powerless throughout the entire process.”
The press release contains several other personal stories from students detailing their own experiences of discrimination within the ESE department.
It also states that the department uses a two-track policy that privileges white students over students of color. This policy, according to the press release, includes issues such as the department encouraging white students who are struggling while discouraging students of color who are facing similar difficulties. Additionally, white students are being placed in “positive student-teaching classrooms” while students of color are placed in “deficit-focused classrooms and required to take non-college courses.”
In 2019, the Elementary and Special Education graduating class consisted of 53 students, only two of whom were students of color. A year earlier, in 2018, there were only four students of color in a graduating class of 59.
Dr. Anthony Rodriguez, professor of elementary and special education, also spoke at the press event, describing some of the issues and discriminatory practices within his department. He said that the department “over many years, in a controlled, focused and deficit-oriented manner, removed people of color from the Elementary and Special Education program.”
Later, he spoke in further detail about these issues. In particular, he spoke about the department itself and its administration, saying that they “are not owning the problem and admitting harm,” which he says is crucial to solving the problem itself.
Rodriguez also spoke about issues of bias within the Elementary and Special Education Department outside of the classroom, saying that when he suggested a study abroad program in Latin America, rather than in Europe (where many study abroad programs in the ESE department are currently held), he was told that “these countries are dangerous and that there are no rigorous academic programs in Latin America.”
Dr. Jennifer Swanberg, dean of the school of professional studies, spoke about these concerns and explained her efforts to resolve some of these issues since arriving at PC in August of 2018.
Two of her priorities, she says, are to create “a learning, living, and working environment where everyone feels included and has equitable opportunities for success” and to “work toward creating a fully inclusive and equitable school that embodies the principles of equity and inclusion.”
In light of these priorities, Swanberg noted several efforts that have been made to recruit and retain students in the major, including “addressing the cost burden of the required admission tests, ongoing curriculum changes, removal of biases in state-required admission criteria, and the establishment of a ‘first-year experience’ for ESE students.”
Rodriguez, on the other hand, says that these types of efforts are not enough; rather, that they are intended to “manage” the problem rather than truly address it. Students, he says, are “feeling disheartened regarding the lack of response by the administration” and are still discussing how they are “spotlighted in class and treated as ‘the other.‘” He argues that if the department were truly changing, students would notice a difference. Instead, they continue to feel as if they are being ignored.
Swanberg says, “Their [students’] voices have not been ignored nor dismissed,” their input “has been used to inform change,”and that she continues to seek input from everyone on these issues.
In regard to the efforts put forth by the department, Swanberg notes that addressing issues within the Elementary and Special Education Department itself is not an immediate transformation. “Changing organizational culture and climate is hard work. It requires transformation at the individual and institutional levels, and it is developmental, iterative, a long-term process, and a work in progress.”
Rodriguez says that the Providence College Coalition Against Racism “hope[s] that the administration is acting and doing the work necessary for real structural changes in the ESE department so that any student can be themselves, work toward their dreams, and be a teacher without discrimination or retaliation.”