By Jake Lubin
For the last two years, Franklin Talks was integrated into every Franklin student’s school year. Four times a year, Franklin took 90 minutes out of the day to have conversations about race and equity within classrooms. But as this year has brought about lots of changes from the teachers’ strike, to new lanyard rules, to changes in leadership, Franklin Talks has faced changes, as well. Due to concerns about its effectiveness and strength as a program, Franklin has switched its focus away from having Franklin Talks sessions.
Franklin Talks was first implemented in December 2021, after the Successful Schools Survey found that only 45 percent of Franklin students reported they were encouraged to think more deeply about race-related topics. This differed from the Portland Public Schools (PPS) district average response of 59 percent for students aged 12-18, according to the PPS website.
Schools all across Portland have felt the effects of this data as classrooms attempt to reflect the diversity of their students in the conversation and content discussed in class. Angela Bonilla, Portland Association of Teachers’ (PAT) president, comments on the importance of this, stating, “The earlier we can talk about how the world views our students and children, the more tools we provide them to navigate a world that may not be kind but is always changing.”
The Successful Schools Survey prompted the district’s counseling department to create lessons about race for building counselors to facilitate. At Franklin, the counseling department worked with former Climate and Equity Coach Julie Palmer to develop the Franklin Talks program. The goal was to have students learn about and appreciate cultural and racial backgrounds that differ from their own, and for them to explore topics such as implicit bias, racism and anti-racism. In an article about implementing Franklin Talks, Palmer told The Franklin Post in January of 2022, “We want to cultivate young people who can leave Franklin … and have the ability to appreciate lived experiences that are different from [their own].”
The first Franklin Talks took place on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. During the set-aside time, Franklin staff set up the space to have conversations surrounding race with a curriculum made by the Franklin Equity Team. Franklin Talks continued into the 2022-23 school year as Instructional Coach, Yoshio Drescher, took over the job of heading the Franklin Equity Team and overseeing Franklin Talks. Drescher and the Equity Team would provide classroom teachers with the developed lessons and these teachers were then expected to teach that curriculum during Franklin Talks.
This is where concerns began to be voiced. Not all teachers were equally equipped to hold difficult conversations in their classrooms. Drescher describes the range of teachers leading Franklin Talks, saying, “Some of them were teachers who [were] very experienced when having conversations about race and equity and some weren’t.” Drescher expands, “As a result, students [were] having a wide variety of experiences, some positive, some negative.”
Along with how the curriculum was delivered, a second concern was the effectiveness and structure of the curriculum itself. After a Franklin Talks session on Tuesday, December 6, 2022, 718 people answered an exit survey. In the survey, students were asked to rank how effective the Franklin Talks session was, and the score averaged at 2.35 out of 4.
One of the main concerns students represented in the survey was the lack of time spent on race and equity topics. Drescher also recognized this as a concern about the effectiveness of Franklin Talks. “We’ve had these conversations, but they’re too infrequent to really shift anything or create positive outcomes,” Drescher explains. “They’re spread out by two or three months and you aren’t able to do anything substantial.”
Along with Franklin, other schools at PPS have been struggling to implement race and equity curricula as well. Grant Magazine reported in December of 2022 that Grant High School’s program similar to Franklin Talks, called “Race Forward,” was suspended before the 2022-23 school year by Principal James McGee. They reported that this happened after students of color voiced concerns that Race Forward wasn’t working to promote racial education.
Back at Franklin, Drescher believes that, for right now, Franklin Talks will not be making a return. Instead, he is shifting focus to try to integrate race and equity into regular classroom lessons. Drescher hopes to work one-on-one with teachers who need support in making their classrooms a space for learning about race and equity. Beyond holding these one-on-one conversations, Drescher explains, “[The Franklin Equity team is] going to teachers who need materials, curriculum and support.”
This way of teaching race and equity is obviously a big change from having the structured sessions that were Franklin Talks. Ultimately, these decisions were made to fix the problems that Franklin Talks couldn’t fix, like having teachers unequipped to dive into the complex conversations of racism, and the inability to take enough time out of classroom instruction to sufficiently cover race and equity.
Across the district, schools are grappling with how to teach racial equity. Racial education programs and their curricula are in their infancy at PPS and have yet to be perfected. At Franklin, race and equity education is ever evolving, meaning, for now, Franklin Talks is a thing of the past.