By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff
At 3 p.m. today, the Women of Color Giving Circle will hold its 10th annual Berkshire Graduates of Color Celebration in the second-floor ballroom at Spice Dragon restaurant. This year, there are 47 graduates, most of whom are black or of African descent, who will be honored for completing their high school graduation requirements -- the Giving Circle's largest turnout yet.
A public forum held earlier this week, however, detailed the difficulties that black and other non-white students in Pittsfield face in reaching graduation day.
The local chapter of the NAACP held an "Education Summit" at Morningside Community School on Monday night to offer community members "an opportunity to address relevant educational issues in communities of color in Pittsfield."
The event was attended by about 50 people, and about a third of the people, from ages 4 and up, took some time at the microphone to share their stories and their concerns for students. Over the course of two hours, participants gave accounts of discrimination and offered some ideas for resolution.
"We still live in a society where race dominates a lot of people's thinking," said Will Singleton, president of the local NAACP chapter. "If we don't come together and work together to make this society fair, we're going to be in deep, deep trouble."
"We're not going to solve all the ills of society tonight, but I hope we start a conversation about the lack of success for so many children of color in our school system," he said.
Berkshire Community College adjunct professor and theater artist Jamuna Yvette Sirker said it is a "statistical necessity" for all schools in the country to be prepared to support and offer role models for students of color.
She cited a statistic from the 2012 U.S. census that 50.4 percent of the nation's births as of July 1, 2011, were of a a minority race --defined as someone who is not single-race white and not Hispanic.
In Massachusetts, only about 65 percent of the currently enrolled population of 955,739 public school students are white. Seventeen percent of students in the state are Hispanic, nearly 9 percent are African-American, and 6 percent are Asian.
When it comes to graduation rates by race, there is a noticeable achievement gap. While about 90 percent of white and Asian students graduated on time in 2013 only about 74 percent of African-American and 67 percent of Hispanic and Latino students did the same.
During the NAACP forum, several students cited a lack of role models and encouragement to achieve for students of color. Pittsfield High School sophomore Sheila Atiemo is a high honors student. She told forum attendees d espite her academic record, she feels that some teachers in the school have put her or other students of color down. She said, for example, that one teacher told students that black men won't attend college. She said another teacher told her she was "retarded" because she was taking a longer time than her peers to complete an algebra exam in an honors class, which had mostly white students.
"Sometimes [teachers'] word choices can be harsh," Atiemo said.
She said that even if the teachers didn't intend to be mean-spirited, they would be better to offer encouragement than to cite struggle.
"I feel like people think less of me because of the color of my skin," Atiemo said. "But I have a lot of potential. I have a lot of goals and dreams to achieve."
Several other forum participants also spoke about similar issues, and thanked the NAACP for giving them a venue to share their experiences.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless were on hand during the forum, responding to questions and taking notes.
Bianchi said his administration is making a concerted effort to address issues of race and diversity in the city, including the review of hiring practices and how vacancies are promoted, and reviving the city's Human Rights Commission, which had been dormant since 1999.
"We have schools that are better than others at doing this work. We have principals who are better than others at doing this work," said McCandless. "We're working around policies, but to me it's about practice."
Audience members suggested having more programs to teach students about race and diversity; creating confidential ways that students can report incidents of racism or discrimination, and creating a school-community partnership or task force to further address issues of race and education.
McCandless noted that schools and staff are working on cultural competency training with local organization Multicultural BRIDGE.
Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, who moderated the forum, said that BRIDGE staff will be heading to Conte Community School next for training. She said Stearns and Crosby elementary schools are in the process of putting up mosaic art that students made celebrating their diversity.
"We need to teach kids to be respectful," she said. "Our kids and our schools are just mirroring our community, and we need to look at ourselves and our values."