January 12, 2022

Maturity Means Learning to Embrace Discomfort

What Kentucky students tell us about race & ethnicity in our schools

By Pragya Upreti

Students from across the Commonwealth are here today, missing school, because we believe that something very important is at stake in this legislative session, and that we bring a unique perspective to the thinking around it.


There has been a lot of conversation lately about what teachers should be able to teach when it comes to race and ethnicity in our schools, but what do students already know?


This was among the questions that the Kentucky Student Voice Team, our independent, youth-led group dedicated to co-creating more just, democratic schools and communities wanted to find out.


Building on our work to support students to evaluate and improve their school climates and our growing capacity for youth-led education research, we spent the last few months designing a study around one of the most pressing education issues of our day.


In December, almost eleven thousand middle and high school students from nearly every one of Kentucky’s 120 counties completed our Race, Ethnicity, and School Climate survey, sharing their experiences, insights, hopes and fears in the process.

Our team is still disaggregating and analyzing the data and plans to release more precise findings in the coming weeks and months, but in the hopes that it provides more context for the conversations we need to be having as policymakers consider what teachers can and cannot teach under House Bills Fourteen and Eighteen, we are here today to share a few emerging themes:

First, despite the debate about whether and how to discuss them in school, race and ethnicity matter to the majority of Kentucky middle and high school students. More than six in ten students who responded to our survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that their race or ethnicity is an important part of their identity. And for students of color, that figure was nearly nine in ten.


Second, although the overwhelming majority of students consider race and ethnicity to be an important element of who they are, at least a third report that their curriculum and classroom experiences “rarely” or “never” reflect the histories and present realities of people of different races or ethnicities in class. Contrast this with the nearly 50% of students reporting that they “sometimes” or “often” discuss issues related to race and ethnicity outside of the classroom, and it becomes clear that students are having important discussions on these topics, despite an already unresponsive curriculum.


And third, school climates at many schools seem to be widely affected by a lack of understanding and empathy across different racial and ethnic groups. This is evidenced by the nearly two-thirds of students we surveyed reporting that they sometimes or often hear students make insensitive remarks about the race or ethnicity of other students in school.


The truth is that we feel a sense of urgency to have conversations too often missing from our classrooms.


Like our country as a whole, Kentucky’s youth population is more diverse than previous generations, a trend which will only continue in the coming years. We cannot afford to graduate with one hand tied behind our backs, unable to navigate a world that’s so different from the one in which our parents and politicians grew up in. The ability to better understand diverse perspectives and people is an essential civic skill. And since public schools are engines of our democracy, we have an obligation to do precisely that.


In order to constructively engage across lines of difference, Kentucky students need and deserve to learn accurate history, to practice having challenging conversations in our classrooms so that we can be prepared to address injustice beyond them. By preventing teachers from supporting us to do so, House Bills Fourteen and Eighteen undermine our success not only as individuals but as a commonwealth and a nation.


And while understanding how we all see and experience our country may come with discomfort, maturity means learning to embrace it. Because this isn’t a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of responsibility. And despite what these bills suggest about the need to protect us from learning about the history of when America did not live up to our democratic ideals, our work indicates that Kentucky students already are living and grappling with its legacy.


Even as we continue to analyze and hear what over ten thousand Kentucky middle and high school students who responded to our survey reported, we can say today and we can say definitively that from Henderson to Pike and from Boone to Bell counties, young people already are engaged in thinking about inequity and injustice. So what we know for sure is that Kentucky youth need our teachers to provide us the tools to have these types of challenging conversations without facing repercussions for doing so. We deserve to be heard, and nothing less.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.

These remarks were deliverd at the Stop the Teacher Gag Bill Rally organized by the Defenders of Accurate History & the Kentucky Student Voice Team at the capitol in Frankfort on January 12, 2022.

Pragya Upreti

Pragya Upreti

Pragya is part of the student leadership team and the History is Power Project Coordinator for KSVT. She is a senior at Lafyette High School in Lexington.