Anchorage teachers and staff gathered at the Dena’ina Center on Nov. 11, 2016 to have conversations about racial equity in education. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)The Anchorage School District is trying to close its achievement gap and help all students succeed. One of its first steps is helping teachers, administrators, and other staff talk openly about race and racism and how they impact students.Listen Now “It’s not comfortable to talk about racism,” First Alaskans Institute educator Jorie Paoli told a room filled with more than 1,600 elementary teachers and staff. “It’s not comfortable to talk about privilege. Especially now.”“But I would put forward to you and challenge you by saying it’s the most important time to talk about it,” she continued. “And if you’re uncomfortable talking about it, do what we tell our kids: practice.”That was one of the goals of the ASD training last week. Staff from all of the district’s elementary schools gathered to talk about how race impacts their students. Two were broken into two groups and went to either a morning or afternoon session. Secondary school staff participated in the same conversations in August.Jennie Knutson,ASD Executive Director of Professional Learning, helped coordinate the sessions. She said the district is excited that it has some very diverse schools, but it realizes that not all groups of students are succeeding at the same rate. The recently released Data Dashboard highlighted the problem.One of the first steps to achieving equity in education is acknowledging how a student’s background might influence how they learn, Knutson said. “Our leadership teams, our problem solving teams in the building, they need to know more about a student, but also where they are coming from in their family that might be influencing that.”Teacher Daniel Darko said educators need to acknowledge their students’ different personal histories, and let the kids talk about who they are and their own cultures. They need materials that give all students positive images of themselves, not just some. Sometimes, he said, teachers need to be open about their own experiences and how race has impacted them.“At times you have to step aside your teaching and let them know yourself,” he said. “Teach also in the way that the children will respect themselves. That is what will reduce those barriers, so they will respect each other.”Darko has been with the district for 21 years, and said this is the first time he’s been part of a district-wide conversation about race and racism. He said he thinks it was effective.Other teachers, like Aimee Marx, thought the conversation was needed but that people in the large room weren’t necessarily engaged or held accountable. Marx explained that she is white but her adopted daughter is not and that influenced her reaction to other people who thought the media talked too much about race.“I just had sour grapes when I heard them say, ‘I think they make too much in the media,’” Marx said. “And people were just jumping on it and jumping on it. And ‘I’m white. I’m diverse. I have many cultures.’ Okay, fine, you do, but you’re not hearing this message. There’s a difference between white skin and brown skin.”Paoli, from First Alaskans, said it can negatively impact students when the adults around them don’t acknowledge how race effects the way they experience the world and when they don’t call out racism.“We, as the adults who are entrusted with the care of our kids, have to be aware of that. We have to have our eyes opened to understanding how our experiences differ.”You can join the conversation. Alaska Public Media will host Community in Unity, a conversation about race and identity on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 pm. Find out more here.