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Seek First to Understand: Exploring the Implementation of Culturally Relevant Education in the District of Columbia Open Access

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In the United States, a significant opportunity gap persists between elementary and secondary students holding marginalized identities and their more privileged peers. Overwhelming evidence suggests that this disparity in academic outcomes emerges not from an inherent difference in students’ abilities or motivations, but rather from institutional racism within and beyond the public education system. Students of color often do not see their backgrounds represented in the books they read, the discussions in which they participate, or the role models whom they look to in the classroom. Literature suggests that to succeed, all students- regardless of race- must feel validated, supported, and empowered by their academic environments. However, in the District of Columbia, Black students indicate dramatically lower satisfaction with their school climates than their White peers. A growing movement toward culturally relevant education (CRE), a pedagogical paradigm seeking to celebrate diverse identities in the classroom, shows promise at reducing this systemic racial inequity. The focus of this research is the potential for CRE implementation to address and narrow the opportunity gap between Black and White students in Washington, DC. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explore the current application of culturally relevant educational practices among District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) teachers in order to better understand the extent to which DCPS educators address racial disparity within their classrooms. Data gathering consisted of semi- structured qualitative interviews thematically coded to explore how teachers implement CRE techniques, what supports or barriers they experience in executing these methods, and how they respond to racially disparate DCPS student experiences. These insights strengthen our understanding of DCPS teachers’ perceptions of CRE implementation in diverse classrooms in order to inform future research and suggest methods by which the public education system can empower teachers to equitably educate all of their students.

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