Maine needs to provide a multicultural education early so that all students can thrive.
In this Feb. 3, 2017, file photo, a sign of support in both English and Arabic hangs on a classroom wall at Deering High School in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Emma Hatt is a senior at Bowdoin College studying physics and education, and a former teacher for the Multilingual Mainers program in Brunswick. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the college. Her column appears as a collaboration with the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

With the population of Maine students becoming more diverse, Maine schools must commit themselves thoroughly to an education that will actively combat bias to support all students. This must begin with early elementary education.

The Maine Department of Education released a statement in 2020 on commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in Maine. This included items such as making “all academic and non-academic programming … culturally responsive and co-constructed with community members.” Communities must hold schools accountable to follow through with this commitment, especially in early elementary education.

Maine’s general lack of cultural and racial diversity may make this commitment seem irrelevant, but Maine is by no means a state free of racism or other acts of bias. In a 2020 panel hosted by Maine’s Holocaust and Human Rights Center, students of color reported that “​​racism is unfortunately a part of the student experience” for them in schools. A 2017 Maine ACLU report on students of color and immigrant students in Maine gives many examples of race-based bullying by other students and teachers treating students unequally based on their biases.

Lack of commitment to diversity and inclusivity is undermining Maine’s ability to create welcoming communities where diversity is celebrated. Additionally, the argument that Maine is not culturally or racially diverse is not accurate; as of 2021, 13 percent of Maine public school students identified as non-white, and this population is growing.

Research has shown that children begin to form ideas of racial difference as early as 3 years old, and this is when biases begin to form. This is exacerbated in places like Maine where many students do not have interactions with people from a different race or culture. Additionally, if students aren’t given a place to discuss race, these biases may remain private and not be challenged. Schools are a perfect place to have these discussions, and they must begin early.        

Some argue that early elementary-aged students are too young to learn about race or culture, but students do not need to learn all complexities or tragedies to unlearn biases. Anti-bias, multicultural education addresses the biases that students have and attempts to help them understand ideas of identity and difference.

In early elementary education, this may look like helping students understand their own identity and learning about the identities of their classmates and how they differ. It may also involve including books in the classroom that authentically represent characters with diverse identities. Students will then be able to move past stereotypes by understanding that all people have unique identities, and that difference is natural and positive.

Preventing student bias from a young age is within the capacity of schools, yet not enough is being done. This is not telling students they’re “bad” for having biases. It is simply a research-based method to teach children how to understand and appreciate differences and diminish their biases.

You can have a part in making this change by contacting your local school board to investigate whether your local school is abiding by the Department of Education’s commitment outlined above, especially at the early elementary level. Urge your school board to commit portions of their budget to anti-bias action, such as providing anti-bias professional development workshops for teachers, supporting multilingualism and second language instruction in the curriculum, or investing in diverse books (see Libros for Language, Diverse Book Finder or We Need Diverse Books) for their school and home libraries.

If community members address this need, schools are far more likely to listen. This will allow Maine’s students to comfortably thrive in schools, and make Maine a more welcoming place for all students.