Ashley Sciacca: ‘We all need to work together to make our schools more equitable spaces’

Ashley is an English teacher and Literacy Specialist at Victory College Preparatory Academy.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

Going into college, I came in with this mindset of wanting to learn as much about as many people as I could. I got really invested in immigration law and understanding the immigration debate in our country. I went on a trip to the border of the U.S. and Mexico to research what both sides of the debate looked like and to live with immigrant families. I tried to put myself in uncomfortable positions to learn other people’s perspectives as much as possible.

I had a plan to go to law school to study immigration law, but someone from Teach for America talked to me my senior year, and I just thought it was a more immediate way to work toward improving social inequities.

Then, in my sixth or seventh year of teaching, I just felt like I really needed more development around self-identity awareness and my leadership capacity, but I wanted to make sure I found a program that would help me in a practical way that I could apply to my day-to-day responsibilities in my specific school. I knew one of my gaps was knowing more about myself as a white teacher in a space with mostly students of color. I wanted to make sure I was connecting with students and families in the best ways possible and supporting students who have experienced the historical trauma of racism. IUPUI had the only program of its kind, so I applied there, and through a part-time Ph.D. program in Urban Education Studies, I’ve been pushed in a way that makes me feel really fulfilled outside of school.

Since I joined the Ph.D. program, I’ve realized how little I initially understood about the nuances of racial inequity. I’ve learned a lot about myself since joining this program by reflecting on my racial identity and how that impacts my students. 

For my seniors a couple years ago, I started teaching the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and talking about race more in my classroom. Because I also serve as a department head and in a teacher-leader capacity, I felt like I was also able to bring up issues of equity and identity awareness for white educators during leadership meetings. More than anything, my Ph.D. program has empowered me to speak up when I think topics need to be broached, and it’s also empowered me to more confidently facilitate more confidently the conversations our students need to be having, whether it’s my seniors or in a unit with my 10th-graders reading about how language can be used as a form of protest against white supremacy in poetry, such as Johnson’s or Burrough’s “The Black Man’s Burden” as a response to Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” or in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Now I feel more comfortable acknowledging my whiteness as a pivotal piece of the conversation, whereas before I would shy away from that. That has really helped me become closer to a lot of my students. 

I grew up in the suburbs, attending a high school full of mostly white students. I also recently moved to an Indianapolis suburb. As a result, I have often been asked why I teach in an urban school — why I go to the city every day. My answer is that I love my school and I love our students. But there is also a lot that all-white schools are missing, and that’s seldom part of the conversation when we talk about equity. They’re left out of the conversations about what urban schools need when they are part of what makes the urban space what it is. If no one is teaching suburban kids about their racial identity, they are going to perpetuate racial segregation. That’s part of a teacher’s job, to make sure they spread awareness and break down these barriers and walls around ignorance. We all need to work together to make our schools more equitable spaces.

We’re featuring each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Look for new features throughout the summer and fall.