Black@ISMA | Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy


Over the summer, Administration became aware of an Instagram page called “blackatisma” that details heart wrenching stories of racism experienced at IMSA by current students and alumni. We proactively reached out to the account administrators to discuss these stories, and ultimately, met with the leaders of this account and other Black alumni on June 30, 2020. Present at the meeting with Black@ISMA leaders and other Black alumni were Dr. Jose Torres, President, Cabinet (the top six executive leaders at IMSA who report directly to him, Dr. Adrienne Coleman, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Ms. Tami Armstrong, Executive Director of Public Affairs.) During an over two hour meeting, the students and alumni shared their deep concerns about a toxic, racist culture at IMSA that includes classroom experiences with faculty and peers, as well as in the residence halls and other spaces at IMSA. They also shared their concern that Administration had not done enough to address anti-Black racism and presented us with a list of their demands to address this.

At our request, the students and alumni shared their list of demands to us. Subsequently, Dr. Jose Torres and Cabinet had several conversations to determine our response to the demands. As the Chief Human Resources and Chief Equity Officer, I drafted a letter to those who met with us to specifically respond to each demand. In the spirit of full transparency, we are releasing the details of that letter. The names of the people with whom we met are redacted to protect their confidentiality.

Dear Black@ISMA,

Thank you again for meeting with us. We look forward to more conversations with you. Please see Cabinet’s response to the demands presented at our June 30th meeting and provided to us on July 6th. Note that the Cabinet is made up of the six highest level administrators at IMSA who all report directly to President José Torres.

Categorizing Racist Acts
1. Include definitions for both bias incidents and hate crimes in the Equity and Excellence and Excellence Policy

Response: The appropriate place for defining bias incidents is in the student handbook and it is included in there, along with related consequences. Crimes, including “hate crimes” are determined by state statute. IMSA cannot define and find anyone guilty of a “crime” and we want to avoid that terminology due to legal implications. However, the student handbook does include consequences for violations of state or federal laws, which include hate crimes as applicable.

2. Use the developed definitions to properly distinguish between bias incidents and hate crimes. Those who commit hate crimes should be immediately removed from IMSA. Those guilty of committing bias incidents should be required to complete courses or training regarding anti-racism for a semester as well as face a week long suspension period.

Response: The student handbook was recently revised to add “bias incidents” to all three misconduct tiers, with increasingly more severe consequences for each tier (and accordingly, seriousness).

Curriculum Advancements
1. Require professional development that qualifies teachers to properly teach diverse curriculum that encompasses the experiences of Black people to the same degree as white people.

Response: We agree that we need culturally competent teachers, culturally responsive curricula and culturally responsive pedagogy. In fact, those are required outcomes in the board-approved Equity and Excellence policy. To that end, we have included extensive professional development over the next three years for faculty to build their capacity specifically in these areas. However, we fully acknowledge that IMSA Faculty is not yet there, but we are working on it.

2. Create mandatory courses that encompass the history of oppression, cultural literacy, Black History, Indigenous History and LGBTQ+ History. Identify a teacher from each department who will be responsible for revamping all current curriculum.

Response: We agree that a much more diverse and inclusive curriculum is paramount. However, as evident by your demand for professional development to qualify teachers to properly teach diverse curriculum, we are not yet there. We are working to increase cultural competence and pedagogy for faculty so that they can teach more diverse courses. The addition of more diverse courses is also part of the Equity and Excellence plan.

IMSA Faculty
1. Actively recruit and hire Black and Latinx faculty for STEM, Social Science, English, Language and Fine Arts courses.

Response: We agree that we need Black and Latinx faculty across all disciplines. In fact, we have been actively recruiting them. However, a) we don’t have significant turnover; therefore, we have few opportunities to hire new faculty; b) we have not been able to attract a deep pool of diverse faculty applicants from which to hire for the openings we do have each year; and c) the one time we had a desirable Black candidate, we were not able to meet her salary demand. We have created a “Diverse Fellows” program where a Black or Latinx graduate would work as a Resident Counselor part time and teach under an existing faculty member part time, with the goal of being able to bring the candidate onto faculty. However, this requires that there be an opening in the specific discipline of the Fellow at the time of completion of the Fellowship. Additionally, we are considering other creative ways to add Black and Latinx faculty (e.g., adjuncts, visiting scholars, etc). We also look forward to partnering with the Black Alumni Association to assist us in recruiting Black and Latinx candidates as faculty.

2. Mandate cultural competency and anti-racist training annually for the IMSA community that specifically speaks to how they can support the Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Response: We have required annual training for students through “I’m Not a Racist Am I?” and Safe Zone training currently. As part of the Equity and Excellence Plan, we are including additional required training for students as well as staff, including faculty. In the meantime, the entire Cabinet and Senior Leadership Team is undertaking such training during FY21 through, partially, engaging in a required book read and discussion of “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism”, “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”, and “How to Be an Anti-Racist”, along with other professional development. Senior Leadership Team members will then lead their respective teams through discussions on race, racism and anti-racism as well. Faculty is also getting additional training in looking at their work through an equity lens, cultural competency and culturally responsive pedagogy.

3. Implement a zero tolerance policy for faculty and staff who are dismissive of and discriminatory towards Black students. Any claims against them should be investigated by an outside contractor and anyone found guilty should be immediately dismissed from IMSA.

Response: The Academy has a disciplinary policy that it must follow regarding discipline of staff, including faculty. Additionally, as a government agency, there are additional “due process” procedures that we must adhere to and summarily terminating any employee in contravention of those policies and procedures cannot happen. However, we will investigate every claim of discrimination towards any students, specifically including Black students. In fact, we are in the process of engaging an outside contractor to investigate claims; however, to date, we have not been provided with names and/or details, so we have been unable to investigate any of the Black@ISMA Instagram posts.

Parental Involvement
1. Notify parents within 48 hours of a racially charged incident occurring.

Response: We agree to report major incidents of racial bias to parents within 48 hours. However, for all other bias incidents, we will report them publicly on a quarterly basis to the Academy and the public (likely via the website, but this has not yet been decided).

2. Invite parents to attend parent town halls led by PAC and make available recordings for all other IMSA town halls or assemblies addressing racially charged incidents.

Response: We will not make the recordings of IMSA town halls or assemblies available. However, PAC has monthly meetings via Webex which are recorded and made available to all parents.

3. Foster a welcoming and inclusive environment within PAC which promotes the participation of parents of color.

Response: PAC is an independent nonprofit organization, separate from IMSA; however, we have met with the PAC President, shared your demands and asked that they consider how to be meet them.

SIR Advisor
1. Actively recruit Black IMSA alumni and other Black professionals to participate as SIR advisors, and actively encourage Black and Latinx students to participate by working to pair them with Black and Latinx professionals.

Response: Yes. We will create a SMART goal for the SIR Management Team to accomplish this. Additionally, this is a specific area in which our Black Alumni Association can be helpful as many of them are in STEM fields and therefore, can serve as advisors or refer us to other Black STEM professionals.

Student Support Services
1. Allow Black students to take up to three stress days after a hate crime or biased incident occurs and allow them to make up any missed work or exams from the stress day(s).

Response: Presently there are no limits to the number of stress mods in any given semester. However, a) the bias incident must be reported; and b) students must continue to see the counselors (Kevin and Keisha) to explore ways to cope with these incidents, including taking stress days.

2. Recruit and hire Black, Latinx and other underrepresented POC to work in each student support role such as CACs, mental health counselors and nurses.

Response: We’re always looking to recruit and hire Black, Latinx and other underrepresented POC across the Academy. Of the two current mental health counselors, one is a Black female (TaKeisha Rheams). While we do not employ nurses, we will ask our healthcare partner, Rush Copley, to work with IMSA in placing a Black, Latinx or other underrepresented POC nurse at IMSA.

3. Have at latest three mental health counselors.

Response. We would love to have a third mental health counselor. Currently, that is not possible due to budget constraints. We will continue to evaluate this request as our budget allows.

9/1/2020 Update: We are happy to report that a third mental health counselor has been approved and we will be posting and recruiting for that position within the week. 

College Preparation Tools
1. Invite representation from more HBCUs to the IMSA college fair and create an intersession that is an HBCU tour.

Response: Agreed. We have actively worked to develop relationships with HBCUs, have held a HBCU Day and have previously taken students on HBCU tours when the budget allowed for such. We will continue to invite HBCUs to specific HBCU events as well as ensure they are invited to the IMSA College Day. We also agree to reinstate the HBCU tour as well as we are able to from a budgetary perspective. This will be one of the SMART goals for the CACs.

2. Black Alumni Advisory Council: A mentorship program pairing Black students with Black alumni, with support for monthly events for mentorship on IMSA, college, and future career interests.

Response: We are always inviting our Black alumni to mentor and engage with our Black students. We look forward to working with the Black Alumni Association to increase the participation of Black alumni.

Fostering Transparency
1. Create transparency surrounding the numbers about dropouts at IMSA (race, gender, year in school, etc.).

Response: Agreed. We will create an annual memorandum to the Board and share with IMSA community to include trends over the years.

2. Publicize progress on meeting these demands on a monthly basis with supporting evidence.

Response: Agreed. We will report via our DEI newsletter which is issued every other month and share with the IMSA community, including staff, students, parents, and alumni.

My Cabinet colleagues and I also have a few requests of you as well. First, please let the IMSA Alumni Association and the public know that we met with you on June 30th and have responded to the list of demands presented to us. We continue to get demands to hold public meetings and tell people when we’re going to respond and what our response will be. Rather than continue to field these individual requests, we believe it is appropriate for Black@ISMA to let the public know what is going on. However, we will respond to a question from the recent student and parent Town Hall asking for the status of our response to Black@ISMA.

Second, my assistant has been trying to set up a meeting with [deleted] (and whomever else from Black@ISMA wants to attend) to address the concerns raised in her July 4th email to me concerning how we could lay off employees, but not fire employees. To date, we have not gotten a response. I am more than willing to meet to discuss this and explain. If anyone would like to meet regarding this, please let me know.

Finally, and most importantly, during our June 30th meeting, you all agreed to provide us with names and details of the stories behind the Black@ISMA Instagram account so that we could begin investigating. As you requested, we have an outside investigator and would like to begin investigating the stories. We cannot make much progress with disciplinary action against anyone if we don’t have the details to investigate. Please provide us this information as soon as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Until justice is real,
Traci D. Ellis, JD, SHRM-SCP
Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Equity Officer
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy