For a consultant who isnt even working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Glenn Singleton is creating a lot of buzz in town.
Some hope he can steer CMS toward a new era of racial equity and student success. Some fear hell alienate white teachers and school supporters. Many are still trying to understand what hes all about.
Superintendent Heath Morrison is nearing a decision on whether to hire Singleton, author of two Courageous Conversations About Race books, to help local educators confront institutional racism and unconscious biases that hold students back.
Morrison, who took the helm of CMS this summer, and Singleton, a consultant based in California, insist such work is vital to creating schools where children of color thrive.
Getting there, Singleton writes, requires educators to enter the kind of trusting relationships that allow them to confront issues, such as white privilege, that are taboo in white culture. He believes his Pacific Educational Group has a system to make that happen, but acknowledges its touchy.
(Some) districts are reluctant to partner with PEG out of fear that explicitly naming racism as a core issue will upset White teachers, parents and others in the school community, Singleton writes in his second book, released last fall. It is difficult, without a doubt, to get educators to examine and address their internalized, often unconscious, racist beliefs.
The cost has yet to be spelled out; Morrison says hell release that when he makes a decision.
The benefit to students has proven hard to measure. Even districts that have worked with PEG and observed gains say its hard to calculate the contribution of one consultant.
But his supporters say the value lies in how he opens educators minds.
Morrison has been through the process twice, as an administrator in Montgomery County, Md., and as superintendent in Reno, Nevada. He says it changed the way he sees his life as a white man and shaped his mission to educate children who dont always look like him.
Its not about trying to blame, Morrison says. Its not about trying to make people feel bad.
Shortly before Christmas, Morrison brought Singleton to Charlotte to meet with a whos who of education and community figures, from the Charlotte Chamber and the NAACP to religious, foundation and university leaders.
He wants Singleton to understand Mecklenburg County, and he wants to head off some of the controversy that has accompanied Singletons appearance in other districts.
Why, Morrison asks, would we be afraid of having an exchange of ideas about how kids learn?
Many who met Singleton agree.
Ignoring the role of race in education is denying history, psychology and reality, says Ron Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University. We have to have the courage to talk about race constructively and to acknowledge it will always be there, he said.
Foundation for the Carolinas President Michael Marsicano, who has been at the helm of major CMS-focused community projects, says he supports Morrisons interest in working with Singleton.
This is not a new conversation in our community, Marsicano said. But he said CMSs involvement could create a defining moment.
Others say forcing educators to talk about racism and privilege could antagonize some teachers, voters and taxpayers. Whites account for 50 percent of Mecklenburg County residents and 71 percent of CMS teachers. But just under one-third of CMS students are white, a percentage that has been slowly declining for years. Many urban schools have very few white students, while suburban schools tend to be majority white.
It doesnt smell good at all, in my personal opinion, Tom Davis, who is active in north suburban politics and education, said of Singletons approach. The most important thing is how is it going to affect teacher morale?
I think it will polarize the entire community and I think it will polarize teachers, said Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association.
Why the gaps?
In CMS, like virtually every school district in America, black and Hispanic students are less likely than white and Asian classmates to pass standardized exams and graduate from high school. Here and elsewhere, those gaps continue into adulthood, with adults of color more likely to land in poverty, jail and the ranks of the unemployed.
In Charlotte, a city historically defined by court battles over school segregation and busing, current talk about education often pushes race to the sidelines.
Take Project LIFT, a $55 million philanthropic quest to improve nine schools in Charlottes westside corridor. The groups strategic plan goes into detail about poverty levels, test scores, graduation rates and discipline at the nine schools.
Virtually all students at those schools are African-American or Hispanic, but that gets little attention. At one point, the plan notes that demographic differences related to race and ethnicity are not of concern, but that high poverty levels and large numbers of students in special education pose a challenge.
Project LIFT, like many other efforts to boost such schools, focuses on recruiting strong teachers and providing extra support for kids and families.
Singleton wouldnt dismiss such tactics, nor deny the challenges of poverty and disabilities. But he does contend they wont succeed without facing the role of racism.
During his Charlotte visit, Singleton repeatedly showed people a page in his new book charting national SAT scores by race and income. At every income level, African0American students trail, with those from families earning $200,000 or more logging about the same average as white students from the poorest families.
Belinda Cauthen, a former CMS teacher who leads the education efforts of the local NAACP branch, celebrates the idea that CMS is finally ready to confront such matters. She says educators of all races need to be honest about their deep-seated beliefs.
Do you really believe that all of those disparities are based on some inherent deformity or inadequacy in these individuals? she asked.
Morrison first went through Courageous Conversations training when he supervised several schools in Montgomery County, a high-performing district outside Washington.
Writing his own autobiography helped him understand his own story: As an American facing a hostile environment in British schools, then as a white student consigned to remedial classes when he returned to the U.S. As one of the only white students in those classes, he says, he experienced what so many African-American students do: The low expectations from teachers that can sap self-confidence.
In another exercise, Singleton had a group of about 200 educators think about what percent of their lives are shaped by race. Then they lined up, with zero at one end and 100 percent at the other. Seeing the whites concentrated at the low end and the people of color at the high end helped Morrison understand the luxury of being oblivious to race a privilege Singleton says most white people deny.
Really good cultural competency training is a reflection of yourself, Morrison says. It is how to deal with differences.
Morrison says he also saw the insights put into practice: A high school principal realized that nonwhite students with high PSAT scores werent being placed into Advanced Placement classes. An elementary principal realized students of color were less likely to be placed in high-level reading and math classes, even when their scores indicated they were capable.
Morrison said Friday he doesnt agree with everything Singleton has written, but he finds him effective with educators and less confrontational than many other diversity consultants.
Controversy is likely
Yet, controversy tends to follow Singleton.
If Morrison decides to sign a contract with PEG, the work would begin during a school board election year, when CMS is likely to be seeking voter support for school bonds. Davis, the north Mecklenburg activist, says a CMS focus on racism and white privilege will doom the bonds, inflame suburban talk about splitting CMS into smaller districts and hasten the decline in white enrollment.
Davis, who is white and has been a leader in the group talking about suburban secession, says he wants Morrison to succeed in uniting Mecklenburg County. One little miscue could create a nightmare for this bond vote coming, he said.
Bolyn McClung, a white resident of south suburban Pineville, met with Singleton and believes his approach is wrong for Mecklenburg County.
His heart is in the right place, said McClung, who is active in education issues. It just scares me to death that hes going to come in and harshly preach white privilege.
Several people who spoke with Singleton say he was soft-spoken and pleasant, talking about his own background and mostly listening to others stories and ideas. He did not lay out specifics of his possible work in Charlotte, those people said.
Singleton says Morrisons decision to consult community leaders and build on existing anti-racism efforts enhances the odds of success: The way we have engaged with CMS and the larger community is a model.
Whats the cost, payoff?
Singleton and his supporters insist that just as educators of all races must confront their biases and change their teaching, children of all races will benefit from the changes.
No one should walk away from this seeing it as a disservice, Singleton said. The goal, he and Morrison say, would be for achievement to rise among all racial groups, but to rise faster among those that are behind.
No districts, including those that have worked with PEG for years, have eliminated racial gaps.
Jerry Weast, recently retired superintendent of the Montgomery County system, says Singleton was one of many consultants he brought in.
Hes a good guy to open up peoples eyes, said Weast, but youre not going to create any miracles with this.
Hiring PEG doesnt require a board vote, but Morrison invited all board members to talk with Singleton when he visited.
Members interviewed in December said they support the exploration but want to know more about specifics. For instance: Will Morrison wait to discuss the decision with volunteer task forces exploring racial topics? Will the training divert money and energy needed to prepare teachers for the new national Common Core curriculum?
I feel like what he would bring would be something we need to hear, said board Chairman Mary McCray, a retired teacher who is African-American. She said all teachers, including her, bring biases to the classroom. We need to become honest with each other.
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