CMS teachers don't reflect the diversity of their students. This program aims to help.

Ashley Park science teacher Samantha Caen (standing) rests her hands on Dianne Klay’s shoulders during the STEAM Saturday class she leads for high-scoring students.
Ashley Park science teacher Samantha Caen (standing) rests her hands on Dianne Klay’s shoulders during the STEAM Saturday class she leads for high-scoring students. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Principal Jamie Brooks used to see teachers send students to her office, sometimes for little things. Writing referrals was often the first move.

Now, things have changed at Community House Middle School. Teachers engage students in conversations, asking questions about the student's life or even talking to family members, rather than jumping to disciplinary action.

"(They're) recognizing that there's so much more to an individual than just what you see sitting there in a classroom," Brooks said.

The reason? CMS's cultural proficiency initiative.

The program aims to improve the relationship between teachers and students, by making teachers more aware of implicit biases they may have toward students of certain backgrounds. Every principal in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and about 2,000 teachers have completed the initiative, but around 7,000 teachers have not.

Now, training those teachers will take even more time, after the county denied a CMS funding request.

At a business lunch on Friday, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox cited institutional racism and income inequality as factors underlying the community's worst problems, including safety challenges at school. Cultural competency, he said, is one solution the district is using to fight these systemic issues.

"You have to all be in on fixing some of these societal ills," Wilcox said, "or something horrific will happen."

The initiative consists of four day-long, in-person sessions that include case studies and discussions that examine what the teacher believes, how to build relationships with people from different backgrounds and how to incorporate the training into the classroom.

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The school district requested $500,000 to help expand the program to 800 more teachers, but the amount was not included in the county manager’s recommended budget.

Sonja Gantt is the executive director of the CMS Foundation, which raises money for the school district. She said the program will continue without county funding, through grants and other fundraising, just at a slower pace.

But in a school district where 72 percent of students are people of color, compared with only 35 percent of teachers, this initiative is considered an especially important first step among supporters. Stephen Hancock, a professor of multicultural education at UNC Charlotte, said it should be a top priority.

Hancock studies urban education and relationships between white women, who make up the majority of teachers, and black students. He said the disparity between white teachers and nonwhite students can lead to culture clashes. Often, the student loses.

A report from CMS released in February displayed some of the educational disparities in the school district. White students, a minority of the district's students in 2016, made up most of the students in low-poverty schools, while black and Hispanic students made up 90 percent of high-poverty schools.

While 77 percent of white students at low-poverty middle schools had reading scores indicating college readiness, only 20 percent of black and Hispanic students at high-poverty middle schools reached those scores.

It goes beyond academics. Black students make up 38 percent of the school district, but 78 percent of all short-term suspensions, according to CMS data.

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These numbers stretch across all income and grade levels — black students are consistently suspended at a higher rate than both their white and Hispanic peers.

“Are black boys that dumb, or that bad, that it is blatantly recorded right here in all of the data?” Hancock said. “Or is there a different issue?”

Hancock, a former elementary school teacher, said CMS is trying to address the problem: cultural competence and implicit biases. White teachers, he said, don't have the understanding to navigate the cultural realities of the classroom.

"Students are emotionally and mentally checking out of school early, because no human can survive in a negative space for very long," he said.

Brooks said the biggest thing she learned was about implicit biases — how teachers can judge a student based on stereotypes, like expecting Indian students to perform at a higher level than others.

She expanded the program to explore more complex issues with teachers, like white privilege, which Brooks said the CMS modules didn’t touch. She said the discussion got sticky, and many teachers still did not accept the idea of white privilege. But Brooks said the discussion was important.

"The only way people are going to have the skills to engage in those conversations and to feel safe having those conversations is if they've got some kind of background and a safe place to learn," she said. "And I think that's what the cultural proficiency initiative provides."

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