CMS is divided but not paralyzed on attempts to remedy racism, superintendent says

Superintendent says CMS is not paralyzed on equity

In December 2018, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox talked about actions Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was taking to address racism and other barriers to achievement.
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In December 2018, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox talked about actions Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was taking to address racism and other barriers to achievement.

After a long, intense and sometimes personal debate among school board members Tuesday night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he wanted to assure the public that CMS is not “paralyzed” by the board’s rift over equity.

He ticked off a list of efforts to address educational disadvantages among students of color, from plans to add African American studies classes at every high school next semester to a program pushing high-potential students who were “floating through as almost ghosts in high school” into more challenging classes.

“My point is to reassure the community that we are doing the right things as a school system to get better,” Wilcox said Tuesday night. “Are we doing enough of them? Are we doing them fast enough? That’s for others to decide. But I will tell you we are not shying from the work.”

District leaders’ struggle to define, measure and address the conditions that hobble some students predates Wilcox’s arrival in 2017 — arguably by decades, but dating back at least to a 2016 accreditation review. The experts who studied CMS noted that CMS lacked a common definition of equity, let alone a plan to ensure that disadvantaged students get what they need to succeed.

In January 2017 the board held a 2.5-hour retreat to try to define equity. Almost two years later, the board is still wrangling with an equity policy, and consensus remains elusive. Tuesday’s discussion, which lasted more than an hour, centered on the question of whether, when and how the board should create a citizen advisory panel.

Board member Ruby Jones, who chairs the board’s policy committee, said that committee’s debate has generated enough public interest to merit Tuesday’s wider airing. Last month Justin Perry, a therapist and Observer community columnist, wrote a piece urging the board to quickly create a citizen equity committee, comparing the mission to the Alcoholics Anonymous process of listing harms and making amends.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members debate the value of creating a citizen equity panel.

Five of the nine board members — Jones, Mary McCray, Thelma Byers-Bailey, Rhonda Cheek and Sean Strain — said creating a panel is premature at best and at worst a substitute for meaningful action. They said if the board needs advice, members should turn to students, teachers and/or Wilcox’s newly created equity team.

“Sitting around a table gets us no further into the doing of what we already know to improve the outcomes of our children,” said Jones.

McCray suggested a new equity panel would simply add “yet another failed committee to this community’s hall of fame of good intentions.”

The other four — Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Carol Sawyer, Margaret Marshall and Elyse Dashew — argued that enlisting citizen advisers would build trust and engage the community in the quest for equity.

“For me, an equity committee is not the answer. It’s one portion of the answer,” Ellis-Stewart said. “It’s a mechanism for us to say to the community, ‘This is important. ... Your voice in this work is important.’ “

Kendall Sanders, a Northwest School of the Arts student who joined the board Tuesday as a nonvoting adviser, said she and other members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council also think a citizen panel is important.

Kendall Sanders CMS board.jpg
Northwest School of the Arts student Kendall Sanders (center) joined the CMS board as a nonvoting adviser Tuesday.

Sawyer, elected to the school board in 2017, noted that she served on a previous CMS equity panel created in the early 2000s. It was charged with monitoring conditions after a Supreme Court ruling led to the end of court-ordered desegregation and the emergence of schools with high concentrations of black, Hispanic and low-income students.

“I think we served an important function as a bridge to the community,” Sawyer said.

But Cheek, who has been on the school board since 2009, said she was proud to have voted to dissolve that committee. “We didn’t really find true value in the work of counting widgets and pencils and computer screens,” Cheek said.

McCray, a retired teacher, said when members of that committee visited her class they distracted her from teaching and seemed interested in meaningless details. McCray, who is African American, also offered what seemed to be a rebuke to white people who have criticized her for balking at a new committee.

“As a person who grew up attending schools which were inequitable with the explicit blessing of the state, I find it unthinkable that any person would question my commitment to insuring equity in our schools,” McCray said. “I don’t think that anyone who has not experienced inequity firsthand should think that they know or care more about resolving inequity than those of us who have been its victims and continue to endure it.”

Wilcox, whose remarks came later in the meeting, didn’t weigh on in the citizen panel. But he talked about what he and his staff are doing to address the barriers to success for students of color, especially those in high-poverty schools, that were addressed in the February “Breaking the Link” report.

CMS is working with a Seattle-based group called Equal Opportunity Schools to identify students who have logged high test scores but have been allowed to drift into basic high school classes, encouraging them to get into Advanced Placement courses that offer college credit.

Wilcox expanding career-tech classes that offer industrial certifications and is requiring all high schools to offer at least 10 AP courses to provide more opportunities for rigorous work.

All CMS high schools will offer African American studies starting in January and Latino studies starting next fall. “We’re going offer that because we believe that kids have to see themselves in our curriculum,” Wilcox said.

CMS is trying to reduce suspensions, which fall disproportionately on black students, through greater emphasis on providing social and emotional support for students. “By and large it’s a very positive initial step,” Wilcox said. “I will tell you we still have disproportionality, but we’re going to get there.”

The district has trained more than 3,000 teachers to recognize and counteract cultural bias, with another 1,500 scheduled for training this year. Wilcox said CMS is also working with the Leading on Opportunity council to address racial bias, privilege and community issues such as housing instability.

“We are not just sitting by as a school system,” Wilcox said. “We are doing a lot of great things.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.