Maurice “Mo” Green might have been superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools right now. After Heath Morrison’s departure in 2014, the then-superintendent of Guilford County Schools was believed to be a leading contender to take the job. Green, after all, had been deputy superintendent at CMS before taking over Greensboro’s schools in 2008.
Had things worked out that way, Green would now be overseeing the school system’s reassessment of its student assignment policies, an exercise driven by the system’s stark resegregation over the past decade-plus.
Green became the executive director at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem four weeks ago. That seemingly removes him from the school-superintendent pool. But it didn’t remove his perspective on how to tackle racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Green met with the Observer editorial board on Tuesday. Here’s an edited version of that conversation. Find a longer version at www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion.
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Q. How do you break up concentrations of poverty without alienating the parents who are quite happy with the schools just the way they are?
A. This is a complex question. I’ll start with being sure we understand the world has changed as far as the demographics of the students. Back when there was a significant effort around desegregating the schools you basically had black and white. And the free-and-reduced-lunch numbers were much lower than they are now. Now it’s a majority-minority district; it’s a majority of students of color. The conversation needs to start with an understanding of that demographic change.
The other major shift is there are many more options now for families. It used to be you either go to public school or private. That has changed pretty dramatically. More families are choosing to do charter schools, choosing to do private schools that receive public funding, the home school population is continuing to grow across this state in pretty dramatic numbers.
Q. So what are some of the potential fixes?
A. Number One is, you have to not move immediately to moving children. I actually believe you start with the adults. And be sure that people understand the types of children that are coming to them, understanding the types of issues that they come into the space with.
Much more work needs to be done on things around implicit bias and systemic racism and the sorts of things that people come into the space with in educating kids. And trying to begin to open people’s minds and hearts to what it is that they’re bringing into the space. What systems have been put in place that have impeded the ability for young people to be successful. And to start having those levels of conversations without moving a kid at all.
Q. You talk about addressing the biases that people come into the classroom with, and I assume you’re talking about educators. Had you started to have those conversations in Greensboro?
A. Yes sir. We were doing a multitude of different things to begin to expose ourselves and our educators to these issues. At the leadership level, we had different cohorts go through anti-racism type training.
We decided this is such a difficult issue to put one’s arms around that maybe you don’t start trying to do something district-wide. We chose three schools to focus on on things related to discipline. Like CMS and probably every school system in the state and most in the country, we had a disproportionate number of African-American students being suspended out of school and losing a lot of student days in comparison to white students.
So we would really try to do some deep work in those three schools with a lot of education and professional development of the educators around what systems are in place, and issues about implicit bias. We brought in local, regional, national experts to come in and talk with our teachers. We had African-American students come and present to our educators about how they feel when they walk into the space of the schools. Then we had the schools develop plans of how they would begin to do some things differently.
Q. Don’t you have a backlash from those you’re hoping to enlighten? I’d think they’d say “you’re calling me a racist.”
A. There are people for whom that’s going to be the response. There are going to be people who will automatically shut you down. But in the main you are talking about folk who are educators who are wanting to have kids be successful and are struggling with why that isn’t the case. Educators tend to be people who are like, “Give me something else in the toolbox, maybe this will work, or why isn’t that working.”
Q. And you think that’s the vast majority of educators?
A. I think that’s a majority of the people. All of us come into the room with our own biases and histories and views of the world. That will take time and effort and strategies to unpack and deal with. We started with, let’s look at the data that show African-American males are suspended out of school 3.4 times as often as white males.
Q. To which some people would say, that’s because they are the ones causing the problems.
A. Correct. And that’s OK to start there. Then the question is, some of the actions for which kids were suspended out of school, why weren’t white kids suspended for the same actions? Then you start to have to ask a deeper question. And it’s that exploration that then leads to wanting to figure out maybe there are different and better answers than just: These are the bad kids so they need to be suspended out of school. You have to provide comfortable spaces for uncomfortable conversations.
Q. Do you see potential for the foundation to do anything based on what you learned at Guilford County Schools?
A. I could see that this is work we want to continue to explore. This is not easy work and there are going to be people who immediately go to, “You’re calling me a racist, I’m shutting down because this isn’t the way I view the world and what I think is important.” That will grab headlines but I think there are going to be places where folk will be interested in doing some of this.
Q. The one thing you hear a lot about is the role of parents and a lot of these kids don’t have the home life other kids do, they have fewer books, they’re not reading at night, all kinds of things. Do you have any thoughts about a school system’s ability to address that?
A. All of that is true. And oftentimes people then make the assumption that these parents or families don’t have the level of intelligence that they actually do. So there’s this paternalistic reaction to those sorts of situations. Families like that certainly need additional resources, they need additional books, they need to have exposure to educational opportunities they might not otherwise be aware of. But I worry that you do that in a paternalistic sort of way and not really advance those families.
Q. As more people choose other options and a challenging public school population remains, some teachers are saying, “I don’t know that this is a path that is sustainable.”
A. It’s a path that if we don’t pay attention and do some things about the path, then yes, we will remain on that path. But I think there are some things that can be done and need to be done right now that allows us not to continue on that path. One would be the way we talk about our educators and the way we treat our educators. There is a strong and growing devaluation of educators. People aren’t looking to see how many wonderful things go on every day in our educational system.