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Morrison Shuffles Race Card Into CMS Deck

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Superintendent Heath Morrison this week marked his first 100 days at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by unveiling his vision for moving the district forward, which includes a push for promoting “cultural competency” as a way to ensure that teachers, administrators, and overall district practices “reflect and embrace the diversity of CMS.”

Part and parcel of the initiative is a plan to engage controversial consultant Glenn Singleton to help facilitate discussions about the role that race plays in academic success and helping to narrow the achievement gap. While a move to recruit Singleton will likely draw rave reviews from local NAACP President Kojo Nantambu and his band of the professionally and perpetually aggrieved, it could just as likely chart a fractious course for both CMS and the community it serves, hobbling efforts of actual academic progress in the name of ersatz equity.

Singleton is the president and founder of Pacific Educational Group (PEG), which espouses as one of its guiding principles that, “Systemic Racism is the most devastating factor contributing to the diminished capacity of all children, especially African American (Black) and Latino (Brown) children, and leads to the fracturing of communities that nurture and support them.” PEG’s mission statement purports to “transform educational systems into racially conscious and socially just environments that nurture the spirit and infinite potential of all learners, especially black children and their families.”

Glenn Singleton uses themes from his book, "Courageous Conversations About Race," as a template for diversity training

But how Singleton and PEG are attempting to “transform educational systems” has sparked a firestorm of controversy in school districts that have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for Singleton’s brand of diversity training and seminars.

That merits particular note considering Morrison’s plan for CMS – “The Way Forward” – which states “school leaders will receive cultural-competency training” and calls for establishing an “office of diversity” and initiating “plans to ensure cultural competency framework in all schools and every classroom.”

Such ambitions echo the diversity ventures at Morrison’s old superintendent stomping grounds in Nevada, where the Washoe County School District created a cultural competency initiative around Singleton’s book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools,” and could provide a clue to where Morrison’s efforts are headed in CMS.

As part of the Washoe County schools’ initiative, training seminars and discussions are facilitated by a Diversity & Equity Leadership Team with the goal of closing the “racial achievement gap through strengthening the capacity of district leaders to participate in a thoughtful examination of institutionalized racism and social injustices in Washoe County School District.”

The district also has its own Diversity and Equity Office, which promotes “specific activities for becoming a culturally responsive teacher.” Some examples:

Engage in reflective thinking and writing. Teachers must reflect on their actions and interactions as they try to discern the personal motivations that govern their behaviors. Understanding the factors that contribute to certain Behaviors (e.g., racism, ethnocentrism) is the first step toward changing these behaviors. This process is facilitated by autobiographical and reflective writing, usually in a journal.

Acknowledge membership in different groups. Teachers Must recognize and acknowledge their affiliation with various groups in society, and the advantages and disadvantages of belonging to each group. For example, for white female teachers, membership in the white middle- class group affords certain privileges in society; at the same time being a female presents many challenges in a male- dominated world. Moreover, teachers need to assess how belonging to one group influences how one relates to and views other groups.

The concept of so-called “white privilege” as a root of institutionalized racism in school systems is a recurring theme of Singleton’s work and philosophy, exemplified by a seminar that his Pacific Educational Group conducted for Minneapolis Public Schools. The session included a “21st Century Teacher Certification Examination” focused on “Understanding Whiteness in a White Context.” Some sample probing for teachers:

What is “White Privilege,” and what, if any, impact does it have on your life?

How does “White Privilege” impact your work as an educator?

Beyond privilege, what elements and characteristics define White identity today?

In what ways might “appropriate schooling” be defined as contextually White?

How do I as a school leader understand the “White” context of the community and its effect on the school?

Not surprisingly, Singleton’s PEG-driven seminars and diversity training programs have produced a backlash, most recently in Macon, Georgia, where the Bibb County Schools district is taking a diversity dive with Singleton:

One of the Macon Miracle’s goals is to train people throughout the district to recognize racial factors in the classroom — by providing ongoing PEG training.

But in recent public meetings, many Bibb County parents have voiced their concerns, saying the PEG program needlessly attacks white teachers by telling them they are racist. Those parents said Singleton is a polarizing figure, attracting as much criticism for the PEG methodology as he does praise.

Singleton said during a phone interview that raising questions about uncomfortable topics is key to beginning a community race discussion.

“We approach racial disparity from a multipronged approach,” Singleton said. “First and foremost, we engage in a dialogue cross-racially. We provide the training, support and tools to talk about race. … We wouldn’t have been around for 20 years if we were racially divisive.”

Still, critics often have argued that in some of the places where PEG has been hired, the argument is one-sided against whites and Asians. The Cherry Creek school system, located in a suburb of Denver, hired PEG for a six-figure sum in 2006 to run the program there.

Vincent Carroll, now an editorial writer for The Denver Post, criticized the PEG philosophy as the editorial page editor for The Rocky Mountain News in 2006, just after “Courageous Conversations” was published.

“The program also promotes a world view in which American society is relentlessly oppressive; in which individuals, even today, remain at the mercy of their racial origins; in which ‘white talk’ is ‘verbal, impersonal, intellectual’ and ‘task-oriented,’ while ‘color commentary’ is ‘nonverbal, personal, emotional’ and ‘process-oriented,’” Carroll wrote in a May 10, 2006, editorial. “Enlightened whites, in the authors’ description, speak in the chastened, cringing language of someone who has emerged from a re-education camp.”

At which point it’s important to note that Morrison has robustly praised and defended Singleton’s work, and ranks “Courageous Conversations About Race” atop his essential reading list. Singleton’s work, however, draws mixed reviews of praise, criticism and concern in districts across the country where his Pacific Educational Group has set up shop. Take, for example, a recent editorial from Minnesota’s Star-Tribune:

At least 16 districts — including Minneapolis, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Farmington, Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan and Rochester — have worked with PEG on “cultural competency” training aimed at closing the gap. The estimated cost as of spring 2011? About $2 million.

In promoting the view that white people and “Black and Brown” people have very different cultures, Singleton employs crude racial stereotypes that most Americans rejected years ago. For example, he claims that “White individualism” fosters “independence,” “individual achievement” and “upward mobility,” and that white people are “intellectual” and capable of “quantitative thinking.”

In contrast, “Black and Brown” culture promotes “collectivism.” Black and Brown people are “emotional and “interested in feelings,” and communicate through “body motions” like “rolling of the eyes” and “other nonverbal expressions.”

School district personnel — “from the Board and superintendent to beginning teachers” — must participate in PEG-led consciousness raising, according to PEG materials. Unless training is comprehensive, “educators who are disengaged will simply move to places in the district where fear, resistance, inequity, and racism remain unaddressed.”

What comes out the other end of PEG’s ideological pipeline? Singleton points to Graig Meyer, a “district equity coach” in Chapel Hill, N.C., as PEG’s ideal white educator and “anti-racist leader.”

“The truly difficult work is looking deep within myself to recognize where my own reservoirs of Whiteness reside,” he quotes Meyer as saying. “My White guilt tends to creep up most when I’m forced to reflect on the power I wield.”

Meyer goes on to condemn his own “engrained Whiteness and my own blindness to its perpetual presence.” He laments “the deepest vestige of my own White supremacy that feeds this need to know it all, to be right, and to be in charge.”

Under the influence of Singleton’s PEG, even the seemingly innocuous can create a racial stir; just ask the folks from Portland Public Schools, where officials have shelled out nearly $2 million since 2007 to contract with Singleton for equity training.

Verenice Gutierrez picks up on the subtle language of racism every day.

Take the peanut butter sandwich, a seemingly innocent example a teacher used in a lesson last school year.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.

“Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

Guitierrez, along with all of Portland Public Schools’ principals, will start the new school year off this week by drilling in on the language of “Courageous Conversations,” the district-wide equity training being implemented in every building in phases during the past few years.

Through intensive staff trainings, frequent staff meetings, classroom observations and other initiatives, the premise is that if educators can understand their own “white privilege,” then they can change their teaching practices to boost minority students’ performance.

Last Wednesday, the first day of the school year for staff, for example, the first item of business for teachers at Scott School was to have a Courageous Conversation — to examine a news article and discuss the “white privilege” it conveys.

Considering Morrison’s previous affiliation with Singleton and his current plan to push forward “cultural competency” training in CMS, are we headed down the same road? And how much will it cost in taxes and turmoil to pave?

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