Leadership Instability and Divisions within a School District Cited for Disproportionality

Written By Hui-Ling Malone

Although it was only an hour train ride from New York City to Parktown*, New York, this suburban city seemed like a different world. From the train station to the elementary school where the professional development was held, there was little if any presence of cars and people compared to the busy streets of New York City. Instead, medium sized quaint houses dotted the road and although greyish clouds dusted the sky, the air was clear, clean, and crisp.  

New York University’s Cultural Competence Team to Address Inequity in Schools (CCTAIS)* arrived in Parktown to conduct a professional development (PD) for the city’s school district because their schools were cited for disproportionality by the state. Meaning, that within the schools, there were a high number of suspensions, particularly of Black and Latino boys, throughout the district. CCTAIS has been working with Parktown since the fall to address root causes of the disproportionality and to implement culturally responsive teaching and practices. The trainings are to help district representatives formulate discipline policies that are restorative instead of punitive and ultimately alleviate the number of suspensions to provide an educational environment that is productive for all students.

As we walked into this picturesque old fashion building we were greeted by the school leaders, who happened to be all white women. After checking in at the security desk we proceeded to the room where the meeting was held. Walking down the hallway with us were tiny school kids heading to their classrooms, mostly of African American and Latino descent. Their faces, that were varying shades of brown, contrasted with the banner in the hallway highlighting the school staff. It was evident that most of the teachers are white.   

Yet, walking into the room where we would be for the next six hours, I saw that the representatives chosen to lead these conversations about race and equity was much more diverse than expected. Based on the banner I had just seen outside, I questioned how reflective the racial diversity in the room represented the staff of Parktown’s school leadership. Regardless, the participants greeted us warmly and looked excited to pick up from where they left off from the last session.  For CCTAIS, the trainers are mostly of color. The head director and leader of the group, Dr. Baptiste*, is a Black man of Haitian descent. Two of the other trainers, *Zarah and *Maya, are of African American descent. Dr. Baptiste, Zarah, and Maya seem to know the Parktown representatives well, as they quickly engaged in conversations with various participants about family and other social aspects which were not strictly related to work. Because this is my first training at Parktown I don’t know who is who of the Parktown participants, but I am aware that the room consists of mostly teachers, some administrators, and a few representatives from the central office, such as the assistant superintendent.

About twenty minutes after our arrival, Dr. Baptiste calls for everyone’s attention and begins the session. The whiteboard projects  “Implementing Culturally Responsive Systems to address Disproportionality using a Guardian Equity Team”. After introductions, Dr. Baptiste reminds everyone of the Contract that they have agreed to in previous sessions. Some of the items are listed as “Listen with respect, Struggle together, Stay engaged, Try not to take it personally” which indicates that what might be discussed in this session may be personal and difficult to discuss.

Dr. Baptiste warms up the room by telling a story about his friend’s daughter who experienced racial hostility in her school. A White student directed  a racist remark about not liking Black people to the daughter (who is of African descent). Upon hearing of the incident, the parents called the school and the building administrators reported back that they handled the situation. And that was that. Dr. Baptiste’s friends wondered why the parents of all parties were not brought in. There was no question of where this language was coming from of this student.  Dr. Baptiste advised his friends not to judge, but to ask questions. He explains to everyone that this could have been an opportunity to have a conversation, but instead the incident was swept under the rug, with no apologies from the parents of the child that said the racist remark. With this story, it is clear that Dr. Baptiste challenged the educators in the room to reflect on how to handle these incidents in a more responsible and restorative manner.

Furthermore, Dr. Baptiste also read aloud an email that was sent to the CCTAIS facilitators after a workshop in another region. It read:

Your “workshops” are racist horseshit and you are led by the Spirit of the Air – Lucifer himself. If your niglets would study and apply themselves, they might actually learn. But they’d rather act like monkeys, all the while being taught racism by YOU.

This elicits a surprised reaction from the participants. Dr Baptiste lets that sit with the participants and directs the group to turn and table talk about their own current events and how things have been since their last training.

At one table I overheard a conversation between two women. A fair skinned Latina said, “If you are a teacher with all black kids and the teacher is white, it’s the same thing, you will feel the same way.” The Black woman she is speaking to replies,  “But is it the same? Michael Jackson changed his nose and skin to look white” She follows up with a head shake, “white is right, the children pick up on that.”  It seems that the participants are actively engaging in conversations regarding race. There are disagreements but they appear to be open and honest. It is evident that those in this room have already had similar conversations, therefore the room is warm and engaged.

I catch another participant telling his table, “You don’t know their realities at home” referring to the students. The conversations continues until Dr. Baptiste gets everyone’s attention and calls for a whole group share out. A Latina woman is eager to share. She reports out to the group, “Our table reflected on a student at a middle school. He is from an immigrant family. The child has been having behavior issues, and his mom only speaks Spanish. We put into practice what we’ve been learning here (at the trainings). In the past we didn’t have the opportunity to voice how it might feel to be that parent. The mother and I share a similar culture but I am not the same (as her) because I’m dressed differently and have a different occupation. We took all that into consideration. We appreciated the mom, and identified that she needed to be heard, and we felt that because of that she left feeling understood. We were able to peel back the layers because even though us administrators are of different races and different socio-economic statuses, we were able to see from the mom’s perspective. And I feel like acknowledging these differences and respecting her helped the situation” The participant felt proud of this work, and followed up by noting that they still need to continue doing the work to implement the recommendations for that child but felt like she was finally able to have those important discussions.

A man at the same table (later revealed to be a principal) chimed in and discussed the value of acknowledging to the mother that her son wasn’t bad, and told the group, “I know that family and know they aren’t living where they like to be. Once you know that family you know how to operate, you get to know people and how they are and it’s not what you say but how and when you say it. So we are mindful of that when we engage with our families and students.” This type of interaction between school leadership and students have been pushed by CCTAIS to help schools avoid punitive practices and instead encourage teachers and administrators to implement restorative policies that will help children grow academically and holistically.

Others tell stories about sharing the work that they learned from the CCTAIS trainings with their schools to push staff to be more aware of racial differences and biases to help prevent disproportionate suspensions. Some admit that they did not go that deep in discussing the subject with their colleagues, but did begin important conversations surrounding equity.

A turning point…

During this share out, one table courageously admitted that, “In reality, doing this equity work has not been that pretty and there are issues regarding trust.”  Right at this moment two white women get up to leave. One of the women, Martha*, happens to be an assistant superintendent. Although they are getting ready to leave to another meeting, Dr. Baptiste stops Martha and asks her to briefly address this issue regarding trust, in order to hear the perspective from the Central Office.  

Martha, accedes and tells everyone that, “it is true that we must build trust again, and that there have been leadership changes. I admit that we aren’t in a great place, but who matters? The kids. If we can keep reminding staff and ourselves that regardless of what goes on around us or if we are angry or if the community is angry, we are still committed to this work. We wouldn’t stay in the field if we didn’t love it, right?”  This remark elicits soft laughter. Martha continues, “You have to love the work. I think the trust is huge.” She cuts herself off and prepares for her departure, “I have to run to another meeting but I’ll be right back!” She runs out and the room is left with a neutral face, not really indicating whether they received her comments warmly or not. Once she is out the room it appears that the room is more tense. A teacher from another table reveals to everyone that she sent an email to her staff regarding work on equity and race and no one responded.

Other participants from the room responded that maybe that was an in person conversation. Another replied, “well these issues are touchy to talk about and it is not a safe subject. We don’t feel safe, look at the energy right here.”  With this single remark it was like a champagne bottle was popped and everything began to bubble out.

Rebecca*, a teacher, expressed passionately to the group, “I’m wiped right now and we just want to go on and pretend nothing happened, and I still need to go and teach, it’s hard, just coming in here today is hard for me, I can’t even talk about it because I may start crying. The feelings and emotions are very real, and I am expected to go in with pom poms and be cheery for the the students but we need healing and I feel devastated.”

From here it surfaces that Parktown’s Superintendent, Dr. Smith, retired suddenly last week, which left school leaders, teachers, and students confused and hurt. The rest of the first half of the PD was spent addressing Superintendent Smith and his resignation.

Teacher 1: “Dr. Smith was a huge proponent for equity and now we are scared of what the new leadership will be. We struggled and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Dr. Smith made the future hopeful, and his resignation was a shock. Now what?”

Teacher 2: “We just all want the truth. What really happened? That’s the elephant in the room. What was behind it? Who was behind it? Because we don’t know. There have been only rumors and speculation. Who wanted him out? Who could he trust?”

Teacher 3: “Kids were there (at a community meeting) upset and holding signs, we know he wouldn’t have left like that, this seems out of his character. The board of education seems like they don’t care about the kids. There is clearly a split between what the kids and community wanted, and what the board wanted”

It was more than clear that this superintendent was trusted within the community. He was well known, had lived in Parktown for a long time, taught in the schools, and was invested in the students and schools. The conversation revealed that teachers and students were connected to this man and he made a huge impact on this community as the Superintendent. The room quickly became charged with emotions and Dr. Baptiste and the CCTAIS team decided to give them the time and space to voice their frustrations instead of moving on with the PD. As the discussion continued, the division and tension among teachers and the administrators and the central office revealed itself. Soon enough, building leaders and central office representatives began to chime in with their perspective.

Central office representative:  “We didn’t know and we were also blindsided and need to heal as well”

Principal: “My teachers wanted to know what happened, but I don’t have the luxury that teachers have to delve into this, I’m running a building. More than that I cannot do, because I don’t know anything. I can’t choose to engage these conversations, because I don’t know, and you can’t expect people to address it any sooner. On Monday morning 20 people came to me, and I just told them that we would meet later on.”

Rebecca: “That’s great you had a meeting in your building. At my school we only got an email and that didn’t work for me. I wasn’t happy Superintendent Smith was leaving, and it was an email that said something about a celebration of him and him leaving, but that made me sick to my stomach. I’m a diehard Parkstownian but now I feel like I’m on a see-saw.”

Other Teacher: “A principal resigned right before spring break two years ago, so we are dealing with a lot of instability. The Superintendent used to communicate monthly, and this allowed us for us all to know what was going on. He implemented great programs like ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ and ‘Early Childhood Education.’ These initiatives are crucial for our district and I’m concerned about what will happen in the future.”

Administrator: “I can agree. It’s been tough since Thursday. We are still healing and still in shock, even as leaders we have to think about where we are going now. There are administrators who aren’t tenure, and who need direction and guidance, like me. This is my first year, just know that it’s the same feeling.”

At this point, Maya, steps in, “Dr. Smith’s leaving does not take away from this progress, and we know you are vulnerable. But your work will become more critical. We have to trust each other. Superintendent Smith represented ‘hope’ but we still have to do the work.”

Maya’s comment was greeted with head nods, as well as pushback from a participant, “But unfortunately we haven’t made time or made those strides. Problems are still here and we still have to do the work. People who are racist do not even know that they are. So much work needs to be done as opposed to individual side conversations and we need support from the building as a whole.

Dr. Baptiste continues to push the participants forward and asks, “how are we going to continue this work and be guardians of equity? Remember, despite the transitions, the work doesn’t stop.” This is followed by more head nods and a response from an attendee, “I hope the next Superintendent will come to these meetings and be invested in this work and these conversations like Dr. Smith was.”

At this point, Zarah, who has been quiet for most of the training challenges the room to speak up. Her voice carries an air of seriousness, but is accompanied with one of compassion, conviction, and honesty, “I understand that you all are hurting and need the space to heal. However, I want to challenge everyone to look at ourselves and our own microaggressions. Not everyone is absent from contributing to disproportionality. We must deal with the self. The Superintendent won’t dictate doing this work (on equity). Ya’ll are the teachers. Think about how you feel about this work, and shift the mindset. Think, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ Do we stop thinking CRE now that he’s gone? What are the demands? This is not a one-person show. But it’s a ‘me’ show because you have to check yourself and your racism and bias. We do need to heal and we haven’t healed, but this is a lifelong process, so it’s important that we move forward and look within ourselves as educators and key players to do this work. So folks, let’s open those folders and work on making our schools a better place for children.”  

The room has hung onto her every word and after a brief moment of silence a few attendees clapped. Dr Baptiste asked if other voices wanted to contribute. Rebecca, who was frustrated throughout much of the meeting replied with respect to Zarah, “There are no other voices,” and opened her folder. With that, Maya added on, “find your agency, in support and in honor of Superintendent Smith. You can’t unlearn this work since September, and we need to be intentional.” Most of the room nodded in silent agreement. As the conversation exhausted itself, Dr. Baptiste dismissed everyone to a ten minute break.

This professional development revealed that instability from leadership at the very top (Superintendent) caused a ripple effect from school leaders to teachers all the way to the students and parents. The lack of transparency regarding the transitions led to rumors, speculations, and finger pointing. This dialogue uncovered the tensions between leadership from the central office, principals, and teachers by allowing all participants to voice their viewpoint and frustrations. Although there was a demonstration of progress surrounding equity at the beginning of the training, unfortunately the subject matter moved away from learning about culturally responsive education. CCTAIS recognized the turmoil happening in the District and gave the participants the time to vent and heal, but did not hesitate to circle back and point out how quickly responsibility can seem to shift to one person to avoid reflecting on one’s own practices and biases in order to create a more equitable educational environment for all children. CCTAIS acknowledged that instability within schools is a challenging reality, yet urged the educators in the room to acknowledge their own agency to implement culturally sustaining practices in order to help our most vulnerable students.

*Name used was a pseudonym