NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education plans to take a vote later this month on its relationship with the consulting firm that propelled a debate over critical race theory in the local public school system.
Sophic Solutions — a “change management consulting firm” helping the district in its journey to achieve equity, diversity and inclusion — has invoiced New Hanover County Schools $34,400 since its partnership began almost a year ago. In that time, it has held multiple, roughly one-hour focus groups and completed an equity audit, which includes a list of recommendations for the district to follow.
When the district committed to its initial contract with the firm in February, it agreed to spend at least $17,000 through May. A subsequent agreement was signed for a term from July 2021 through June 2022, with the expectation to pay the company a minimum of $26,000.
Since each contract was under $300,000, it did not require board approval. However, the members will vote on the partnership next month, according to school board chair Stephanie Kraybill.
Kraybill would not comment further on the board’s intentions for revisiting the contract.
“Out of respect for my fellow Board members, I am going to decline an interview on this topic until the entire Board has a chance to discuss it together,” she wrote in a text.
The school system could terminate the agreement with 20 days’ notice and would pay for services performed up until then.
The initial contract was met with pushback by the New Hanover County GOP and parents who believe children are being taught about white privilege and that they are inherently racist. The ideas are often associated with the term critical race theory, which by definition is a collegiate study linking history and systemic racism, but has a rapidly evolving meaning in today’s political climate.
Superintendent Charles Foust has testified that the college-level theory is not taught in schools, though the district is largely open about its equity endeavors.
“I challenge you to ask yourself: Who am I fighting for? Is it our kids or is it political ideology?” former chair Stefanie Adams said in a contentious June school board meeting, where droves of people in yellow “Teacher Character. Not Color” shirts showed up. “Are you supporting student growth or are you fearful of losing something?”
Over the past several months, the district has accepted invoices for nine equity and inclusion consultations with Sophic Solutions, totaling $12,900. It also paid $7,500 for an on-site visit and a student half-day retreat. It compensated the firm $8,500 for the equity audit and $5,500 in travel fees.
Run by partners Stephanie and Rodney Smith, Sophic Solutions is based in Kansas City, Missouri. (Superintendent Charles Foust served the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools for almost two years prior to coming to NHCS.) The company has managed the KC Race, Equity and Inclusion Project, a partnership involving the city and public school system, and consulted Platte County School District and William Jewell College in Missouri, as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield KC and Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
The two agreements with NHCS were made for Sophic Solutions to “support the work of building knowledge and awareness” through training with stakeholders. Both also reference an operationalizing equity engagement plan and the equity audit, which examined the feedback from stakeholders to assess the level of systemic inequity in the system.
Sophic Solutions conducted its audit from March through June and released its findings in August. It incorporated thoughts from staff, parents, community members and students of all grade levels.
According to the audit report’s introduction, the district was interested in whether equity-focused training and activities — which covered culturally responsive teaching, implicit bias and racial inequity — had made any impact over the past two years.
Sophic Solutions credited NHCS for its work thus far, including its prominent display of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging on the district’s website; its established equity, diversity and inclusion committee; an equity workgroup made up of staff members; the two years of equity training; and equity-focused book clubs and studies.
“Quite noticeably, NHCS has taken an affirmative stance toward the advancement of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the district,” according to the audit report.
The audit report also highlighted how NHCS could expand its efforts. Specifically, it pointed to an overrepresentation of white students in the district’s gifted education program, Lyceum Academy, and suggested the underrepresentation of students of color is likely a result of underlying, hidden biases.
Also during focus groups, the need for a more “inclusive curriculum” was brought up on multiple occasions, according to the audit report.
One participant was quoted: “We still teach Pilgrims and Indians in school, not all teachers participate, but it is still the norm. We should be doing better in 2021.”
Another individual suggested the curriculum revolves around the white experience.
To address the identified shortfalls, Sophic Solutions urged the district to “expand the images, biographies, achievements, and histories students are exposed to in the curriculum to show the breadth and depth of historically marginalized communities” and review course materials to ensure progressive social paradigms are promoted.
Based on Sophic Solutions’ advice, the district also created a chief inclusion officer and appointed Dr. LaChawn Smith, who previously served as the deputy superintendent.
Other suggestions included cultivating partnerships with HBCUs or ending “traditional” events such as Colonial Day. To make up for a lack of educators of color, Sophic Solutions recommended NHCS consider a policy where a certain percentage of candidates of marginalized groups must apply before a position can be filled.
The board of education meets Tuesday, Jan. 18, starting at 5 p.m.
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