Saturday, February 4, 2023

Superintendent, former Forest Hills principal offer differing perspectives on Spanish immersion program

Forest Hills Elementary School, where the dual-language program was founded. It was later moved to the International School at Gregory. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)
Forest Hills Elementary School, where the dual-language program was founded. It was later moved to the International School at Gregory. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Years after it initially made headlines, the controversial Spanish-immersion program founded at Forest Hills Elementary continues to be a bone of contention.

For some, including New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Markley, the issue has been resolved. Markley has said he takes responsibility for the racial disparity created by the introduction of a ‘first come, first serve’ enrollment system during the 2015-2016 year by then-Principal Deborah Greenwood – but he has also said that inequity was rectified when excluded students were given spots in the new program once it was moved to the International School at Gregory.

For others, including UNCW professor Dr. Clyde Edgerton, the incident remains problematic because no one has been held directly accountable for the issues. Greenwood resigned – citing nonspecific ethical reasons – but Edgerton has continued to assert that others were also involved in the ‘first come, first serve policy’ that resulted in what the Wilmington Star -ews called the “overwhelmingly white” attendance for the program.

The two have recently exchanged opinions in the Star-News, prompting Dr. Michael Cobb to join the fray. Cobb, who created the program nearly ten years ago, voiced concerns about how Markley presented his involvement, as well as about the program as it was run under Greenwood’s oversight. (Greenwood did not respond to repeated request for comments.)

Program founder weighs in

Cobb was transferred out of Forest Hills after the 2011-2012 school year; he said after he was moved he heard concerns from teachers at Forest Hills. One concern was that efforts that he initiated to advertise the dual-immersion program in low-income and minority neighborhoods served by Forest Hills had been abandoned.

Cobb said he and his staff would go to the common areas – including laundry and recreation rooms of Section 8 housing units near the school – as well as soliciting participation from African American families who picked up children from school. While the early years of the dual-language program remained largely white, Cobb said he was able to get a more ethnically representative make-up on Forest Hill’s School Improvement Team. Cobb also used a lottery system to pick students for the program to ensure fairness.

Cobb said he was surprised that proactive efforts to encourage this kind of equity were necessary.

“In California, where I came from, I never dealt with this kind of thing – people just did it,” Cobb said. “To me, not growing up in this area, it really stuck out.”

Cobb’s long term goals for the program were cut short, but before he was moved he said he saw potential trouble on the horizon.

While Cobb said he never received push-back on his lottery-based enrollment process, he said he received criticism for not consulting the administration on how he ran the program.

“There was a lot of talk about, ‘how come you’re not consulting other people about what you do?’” Cobb said, claiming that the administration had limited knowledge of the materials and methods that could be used in Spanish immersion. Cobb noted that he did consult the state’s Department of Public Instruction and other dual-language programs

“I’m not going to take someone’s advice from central office who has no experience,” Cobb said.

According to Cobb, he was also told by the administration that there were plans to open the dual-language program to other schools.

“They wanted to open the school to parents outside the attendance area – and in my mind I could see right through it. They wanted to get their friends into the program,” Cobb said. “Because when you invite other people to come, the only people who can do that are the people who can provide their own transportation – meaning affluent whites. The minute you open it up, that what’s happens.”

Cobb said the school district’s central office brought up the idea in the year before Cobb was moved and the enrollment policy changed.

“I said, ‘no that’s not going to happen,’” Cobb said.

But, the year after Cobb was moved it did happen, with the school district citing the need to increase low enrollment levels. While this would initially increase minority participation, once the program went to a ‘first come, first serve’ it became largely populated by white students.

Part of the problem, in Cobb’s opinion, was the way the program was advertised. Under Greenwood, the community outreach Cobb had overseen stopped.

In 2016, Markley told Star-News, “When parents asked about going into specific neighborhoods,” Markley wrote, “the principal did not agree to this approach because it was not their responsibility and she also expressed concerns for parent safety.”

In a recent interview, however, Markley said no security concerns ever made it to the central office, nor did rumored concerns about “Spanish gangs” allegedly reported by black parents. Markley said he could not speak for Greenwood, or why she choose to advertise the program the way she did, but said he felt the consequences of Greenwood’s ‘marketing’ had been addressed.

Cobb said there was never any question about how Greenwood’s approach would play out.

“They did all the – for lack of a better term – marketing online, well you just excluded a whole demographic. If that’s the only way you’re letting people know we’re opening registration for the dual-language program, then all those people who live in Section 8 housing who don’t have computers at home, who don’t have wi-fi and all that, they can’t do that,” Cobb said. “The idea of first-come, first serve — that’s bogus. You’re automatically limiting people when you do it like that.”

Concerns about the program under Cobb

In his recent op-ed, Cobb objected to Markley’s characterization of the program’s first few years as “struggling,” and said in an interview that he felt leaders in the administration would try to denigrate anyone who disagreed or “seemed to know more” than them.

Markley said he “would stand by” his statement that the dual-language program struggled under Cobb.

“I would tell I had concerns from parents, I had concerns from staff, and our district team had concerns about how the program was going,” Markley said. “[We had] concerns about communication, concerns about the design of the project, one of the reasons we partnered with Participate [Learning] was that they have a national reputation in dual-language programs.”

The Forest Hills immersion program partnered with Participate Learning, a Chapel Hill-based company as Cobb left – which may not have been a coincidence.

“Going back to when I said the program was struggling, I actually reassigned the principal to an assistant principal role from his time at Forest Hills,” Markley said.

Historically, the school district has declined to discuss the reasons for reassignments, citing state law. Asked to clarify if he meant that Cobb’s apparent demotion was because of central office’s concerns over how he was running the dual immersion programs, Markley said, “now, that gets us into personnel issues.”

Ultimately, Markley said he had no lingering concerns about what happened at Forest Hills, and said the move to Gregory was a major improvement that has benefited the students.

“Moving to Gregory was the best thing we did, it allowed us to have a school that was more diverse, it allowed us to really open it up to more people – in fact Clyde [Edgerton] wrote an editorial praising the move to Gregory, he was one of the big supporters of the program,” Markley said, referencing a letter to the editor, written by Edgerton and his wife, that ran in Star-News in October of 2015.

Although Edgerton did support the program, his relationship with the school district would become strained. In May of 2016, Edgerton was banned from campus by Markley, who claimed Edgerton may have illegally acquired data about student enrollment; Edgerton denied this claim — and filed a federal complaint which is still pending.

Lingering concerns

The ‘first come, first serve’ enrollment at Forest Hills, and the inequity it apparently generated, is one of six issues included in a complaint, filed by the Southern Coalition for Equal Protection Under the Law (SCEPUL), including members Edgerton and Reverend Dante Murphy, who heads the Pender County NAACP.

While the Forest Hills issue has not generated the same amount of interest as the sexual misconduct of Michael Earl Kelly and the alleged crimes of Nicholas Oates, Edgerton has continued to ask for an external investigation to determine who was responsible and to hold them accountable.

Cobb said he shared some of Edgerton’s concern, and the basic idea that wealthy white families in Forest Hills essentially “got their way,” although Cobb said he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing.

“The school wanted to do things their way — I always got the impression that the affluent parents of Forest Hills and had a direct connection to the school board. And when they wanted something, they were able to get it,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the program of inequality was not limited to Forest Hills and that inequity persisted at other schools in the district. Cobb closed by saying he hoped the New Hanover County School Board, which took on several new members in the 2018 election, would address the issue.

“My hope is that the new school board will take notice of this issue, and that they’ll do something about it. Because the old school board, they didn’t want anything to do with the issue,” Cobb said. “We’ll have to see. The proof is in the pudding.”

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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