Saturday, September 30, 2023

Former Forest Hills principal told New Hanover superintendent to be ‘honest.’ Now, no one is talking

Forest Hills Elementary, were the controversial ‘first come, first serve’ Spanish Immersion enrollment program took place. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Forest Hills Elementary, were the controversial ‘first come, first serve’ Spanish Immersion enrollment program took place. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — Years after the ‘first come, first serve’ Spanish Immersion program provoked controversy and allegations of racial discrimination, the truth about what happened at Forest Hills Elementary School still hasn’t been told — at least according to the former principal.

On April 12, former Principal Deborah Greenwood – who is now the principal of an elementary school in South Carolina – wrote New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley saying that he had thrown her “under the bus.” Greenwood was addressing a complaint filed concerning her former role in the Forest Hills second-language immersion program; Greenwood also included New Hanover County Board of Education Chairwoman Lisa Estep. The email was acquired as part of a public records request to the Rock Hill school district.

An April 12 email from former Forest Hills Principal Deborah Greenwood. (Port City Daily photo / File)
An April 12 email from former Forest Hills Principal Deborah Greenwood. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Greenwood wrote:

 “When I was there you threw me under the bus and now this is happening again. As the Superintendent the buck stops with you, as it stopped with you then.

Why do innocent folks have to continue have their lives disrupted, be harassed and character defamed because no one at Central Office or Board of Education wants to take responsibility for this.

You know that I am hardly what I have been painted to be. And you know you can end this game by being honest.

Perhaps the district needs to ponder how far they want this to go. Of course, I will be seeking legal advice and acting on my next steps with NHCS.”

What happened at Forest Hills?

The Forest Hills immersion program has been the topic of numerous news article, starting with an expose entitled “Overwhelmingly White” in StarNews, and later including coverage of Edgerton’s public battle with Markley over the issue (including Markley’s controversial decision to ban Edgerton from campus, which is still apparently the subject of a federal complaint).

The “transfer inquiry” referenced in the email’s subject line was part of the ongoing efforts of the Southern Coalition for Equal Protections Under the Law (SCEPUL), a group including Reverend Dante A. Murphy, Pender County NAACP president, and Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW professor whose children attended Forest Hills and who has been a vocal critic of the program. Edgerton and others alleged that Greenwood helped implement a “first come, first serve” policy that would benefit affluent white families, allowing a disproportionate number of their children to attend the program.

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

Former Forest Hills Principal Dr. Michael Cobb, who created the program told Port City Daily that his transfer out of the school came after he pushed back against a plan put forward by the administration that would have effectively opened the program to more wealthy white students (according to Markley, Cobb was demoted due to concerns with his management of the program). And that’s what happened in the years after Cobb was moved, although the administration stated that opening the immersion program to outside schools was due to insufficient interest within Forest Hills.

It’s worth noting that the program’s students were also largely white under Cobb but also that his efforts to make the program more equitable – including a blind lottery system for enrollment and outreach into low-income neighborhoods – were ended when Greenwood came to the school.

Greenwood resigned amid controversy over the program; she cited only nonspecific ethical concerns and never responded to critiques of the immersion program. According to Markley, the inequity of the Forest Hills program, which he denied was intentional, was rectified when excluded students were offered spots in the new program once it was expanded as part of its move to the International School at Gregory. 

(Editor’s note: Reportedly, letters were sent out months after the issue became a controversy, and few families responded. This may have been in part because the offer would have required first graders to enter a class with kindergarteners, or else join the first-grade class one year behind in the curriculum).

Markley denied that the program under Greenwood had been discriminatory, and wrote a recommendation for her (as did other top administrators including LaChawn Smith and Julie Duclos-Greenwood).

However, Markley did say that there was no administrative policy on how to run the immersion program and that it was up to the principal. In a recent op-ed, Markley took responsibility for the “leaky faucet” at Forest Hills, but only to the extent that “NHCS allowed the principal to manage the student enrollment process at the school level. Upon reflection, this was not the best process, and as superintendent, I own that mistake.”

That editorial came just a week after Greenwood’s email to Markley, although it’s not clear if it was in any way in response to her request that he “tell the truth.”

Who was responsible?

In her email, Greenwood states “no one at Central Office or Board of Education wants to take responsibility for this.” It does not seem that Greenwood meant that in the same sense Markley did in his editorial — that is, responsible as supervisors, but not as the ones who implemented the ‘first come, first serve’ process at Forest Hills.

In fact, during a February 29, 2016, Board of Education hearing, Greenwood stated that the process had been approved by multiple parties. During the hearing, which was held to consider an employee grievance related in part to the program, Greenwood was asked to respond to the allegations of racial inequity.

According to a recording and transcript of the hearing, Greenwood responded that she did not discriminate “at all,” and that the school had followed the “first come, first serve, which was approved by senior staff when we first came up with the idea.”

Greenwood did not specify which senior staff had approved the first come, first serve process. However, it does seem in keeping with Dr. Cobb’s statements that the central office had put forward the idea of opening the program to outside schools — in other words, the administrators were involved at some level in how the program was run.

Markley was sent a copy of Greenwood’s email and asked for comment last week. He did not respond to the issue, although he did respond to other questions in the same request. Greenwood did not respond to multiple emails over the last two months asking for her for comment on her time at Forest Hills and, specifically, two emails sent last week asking what she thought the “truth” about the immersion program was.

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

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