Thursday, February 29, 2024

Conservatives take issue with NHCS’ new change consultants, condemn ‘critical race theory’

Will Knecht
Chairman of the New Hanover GOP Will Knecht speaks to a crowd outside a New Hanover County Schools board meeting in February. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County Schools recent engagement of a “change management consulting firm” has tied the district to the nationwide Conservative backlash over “critical race theory” in education.

First formulated in the ‘70s, critical race theory reflects on how race and biases influence American life. Opponents of the study, including former President Donald Trump, argue it furthers racism.

Related: Filmmaker follows New Hanover schools’ sex abuse, racism allegations in upcoming documentary

In February, the district entered a $17,000 contract with Kansas City-based Sophic Solutions, sparking a debate over the presence of critical race theory in local public schools. Superintendent Charles Foust has connections to the consulting group from his time as superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools; Sophic Solutions’ managing partner serves as a board member on the Kansas City, Kansas School Foundation for Excellence.

In addition to public schools, the consultants’ clientele includes Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and universities such as Cornell.

The New Hanover County GOP and constituents are taking issue with the public school system’s attempt to address inequities with taxpayer dollars. Chairman of the New Hanover GOP Will Knecht said in an interview he is hearing from “aghast” parents and grandparents, supposedly across party lines –– who fear this partnership is the beginning of an indoctrination of students.

“This is all part of this woke culture that is just going unchecked and out of control,” Knecht said.

In an emailed statement to Port City Daily, Deputy Superintendent of NHCS LaChawn Smith said Sophic Solutions is supporting the district “through its journey of embodying the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.”

The consultants plan to conduct an equity audit of the district, followed by the development of an equity scorecard. Monday evening, Stephenie Smith, managing partner of Sophic Solutions, explained to the NHCS Board of Education Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee the audit is a qualitative approach to understanding data.

The district and consultants are forming nine total focus groups with elementary students, middle schoolers, and high schoolers, as well as two parent groups, a group of community partners, a group of faculty and staff, another with principals and administrators, and the EDI committee.

The consultants are tasked with identifying systemic focus areas, especially ones with predictable outcomes, Stephenie Smith explained.

“If I can go to any school in America, and say that Black boys are . . . the lowest achieving identity group, then something is happening in the system that is producing that, and we’ve got to be curious about that,” Stephenie Smith told the EDI committee.

In NHCS, inequities among students of color are evident. Data reveals disproportionate levels of failing grades, especially during the pandemic, higher rates of suspension, and fewer students ready for kindergarten compared to white peers.

In 2016 Forest Hills Elementary’s Spanish Immersion Program made headlines for enrolling an almost entirely white class, in a school with a near-half Black population. In 2019, a fourth grade class of Codington Elementary partook in a slavery-themed game, which the then-school board chair later had to apologize for.

Sophic Solutions plans to work on the schools in multiple stages. Currently in the process of introducing itself to stakeholders, the firm plans to assess surveys, conduct interviews and hold focus groups. The consultants will eventually use its findings to report conclusions and pitch recommendations with outlined priorities, next steps and goals.

Several members of the community showed up Tuesday to the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting to voice concerns against “critical race theory” in public comments. Some spoke at the beginning of the meeting, despite the board implementing a new policy last month that requires the public to wait until the end of the night to address topics unrelated to the agenda. Critical race theory was not on the agenda; the district hired the consultants months prior as board approval was not required due to the dollar amount.

“Enough of this silly silliness,” Michael Fox, who refused to wear a mask, told the board. He described the work as teaching children to hate one another, used an expletive, was chided for cussing, then cussed again loudly into the microphone before walking off.

Eric Flore, a retired NHCS educator and former dean of students, argued critical race theory restricts students from sharing opinions.

“We’re gonna be weaponizing students with a political self righteousness that their way is the only way,” Flore said, “and then you’re going to see bullying like we have never seen bullying before.”

Knecht said the GOP is serving as a “mouthpiece” for the remaining people who do not feel they can publicly share their thoughts out of fear of reprisal. Local party representatives met with superintendent Foust last Friday. Knecht said they disagreed on whether critical race theory was being taught in schools, offering several examples, but overall they left pleased that Foust promised to host upcoming town halls to give parents a forum.

“Every human being has dignity, and that dignity and honor is based on the fact that they are a human being, not because they’re tall or short, white or Black, skinny or fat,” Knecht said. “If you start saying that people with gray hair are more important than those that don’t have gray hair, you begin to get down a slippery slope.”

NHCS and Sophic Solutions did not respond to specific questions but instead provided statements on the consultant’s assigned tasks, none of which included any mention of “critical race theory.”

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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