Tuesday, April 16, 2024

NHCSB talks in circles over EDI, board member defends vote against Pride

The New Hanover County school board discussed what equity means at last week’s board meeting. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Half an hour before last Tuesday’s New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, members were embroiled in a semantic debate over the term “equity.” 

READ MORE: NHCSB members accuse Republican majority of ‘silencing’ them, meeting behind closed doors

“I don’t think there is subjectivity to the word,” board member Stephanie Walker said during discussion. 

That is not the case for board members Pete Wildeboer, Josie Barnhart and Melissa Mason, all of whom said the definition and term’s applicability can be unclear or subjective. 

Barnhart, chair of the policy committee, attempted to remove “equity” from the district’s counseling program policy earlier this year. 

The Republican board member has been vocal that she prefers to go a step further as well — eliminating the EDI district position, occupied by Malcolm Johnson, and the EDI committee, headed by Mason. 

The EDI committee was created in 2019 under former Superintendent Tim Markley and a completely different board of education.

Since its inception, the committee has been the source of several district initiatives and programs, including Student Voice and the formation of student equity teams across the district to garner that group’s feedback. The district has also hired more bilingual staff to ensure language equity for its growing Hispanic population; it also established a Spanish heritage course for high schoolers. 

“Everyone that we hire should be of the mindset that all kids can achieve and we need to equip kids with the tools for academic success,” Barnhart said.

She also suggested at the May 30 agenda review meeting that the chief equity officer position should not have been made a priority when it was created in 2022. 

“We were in a time where the district was cutting positions and we were creating this new department and central office position with a high-dollar-amount salary,” Barnhart said. “We were talking about cutting teacher positions during a time that I think was the most inequitable thing to have ever happened to public schools, and that was mandating virtual learning for all of our students. And I was concerned about the fallout that would be on the backs of our lower socioeconomic kids and the data now shows that it was.” 

Tuesday’s discussion was not conducted in an effort to remove EDI but rather define it.

Equity is often defined in education as providing students with the resources they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. 

Despite their circular and sometimes hard-to-follow conversation, board members largely seemed to agree on a working definition — providing all students with opportunities and tailored resources they need to succeed. 

The incongruencies arose when Barnhart began to discuss “inputs and outputs” of equity efforts. 

“I do not want to focus on the outcome, I want to focus on intentional input because if our staff is doing the input that they’re supposed to be doing … then the results should also follow,” Barnhart said. 

So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

NHCS is the only district in the state under federal sanction for its suspension rates of Black students with disabilities. Those students are suspended four-and-a-half times more than their white peers. Black students were also found to be secluded and restrained four times more than white students, despite only making up around 20% of the district population. 

Parents with differently-abled students have also reported hurdles in developing their children’s individualized education plans and accessing communication from the district. 

After a third-party firm surveyed each school last fall, Title IX violations were found at Hoggard and New Hanover high, with potential issues cited at other schools. The auditors found the schools’ baseball and softball facilities were not equally maintained. If a complaint was filed, the auditors found the district would most likely be found in violation of the federal law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.

Earlier this year, the board’s Republican majority voted to restrict middle schoolers from participating on the sports team of the gender they identify with, directly affecting at least three students. 

The North Carolina Department of Education has identified 11 schools as recurring “low-performing.” Using a highly-criticized formula based mostly on test scores, the schools failed to pass academic benchmarks and exceed growth measurements. Most of these schools serve higher populations of minority students or those experiencing limiting socioeconomic factors.  

Data shows many of these inequities extended well before the Covid-19 pandemic. Minutes from early EDI committee meetings show the committee discussed topics like white fragility, anti-racism, and the difference between equity and equality. Initiatives included recruiting and retaining more diverse staff, training in implicit biases, and improving the achievement gap.

The district is making attempts to change these outcomes — dedicating capital funds to improve the softball fields, abolishing the use of seclusion rooms (though not seclusion), and developing a three-pronged tutoring, tailored training intensives, and mentoring strategy to uplift struggling schools. 

However, any output is affected by an input — it’s cause and effect. If the district is putting in equitable inputs, what is causing the inequitable outcomes? 

According to NHCS discipline statistics, a major cause was subjective discipline. District data indicates 56% of offenses that lead to suspension were disciplinary measures that lend themselves to more biased decisions, such as disrespect, defiance, inappropriate behavior and disruption. 

Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam provided input from nine principals on the root causes for inequity, and how to address it, at a meeting in May. The principals’ top reasons include lack of resources to address student trauma and mental health, a lack of de-escalation in adult responses, implicit or cultural bias, and “old school” supervision attitudes. The principals’ suggestions include adopting trauma-informed teaching, counselor lessons in social-emotional learning, de-escalation modeling, and focusing on restorative justice practices rather than punitive.

On Thursday, Port City Daily asked Barnhart what factors were contributing to the district’s inequitable outcomes; she said she would not have time to respond. At the meeting, she said the district should provide “scaffolding” to support gifted, multilingual and special education students — of which the district has dedicated programs. 

PCD reached out to each board member asking if they would make any changes to the district’s EDI work and what the effects of eliminating EDI would mean for the district. Hugh McManus was the only member to respond. 

McManus, who serves on the EDI committee, sees the body as a dedicated portal for parents, staff and students to share potential oversights in NHCS. 

“I think if the EDI committee is just done away with, we’re going to go back to a period of time when we did not have good relationships with our minority population,” McManus told PCD Friday. “EDI is a community where people feel openly that they can share their issues, share suggestions and it’s working — [it is] not a threat to anyone.”

While he complimented EDI chair Mason for her advocacy for differently abled children, McManus said the equity discussion is another example of the Republican majority’s amplification of a small conservative bloc’s views. He said those focuses divert from what the board “should be talking about” — literacy, construction projects, overpopulation, retaining staff.

He pointed out Barnhart’s dissenting vote in recognizing June as Pride Month at Tuesday’s meeting, put forth by Walker and passed in a 6-1 vote. 

Last week, Barnhart did respond to PCD’s request for an explanation on her vote. 

“PRIDE is a celebration of sexuality, and as a school system, the point of recognitions on the agenda are for accomplishments in our district,” Barnhart wrote in an email. “I personally do not believe it was an appropriate item to place there. From recollection of what Mrs. Walker said, I did not disagree that we value people or families in the LGBTQIA community. I will add, valuing families, staff and students is an everyday occurrence.”

Kraybill addressed those remarks in a follow-up email to PCD.

“From my experience, PRIDE is a celebration of Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Diversity and Excellence, all qualities that NHCS embraces with its staff, with its students, and with its community partners, rather than ‘a celebration of sexuality,’” Kraybill wrote. “NHCS is committed to providing all children with an opportunity for a superior education in a safe, positive, and inclusive learning environment where they are prepared with the skills to succeed.”

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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