A discussion Thursday about how to help improve the performance of African American male students turned into yet another fight over school diversity in Wake County.
School board member Keith Sutton gave a presentation during Thursday's ED task force meeting highlighting the racial achievement and graduation rate gaps between black and white students. Click here and here to see what was handed out.
The ensuing Q&A turned into a discussion of the elimination of the diversity policy, with some shouting and heated words.
The first questioner, a Ligon parent, noted how the Schott Report talked about how African American males do better in good schools, which he said means integrated schools. To applause from the crowd, he said it's "crazy" to isolate more black students into schools that aren't integrated.
The Rev. Anthony Davis, a representative of Bishop Richard K. Thompson, head of the Eastern North Carolina Episcopal District of The A.M.E. Zion Church, talked about how toxic the discussion has become. He said he's read blog comments from people about throwing the "garbage kids" out of their schools.
School board member John Tedesco, chair of the ED task force, said he struggles at times with the way the community conversation has degenerated. Responding to Davis' remarks, he said he would "slap someone in the face" who talked about getting rid of the garbage kids.
Tedesco said that the community is a lot closer on the issues than it is apart, saying they agree on 73 of 74 things.
"While there’s a difference in perception on student assignment, I seriously think we need to harness our energy on the 73 things we agree with," Tedesco said.
But what seemed to set things off is when Tedesco talked about how the other large N.C. school districts are "dealing with significantly more challenged populations and been able to start taking steps to reinvent themselves around public education."
When Tedesco mentioned that Guilford County's graduation rate is higher than Wake's, Patty Williams of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition shouted out that he's ignoring the white flight from the schools there.
"You‘re asking us why we can’t move forward when what you did Tuesday was a step backward," said Jim Martin, a member of the task force, about Tuesday's reassignment plan vote.
Davis said that the reason they're so concerned is that they're looking down the road and seeing the situation in Wake will get worse without the diversity policy.
“I don’t just want you to think it’s troublemakers or people who just want to march," Davis said.
Tedesco responded that while they'll have a lot of arguments about the elements of student assignments it's not about the intent. This prompted Diana Bader to shout out from the audience "you proved it (intent) on Tuesday," as she pointed to the reassignment of low-income students into higher poverty schools.
"You can scream all you want," Tedesco replied to Bader. "I know you like to scream."
"We care about children just as passionately as you do," Bader replied. "You want everybody to fall over and march in line with you."
Bader accused Tedesco of trying to manipulate the public into thinking that the school board will find the resources to help students at high-poverty schools.
"We have a good school system the way it is," Bader shouted. "We’re not going to go along with the ride.”
Jennifer Mansfield of the Wake Schools Community Alliance countered by asking if things are so good why they're looking at graduation rates at the meeting.
Bader said you should compare Wake to the rest of the state and the nation.
Mansfield said she came to the meeting to talk about helping African American male students, not to talk about student assignment policy. She said people need to stop yelling and speechifying.
Tedesco told Mansfield he respectfully disagrees with her. He said that if he can use the meeting as a bridge for having a healthy conversation that he's fine with it. He said would prefer to not have ranting and raving.
The Ligon parent who had fired the first question during the Q&A blamed the school board for making the conversation so toxic. He said the school board is pitting schools against each other while magnet parents have been tirelessly giving to help their schools.
But Tedesco replied that the community was being divided before the current board took office.
The daughter of the Ligon parent spoke up about how diverse her classes are at the school.
"School isn’t just about academics although it’s a large point," she said. "It’s about meeting new people and preparing people for the outside world.”
Lynette Aytch questioned how Tedesco can talk at the ED meetings about his commitment to vulnerable students when he and other board members make decisions that "seem to be preferential to moving kids around to address a political agenda and not an education agenda."
"People are not blind to that," Aytch said. "It seems to be two different kinds of conversation. If you’re committed to vulnerable students, you won’t make decisions that show no regard to vulnerable students."
The next speaker defended Tedesco for being willing to speak with critics, saying "let’s not always kill the messenger.”
Sutton called for a moment of civility before he criticized Tedesco and the leaders of Wake CARES.
Sutton said that while he appreciates Tedesco's sensitivity and care for economically disadvantaged children, he's creating polices that seem to hurt them and are a step backward. Then he pointed to Tedesco's appearances on national television and how he went to a Tea Party event last year to "ride them on. " He said there's a disconnect creating a level of distrust.
Sutton then mentioned the remarks that Patrice Lee, a co-founder of Wake CARES, made at the Garner High reassignment forum about the achievement gap at Enloe High. (He didn't mention Lee by name.)
Sutton then mentioned, by name, how Wake CARES co-founder Kathleen Brennan, has brought up the poor graduation rate for low-income kids in Wake. He accused her of not doing anything to talk about how to help the situation.
"If you talk about graduation rates and the only time is to help your agenda, then that doesn’t quite sound sincere," Sutton said. "That’s the disconnect. That’s the distrust."
Bader started choking up as she talked about how passionate she is about the students and that she knows what Tedesco is doing to them.
Tedesco said caring about kids doesn't mean you only have to have a a particular view on the issue.