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Despite Pandemic Distractions, CMS Keeps Working On Anti-Racism Quest

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston suggested books in August to prepare for the district's anti-racism work.

Superintendent Earnest Winston started the school year by saying anti-racism would be a major focus for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. As first semester ends, Winston says that work remains a top priority despite the distractions of a pandemic.

"I get the question often: So what is CMS doing to address racism in the district?" Winston said in a recent address to Mecklenburg County commissioners.

Many experts believe the educational disruption COVID-19 has brought stands to worsen racial inequities. Winston told county officials he’s pushing forward with work to become an anti-racist district.

"This stance intentionally puts a focus on examining systems, processes and policies that produce inequitable outcomes," Winston said.

Forget About Labeling People 'Racist'

Three CMS administrators recently gathered on Zoom to talk to WFAE about what that means. They’re studying Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How To Be An Antiracist.”

The first thing to know is Kendi has no interest in labeling people racist or not racist. He calls that a distraction, and argues that the only meaningful judgment is whether people are supporting or dismantling systems that have oppressed Black Americans.

In a June TED interview, Kendi said white people fixate on insisting they’re not racists even when they’re clearly supporting racist systems.

"We should be very clear about whether we’re expressing racist ideas, about whether we’re supporting racist policies — and admit when we are," Kendi said. "Because to be anti-racist is to admit when we expressed a racist idea."

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Ann White

That means anyone, regardless of race or background, can move back and forth between racist and anti-racist acts.

Ann White, the assistant superintendent in charge of programs for students with disabilities, says that’s one of the things she likes about Kendi’s book.

"Kendi is talking about how racism and anti-racism is located in the decisions you make. It’s not who you are as an overarching person," White said. "Every moment we get to make a choice: Will we engage in racist behavior or anti-racist behavior?"

For instance, an educator who recognizes personal biases or a harmful classroom culture and corrects the situation is acting as an anti-racist.

Special education is one of the areas where policy is under scrutiny: Black students — particularly Black males — are more likely than white counterparts to be labeled with disabilities, in CMS and elsewhere.

'We Can't Be Passive'

Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley said other areas are being reviewed as well, "whether it’s our grading practices, the courses that students are scheduled in. We think about how we’re engaging our parents and our community members. We’re thinking about our hiring practices."

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Brian Kingsley

Kingsley said grades can be influenced by implicit bias when teachers include behavior and class participation. And extra credit is sometimes awarded for efforts that are easier for students with more resources at home.

CMS has been trying for years to confront racial and cultural barriers to success. Efforts have been labeled diversity, inclusion and cultural competence.

Kingsley said some employees see anti-racism as just another administrative trend — or say it’s too much to take on while coping with the pandemic. "And I think you have others that are feeling, are we villainizing white people in this work?" he said.

He insisted this is essential work that doesn’t demonize anyone but does demand action.

"There’s no neutrality in this effort," Kingsley said. "I think if there’s anything that I think together we’re learning, that it requires intentional effort and we can’t be passive."

A Different Approach To Behavior

Merita Little, principal of Southwest Middle School, offered an example of a practice that’s changing. In CMS and elsewhere, Black students — again, males in particular — are disproportionately labeled as discipline problems and suspended. Those decisions can discourage students and set them on what some call the school-to-prison pipeline.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Merita Little

Little, who is Black, said she understands why students of color can come across as rebellious in a school culture where they’re not accepted.

"They’re mad, they’re angry, they’re reactionary. They’re always on guard," she said. "And that happens because of feeling like they’re constantly judged."

Little talked about using restorative practices with a Black male student who was skipping a lot of classes and disrupting those he did attend.

"It was just like each block, 'Who’s going to send me out?' " Little recalled.

Little said a group of administrators asked the young man who mattered most to him, then summoned two relatives and a family friend he had named.

She said she could tell from his body language that he was expecting the talk to focus on his bad attitude and behavior — and she watched him relax when administrators instead talked about how important he was to them.

Eventually the student let down his guard and talked about feeling angry and abandoned because his father was incarcerated.

"And you could see the reactions from the family members that they didn’t even realize that he wasn’t OK," Little said.

The school provided support for the family and the student. Staff did daily check-ins and got the student involved in recreation programs after school. Little said she’d have lunch with the student just to talk about his life and interests.

That’s a lot more time-consuming than punishing a troublemaker. But Little said it paid off — the boy is now in high school and still stays in touch with his support team at Southwest Middle.

"We saw a student who felt like school was just a place that he had to come, that it allowed him to see us in a different light," Little said.

As CMS breaks for the holidays and prepares for second semester, leaders say the challenges of combating the coronavirus and of fighting racism will remain front and center.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.