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Spotlight On Racial Disparities Raises Controversy And Hope In CMS Special Education Department

Camp CMS Paw Creek Lisa Wright.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Lisa Wright leads an activity for students with disabilities at the Camp CMS summer school at Paw Creek Elementary School.

As part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' anti-racism work, leaders of the special education department recently pulled data on diversity and disparities in the department. The results created a stir among employees, but Associate Superintendent Ann White says that's necessary to make change.

White, who heads the CMS Exceptional Children Department, presented the report in May to 200 or so staffers.

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Ann White

"I’m sure what you’ve heard about is: The department is too white. The department is too female. We don’t have an appropriately diverse department," she said afterward. "And that’s true."

More than half of CMS special education teachers are white — roughly proportional to the population of Mecklenburg County. But among White's 16-person leadership team, 93% are white, and most of them are women.

"That’s why we have to do this work," she said. "I think we have to be able to speak clearly about the reality of the situation in order to be able to generate the will and the conversation to change it."

Test Scores Show Students Need More

Ultimately the goal is to give students with disabilities a better education and make sure their families are treated as true partners. Last year, the CMS Exceptional Children Department — what’s known as special education in many other states — served 14,700 students. Those students have a range of disabilities, such as developmental delays, autism, speech or vision problems, orthopedic or medical issues and learning disabilities. And they need some type of help to reach their potential.

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If test scores are a fair indicator, students with disabilities need more from their schools. In 2019, the last time North Carolina posted results from state reading exams, reports show only 12.3% of CMS students in the EC program earned a college-and-career ready score.

The state average was 13.7%. White said those numbers are unacceptable.

"More than half of the students who have disabilities have an average or better IQ," she said. "It could be a speech issue. It could be a behavioral issue. It could be a physical issue. So to make an assumption that this number is OK, simply because it’s a student with a disability, that in and of itself is a negative stereotype."

Behavioral Disabilities Reflect Racial Disparities

Black students are slightly overrepresented among all special education students in CMS, but the disparity is more pronounced among students who are labeled as having behavioral disabilities. Two-thirds of those students are Black, in a district that’s 37% Black overall.

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Demographics for specialized behavioral support, or SBS, programs.

That’s a longstanding national trend. While something like hearing loss can be objectively measured, behavioral disabilities are more subjective. Settings that aren’t welcoming for Black students can fuel behavior problems, and the people judging the severity of those problems may bring their own biases.

Roderica Simmons is one of two African Americans who served on the seven-person team that did the EC equity study. She said she’s seen those dynamics play out.

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Roderica Simmons

"I think a lot of the challenging behaviors that we see sometimes with students of color are deemed as more significant than children who are not of color," Simmons said. "And so we have a lot of children of color who end up labeled with severe behavior issues or they have emotional disturbances."

Simmons works with legal, behavioral and academic issues, and she often takes part in the meetings where parents sit down with CMS representatives to create an individualized education plan for a child. Those sessions, known as IEP meetings, can be filled with legal and academic jargon. Families may be reluctant to challenge the educators about what their kids need. Simmons said a lack of diversity can amplify that.

"There’s a level of maybe intimidation or fear for them to speak up in IEP meetings when they don’t see someone that looks like them in the meeting," Simmons said.

Creating Equity Among Employees

So the anti-racism work in the EC department is about serving students and their families. But it’s also about creating equity among employees. In that respect, it echoes tough discussions happening in workplaces across America.

For instance: Not only is the leadership team overwhelmingly white, but the staff working with behavioral disabilities are disproportionately Black. In that category 82% of employees are Black.

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John Bowser

John Bowser is one of them. He’s also the other African American — and the only man — on the team that created the report. He says he was a student at UNC Charlotte when he first learned about Black students and staff being overrepresented in behavioral programs.

"So it was something that was already in a textbook on the college level 20-plus years ago, and it just seemed like people talked about it or knew about it, but nobody ever addressed it," he said.

Bowser said he thinks African Americans are drawn to that field out of a desire to help children who look like them and by the comfort of being in a majority-Black field. But the drawback, he said, is getting pigeonholed by people who don’t recognize his skills as an educator.

"I’m a National Board Certified teacher," Bowser said. "I feel like I’m stronger with academics than behavior."

Creating A Path To Top Jobs

Bowser is on the leadership team in the Exceptional Children’s department. But he says he had to push for opportunities to develop leadership skills.

Which leads back to the chart that created the most buzz among staff: Leadership in the EC department.

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To put the 93% white leadership team in context: About 26% of CMS students are white. Not quite 60% of Mecklenburg County residents are white. And roughly 60% of the 27 people on Superintendent Earnest Winston’s management team are white.

Bowser said among his African American colleagues, the main reaction to seeing the department’s leadership numbers was relief.

"A lot of them feel like it’s about time, that we’ve been having these conversations amongst ourselves," he said. "And we’re glad that the department is addressing it and bringing it forward."

Simmons agreed, but said others were uncomfortable.

"The other side of it is that some people took away from it that, you know, perhaps we don’t want white individuals in our department anymore, or in leadership," she said, "and that absolutely is not the message."

Facing Necessary Controversy

So, why put such glaring inequities on the table? White said it’s the only way to move forward.

"Nobody wants controversy," she said. "But I don’t think we can make progress without controversy in this case."

In the aftermath of the presentation, White said she heard from employees who told her they’ve missed out on advancement opportunities because they didn’t know about them. She said one immediate step is to make the process of hiring and promotion more visible.

"If we don’t do anything, then folks network with their friends. And it might reproduce things that are inequitable," she said. "But if we create a structure for aspiring leaders that is transparent, on paper, advertised to everyone, then everyone can step forward instead of somebody not knowing."

White said she hopes even better solutions come from the rank and file. The people who heard the presentation are already signing up for work groups that will start this month.

About 200 more special education staff have heard about the presentation but haven’t actually seen it. That’s because they report to principals at their schools, not to White. She hopes to show them the data and involve them in next steps when the school year begins.

White, Simmons and Bowser all said there are no quick fixes. But Simmons is optimistic.

"Ultimately my hope is that we are able to increase outcomes for students and we are able to create genuine, long-lasting relationships with families, because some of our students with disabilities, we have them from the time they’re 3 until they actually graduate from high school," she said.

Bowser says the worst outcome would be to see the work stop, as if acknowledging the disparities was enough.

"Once you start seeing the numbers some people will get defensive and say, 'Well, this is why it’s happening.' And we get away from improving," he said.

But he said after 20 years with CMS, he’s cautiously hopeful that real change is coming.

"I really feel like, OK, I’m really going to be a part of something big," Bowser said.

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