Chief of schools' new achievement office reaches out to set agenda, mend fences

Anthony Alston was appointed by Anne Arundel County Public Schools to address achievement gaps among student groups.

But the executive director of the system's new Office of Equity and Accelerated Student Achievement is also well aware of gaps that exist between the school system and some Anne Arundel communities.

Alston discovered some of those gaps in early June, when then-interim Superintendent Mamie Perkins created the office to monitor achievement and report to the deputy superintendent. As part of the move, Perkins reorganized the system's Office of Equity and Human Relations, which had previously been a liaison between the school system and the community.

The plan met opposition, particularly from members of the African-American community, who said reorganization would undermine transparency in enforcement of a 2005 agreement between the school system and the U.S. Justice Department regarding minority achievement. Also, the reorganization meant staff members in the Office of Equity and Human Relations lost their jobs.

"A lot of it is hurt feelings," said Alston, who gave school board members an update Wednesday on the office's progress. He said addressing community sentiments is among his priorities.

" One, it's allowing [feelings] to mend," Alston said. "Two, it's getting to know who I am, a constant extending of the branch — whenever they're willing to meet, whoever is willing to meet.

"I think once you understand what we're about and what we're trying to do, they will realize we have the same goal," Alston said of critics. "If we're at odds with one another, all that's happening is that we're detracting ourselves from the work that's at hand."

Alston commended the efforts of the previous office, particularly its family support and community involvement. But he said his office will also work to tackle the achievement gap by focusing attention on the school setting.

"We want to eliminate our gaps with the work we do in our classroom," he said. "That next layer is a responsive and equitable culture, supporting school with research-based, relevant instruction and enrichment opportunities for all students.

"I think a lot of it has to do with understanding the culture of our students," Alston said. "When teachers and principals better understand the students they serve, they can better [implement] the instruction to meet the needs of their students."

Alston said the office has also extended its Community Ambassador Program, which works with people with community ties to help schools build relationships within those communities. The program is offered at Annapolis High School, but Alston said it will extend to North County High School.

Alston said the school system will also expand initiatives offered by Kids at Hope, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based nonprofit that offers professional development services and academic achievement strategies for schools and youth organizations.

And he said the school system will work to "build and foster mutually supportive relationships" with African-American clergy.

Alston met with a group of African-American clergy shortly after his appointment. Among them was the Rev. Stephen Tillett, pastor of Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church in Annapolis, who had been among those voicing opposition to the realignment.

"There was a great deal of resentment in the African-American community to the wholesale replacement of that entire [Office of Equity and Human Relations] staff," Tillett said. "But Anthony was not responsible for that; it was not his decision. We want and need him to be successful. We want to work with him transparently, openly and cooperatively in order for him to be successful on behalf of children."

After Alston's presentation, board member Deborah Ritchie suggested that his efforts include not just the county's African-Americans, but its Latino and Asian communities. Other members said they were encouraged by Alston's efforts thus far.

"The proof is in the outcome and the results," said board member Kevin Jackson. "It took a lot of effort for Anthony to put that team together, and he's done a lot of work in about 50 days. They're getting out into the community. Those things are going to help us to continue having the collaborative conversations necessary to create the right relationships to move us forward."

"When you look at the statistics on our gaps, our bottom-tier students are English-language learners, special education students and free-and-reduced-lunch children," said board president Stacy Korbelak. "We can see all of our faces in those three groups of students."

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