As a social studies teacher in Carroll County Public Schools, Kimani Jones found himself explaining the history of blackface in America and why it was harmful and inappropriate. But it wasn’t to students. It was to his colleagues, fellow educated adults.
Now an assistant principal at Westminster High School, Jones shared some of his personal experience of the culture within CCPS at the Board of Education’s meeting last week, when the school system focused on the challenges of attracting and retaining minority educators and employees in CCPS.
Although he “thoroughly” enjoys working in CCPS, he said, there have been many instances of uncomfortable comments or jokes made about the race of others.
At first, “me being the new guy, I don’t want to create waves or anything like that. I mean, I’m not tenured. I definitely don’t want to step on anyone’s toes in that respect, but I was uncomfortable,” he said. “You swallow hard and keep going. You have bigger fish to fry.”
Visiting schools in the county, Jones said, he has been asked to present extra identification to enter a school even as colleagues are admitted with just their employee badges. One time, he added, he stayed late to finish up work and a law enforcement officer followed him out of the school parking lot — “not like it hadn’t happened before,” he said. The next day he learned that the officer returned to ask questions about why he was in the building and asked another employee if she was OK. “I thought that was a bit odd,” he said.
From students, Jones said he has seen behaviors such as making Nazi salutes in the hallways; in social studies, the misspelling of the country of Niger “kind of with a wink and a smile"; distribution of KKK flyers on school grounds; and having to explain that, “You can refer to me as a black man or African American, but I’m not ‘colored.’ That’s not a term that we use anymore.”
Jones said he has taken the path of making teachable moments, often sharing history or assigning punishment where appropriate. “Despite all of that, despite all of that, and there were other things as well ... despite all of that, I really like working for CCPS,” he said.
“I don’t get bitter. I don’t get angry or anything like that," he said. “That’s the teachable moment. I’m an educator. I work in school. People come to schools to learn. I’m here to teach.”
The goal of CCPS is to make sure students are college ready, career ready and culturally proficient, he said. “I take that job very seriously.”
After Jones shared his testimony, Superintendent Steve Lockard thanked him for what he has done for education and said that what he has experienced is unacceptable.
If those things don’t change, Lockard said, the perennial problem facing CCPS of meeting goals for attracting and retaining minority educators will not change.
Board member Patricia Dorsey said to Jones, “I certainly applaud you for again taking the high road and knowing what your purpose is. It is unfortunate that we maybe have to deal with some things that we wish we didn’t have to deal with. But we have to keep doing it and moving on and hopefully getting stronger as we go forward.”
“I think all of our students in the county who come in contact with you and what you have to offer, I think they’re going to be better for it," Dorsey said. "So thank you so much for all you’re doing.”
The percentage of minority staff members in CCPS is about 4%. The Maryland average is about 28%.
CCPS retained about 80% of minority employees between October 2018 and October 2019. In that period, 13 minority employees left the system: seven teachers, three administrators, one cafeteria worker, one custodian and one member of support staff.
The system’s goal for retention is 93% for both minority and non-minority hires.
“This is very disheartening information,” Chantress Baptist, director of human resources, said in the presentation to the board. This trend and struggle to move the needle has remained constant for the past few years.
CCPS benefits from a strong overall educator retention rate, Baptist said. This means that CCPS is looking to hire 70% fewer teachers on average than surrounding school districts.
Overall, Maryland tends to import the majority of its teachers from out of state. But CCPS is different, and the majority of the system’s new educator hires completed part or all of their education at McDaniel College or Towson University.
Although educators are important, “data represents that having minority representation in other groups is just as important. We are striving to make a difference in all employee groups,” Baptist said. For example, between October 2018 and 2019, there were no minority candidates for positions in the secretarial group, she said.
As part of the efforts to improve, CCPS surveys departing employees for the reason why they left.
In the current cycle, 110 former employees, or 78%, didn’t return the form. Of those who replied, 17 said they moved out of state or to another school system. Five left the profession. One left to further education. Five gave no reason. Three said their reason was related to work duties.
Baptist said this highlights the importance of talking about these issues before employees are on the way out the door. She shared stories of former employees who said they had trouble getting gas for their cars because they were discriminated against at the gas station.
“That’s a dramatic impact to our staffing, to our morale, to not only our minority educators, but to the nonminority educators and staff who care about them,” she said.
“We will continue to strive, we will continue to try to move the needle,” Baptist said.
The full video of the meeting can be viewed at carrollk12.org under “Board of Education” and “Meeting Videos.”
John O’Neal, CCPS chief of operations, shared some national numbers to show that CCPS is not alone in its struggles to, in Baptist’s words, move the needle.
According to a report from the Center for American Progress titled, “What To Make of Declining Enrollment in Teacher Preparation Programs,” enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 35% nationwide and 41% in Maryland over the decade ending in 2018. Completion of those programs declined by 28% nationally and by 12% in Maryland.
Over that decade, the U.S. saw a decline of 25% in African American and Latino students enrolling in teacher preparation programs. In Maryland, African American student enrollment declined by 40% and Latino student enrollment remained about the same.
O’Neal shared an idiom he’d heard that “Sometimes it’s hard to remember you came to drain the swamp when you’re neck-deep in alligators."
The pool of highly qualified minority educators is small, he said, and CCPS is trying to work to attract some of the same candidates as other school districts.
Human resources is the foundation of the efforts, but there are many supporters in the central office and leadership at the school level that are working toward a common goal, O’Neal said.
One way school system officials hope to change this is through “open contracts” that allow CCPS to establish a relationship before the standard hiring window. Baptist explained, “We try to grab them up before they are inclined to go to another county.”
Mary Mussaw, supervisor of human resources, talked about the system’s efforts to cultivate “homegrown leaders” by helping current employees to advance their education and training, whether that means moving from another employee role to a teacher, or from a teacher role to an administrator in CCPS.
They want to “cultivate leaders who know our students,” she said, people who work with them every day and are invested in the community and its growth. When minority employees become leaders, they bring a diverse perspective to the programs they lead and create a greater sense of community for minority students and all students who are preparing for life “in a global world.”
This support for employees includes policies for tuition reimbursement and license exam reimbursement, as well as counseling for certification programs.
Educators are encouraged to stretch leadership roles by advising student organization or taking charge of a culturally responsive program in their school, she said.
Judith Jones, supervisor of equity and community outreach, and her team have worked to bring diversity programs to the system, as well as the annual Culture Expo.
In the spring, CCPS will start minority employee voice meetings in hopes of hearing more from their employees before they are on the way out the door.
On March 31 from 2-6 p.m., CCPS will be hosting a minority educator hiring event. Activities include a “getting to know CCPS” presentation and on-the-spot interviews as the system hopes to attract highly qualified minority educators.