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Harford schools push for greater racial equity and cultural proficiency, but some community members seek to go further

The Harford County school system is working toward greater racial equity for its students of color and ensuring that teachers, staff and administrators are culturally proficient in working with students of all backgrounds.

Some members of the community believe Harford County Public Schools should be doing even more, however, to reverse what they describe as years of inequities that have left students of color behind their peers and made it difficult for HCPS staffers of color to attain leadership positions in schools.

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The Board of Education approved recently a policy on “educational equity,” which is mandated by the state. The State Board of Education requires all 24 school districts in Maryland to adopt such policies and procedures to implement them — the state school board finalized its policy in late 2019.

“The policy requires that HCPS provide equitable access to educational opportunities and services, to all students; the policy identifies specific areas in which this is to be done,” Patrick Spicer, general counsel for the school system, told the Harford school board Dec. 21, ahead of the board’s unanimous vote in favor of the new policy that night.

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The policy will be applied in areas such as allocation of resources within HCPS, data analysis and use, professional development, students’ access to “effective teachers,” hiring, retention and promotion of staff, curriculum and instruction and opportunities for all students to read at their grade level, according to Spicer.

“The policy is intended to have Board of Education and school system administrative actions viewed through an equity lens,” he said.

School system officials had been “tentatively developing” procedures to implement the policy before the board’s vote, Paula Stanton, supervisor of the HCPS Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency, said.

Staffers have worked within the state’s four areas of “equity focus,” including academic achievement and growth, leadership and human capital, “climate and culture” and educator and staff capacity, according to Stanton.

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“We’ve been working in some smaller groups to ensure that we provide a pathway to achieve these outcomes identified in the policy,” she said.

Jim Thornton, a former Board of Education member who now serves as president of the Harford County Caucus of African American Leaders and chairs the education committee of the Harford branch of the NAACP, noted how the equity policy is not “something that’s organic, if you will,” to the local school system but is state mandated.

“It’s not about what’s on paper,” he said. “It’s ultimately about the actions that will emanate from the equity plan, and I see nothing that would suggest to me that there is any transformative work that’s taking place.”

Thornton, who served as an appointed member of the school board from 2011 to 2015, cited the “historical gaps that exist” for minority students in HCPS. He described such gaps as the residual effect of the school system’s 11-year fight against racial desegregation — segregation in public schools throughout the U.S. was struck down in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, but schools in Harford did not fully desegregate until 1965.

“When you have a deficit, you can’t just incrementally do business as usual,” he said.

Justice for the 4

Thornton and Cassandra Beverley, also a former school board member and the current vice president of the Caucus of African American Leaders, have been working with the caucus and representatives of other community organizations on behalf of four HCPS administrators, who have cases pending before the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

Beverley, Thornton and other advocates have written letters to HCPS leaders, raised money to support the administrators, hosted an online town hall in October, and were among the roughly 25 people who participated in a protest in front of the school system headquarters in Bel Air that month.

The four assistant principals were demoted as the school system eliminated 26 administrative positions, part of a larger reduction of positions by HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson as he worked to balance the school system’s fiscal 2020 budget in the spring of 2019. Bulson was able to restore a number of classroom positions thanks to an unexpected increase in state funding that year.

Beverley described during the town hall the process of reducing the 26 administrative positions, which she said involved having administrators re-apply for their jobs and then using what she called “a very unfair process” to decide which administrators to retain.

“They developed what [Thornton] and I believe is a highly, highly subjective, a very unfair and a discriminatory process by which they would do that,” Beverley said.

With the demotion of the four assistant principals — all female — that took the number of Black assistant principals in HCPS from 11 in 2019 to seven at the present time, according to Beverley. She also said two of the administrators have left the Harford County schools for other jurisdictions and that the other two remain in a pool of employees eligible to be promoted to assistant principal.

None of the four former administrators spoke during the town hall — Beverley cited the pending litigation and noted that “we’re having to speak and advocate on their behalf.” A video of the town hall is available on the Justicefor4HCPS Facebook page.

A handful of people spoke during the Justice for the 4 Rally on Oct. 26, which happened outside the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air. The rally was organized by the Caucus of African American Leaders with support from the Harford County branch of the NAACP, Bridge Maryland and Together We Will Harford County/Upper Chesapeake.

Many of the participants held signs bearing the slogan “Black Administrators Matter” and other messages of support for the former assistant principals.

“Our Board of Education has been way too silent on way too many issues,” Democratic Del. Steve Johnson, who represents Harford County’s District 34A in Annapolis, told the group.

“Our Board of Education hires the superintendent,” he added. “Therefore, why are they not putting pressure on the superintendent to do the right things?”

Harford County Councilman Andre Johnson, a Democrat who represents the Edgewood and Joppa areas, talked about the few Black teachers and administrators he had while he was an HCPS student and the positive impact it had on him. He noted that it “changed my life,” to have adults who look like him working in his school.

Johnson, who is Black, lamented how today “our children can’t even look at some of the teachers in there and point out someone that looks that just like them.”

Republican Councilman Curtis Beulah represents Abingdon, Havre de Grace, Riverside, Belcamp, Perryman and Aberdeen Proving Ground. He also expressed frustration with the demotion of the administrators.

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Beulah told protesters that “the only way we’re going to change things here in Harford County is with you doing exactly what you’re doing now.”

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“I’m just telling you, this is where they pay attention and where we will get justice,” he added.

Parent Marquetta King, of Bel Air, also addressed the crowd, expressing support for the administrators but also lamenting how racism continues to persist.

“We have cried out against the unfair treatment and systemic racism,” she said. “How many more webinars and seminars and committees and polices and laws do we need?”

Nearly 20% of HCPS students were African American as of the 2019-2020 school year, when the total student population stood at 38,429, according to student data included in the fiscal 2021 budget. Enrollment has decreased to 37,362 during the current year, according to the annual Sept. 30 enrollment report, as the school system continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Close to 62% of students were white as of the prior school year, while 7.84% were identified as Hispanic or Latino, 6.8% were students of two or more races, 3.38% Asian, 0.26% American Indian or Alaska native and 0.16% native Hawaiian or Pacific islander, according to budget documents.

The school system has more than 5,100 total employees, with nearly 3,000 categorized as teachers, counselors and school psychologists, also according to budget documents.

Officials reported in early 2019 that 6.7% of teachers were people of color as of the 2017-2018 school year, although people of color made up a larger percentage of newly-hired teachers — 15.8% for 2017-2018.

In a November email, Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources for HCPS, stressed that “our goal always will be to attract, retain and support a workforce that is culturally proficient and reflects the growing diversity of the County.”

“School systems around the country share this goal at a time when the number of teacher vacancies to fill is much greater than the number of qualified, particularly diverse, candidates,” said Mantegna, who retired from the school system at the end of 2020.

Human resources officials have given a number of reports to the school board about their efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color, as well as teachers of all backgrounds, but challenges persist when hiring from a shrinking pool of applicants graduating from college and university education programs.

Nearly 20% of the 221 new Harford teachers hired in 2019 were minorities, compared to 9.1% of those hired in 2016, Mantegna reported to the school board in early 2020.

The four administrators’ cases have been subject to fact-finding hearings before the state civil rights commission, and advocates are currently waiting on a release of the commission’s findings, Thornton said.

Another virtual town hall is slated for this Thursday, Jan. 21, with a “focus to drill down, to better educate the community around the process itself that led to these four women being demoted,” Thornton said. More information is available on the Justice4HCPS page on Facebook.

‘Full speed ahead’ on equity and cultural proficiency

Stanton gave a detailed presentation to the school board around mid-October about HCPS’ cultural proficiency and equity initiatives.

She talked about how her office is working with other school system departments, school administrators, teachers, students and members of the community to create a climate in schools where all students feel safe from racism and discrimination, to train administrators and staff to better recognize issues of discrimination and deal with them, as well as reduce disparities in which students of color face higher rates of discipline, meaning they lose days in the classroom because of being suspended.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, “our equity work was really moving full speed ahead” with collaboration throughout the school system, Stanton noted.

Her office’s initiatives before the pandemic included meeting with principals to learn more about their schools' needs related to matters such as equity and cultural proficiency, establishing after-school programs for students at several middle schools and developing systems to track data, especially data related to discipline as officials work toward “decreasing and eliminating disproportionality in the way we discipline students,” Stanton said.

Professional development sessions happened for staff, including one session in late 2019 involving students talking about ways schools can support students of color and LGBTQ students, and another session last February featuring a day with Debby Irving, author of the book “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

Stanton and her team have, since schools closed for in-person instruction in March, continued to meet and discuss topics such as recruiting a more diverse HCPS workforce, decreasing staff attrition and implementing the school system’s Lead With Love campaign.

“That campaign really was our way of saying that we will not remain silent about racism and discrimination,” Stanton said.

Professional development sessions also have happened while schools have been closed, including a course that started in late September and incorporated data from a spring survey of students’ views on “racism, implicit bias and discrimination,” according to Stanton.

The most recent professional development course includes several data points from that survey, including that “40% of our student respondents think that racism and implicit bias are problems,” many students have witnessed or personally experienced racism or heard “hurtful comments,” and that “our students want us to do more to address racism and implicit bias,” Stanton said.

“We see this as sort of a kickoff to what will be more rich discussions about race, culture and diversity and even more opportunities to make sure that each of our students is on track to attain academic and personal success,” she said.

School board members praised Stanton for her efforts — member Joyce Herold called the work “fantastic.”

“I think that, the more we have conversations around inclusion and equity, diversity, the richer we all are and to the benefit, truly, of our school system and our students,” Herold said.

Still ‘a cloud’ over schools

Thornton, in an interview with The Aegis, also lauded Stanton’s work. But, he noted that “there continues to be a cloud over the Harford County public school system” in terms of gaps in the areas of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce and academic achievement for students of color.

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“I think it’s great, what Dr. Stanton is doing in trying to get hearts and souls in the right place,” he said.

Thornton stressed that “big-picture” issues must still be addressed by the superintendent and school board, though.

“Our population of students, that are increasingly diverse, they need to have people of color they can see in front of a classroom or in leadership positions,” he said.

Thornton also encouraged creating a more diverse staff in schools in majority white communities in the northern part of the county, giving students the opportunity to see people of color in teaching and leadership roles and not go through life “with the stereotypical view that black folks can’t get to those levels.”

Before their vote Dec. 21, school board members praised Spicer, Stanton and their colleagues for their work on the equity policy. Herold also asked about keeping the board apprised of “the outcomes that we’re going to use, to measure [the] success of anything that’s going to go forward as a result of this work.”

Spicer said officials plan to involve board members in developing procedures to implement the policy, inform them once the procedures are finalized, plus reports on any “quantitative data or qualitative results” can be provided at the board’s discretion.

Thornton said Tuesday that he is “not overly optimistic” that the educational equity policy will create progress for HCPS, noting that “the operative word here is, ‘accountability.’”

He questioned who will hold school officials accountable. One group could be community members, but “all we can do is press and push,” and that accountability is ultimately the school board’s responsibility, he said.

“There has to be accountability, but unless somebody is driving that, the plan will be just on paper and we’ll be pretty much having the same conversation five years from now,” Thornton said.

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