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Is Amherst’s school system really racist?

Nick Grabbe

Does Amherst, one of the most progressive communities in Massachusetts, have a public school system that is racially biased?

I ask this question as the white father of children who were in the system for 19 years (1985-04) and as the newspaper reporter covering the Amherst schools for five years (2008-13).

The question arose after Superintendent Mike Morris declined to hire two finalists for the Regional Middle School principal position, who were people of color recommended by a search committee, and instead asked the white interim principal to stay on next year while a new search takes place. As the school year ends this week, it’s a question worth pondering.

There have been other instances of racial tension in the schools. In 2013-14, an African-American high school teacher was subjected to racial slurs in graffiti. In 2016, an African-American mother was banned from the Pelham School after she complained of racially motivated bullying of her daughter there. Both incidents occurred under the previous superintendent.

And there have been persistent complaints over the years that school administrators and teachers do not reflect the increasing racial diversity of Amherst, and that students of color are more likely to be disciplined than white students.

The middle school principal situation is complex. The interim principal for the past two years, Patricia Bode, has been popular with teachers and students, and has experience with and an interest in multi-cultural education. Morris asked her to continue as interim principal, but she declined after the controversy over the finalists in the search process, in part because she couldn’t be sure that her administrator’s license would come through by July 1.

The licensing issue is a further complication. Bode has been unlicensed while the two rejected candidates had administrators’ licenses. Morris (shown in photo) has promised that all administrative staff will have full licensure by this fall. The names of three finalists for interim principal have been announced, and community members will meet them Thursday afternoon.

A further wrinkle is the role of the search committee. Its function was to review resumes, decide who to interview, conduct the interviews, and then recommend finalists. But it had no hiring authority; that is solely up to the superintendent, who is barred from explaining his decision due to the confidentiality of the process. Morris must protect the privacy of the rejected candidates, because if we made public the reasons someone wasn’t hired, we wouldn’t get a lot of applicants.

It seems to me that Morris must have known that he would take some heat for declining to hire the two finalists of color. So I think there must have been some good reasons why he instead chose to ask Bode, who had been successful in the interim position, to stay on for another year. I think it’s unfair to assert that his decision was racially discriminatory when he is unable to defend his decision.

It’s reasonable, in this situation, to inquire about whether these two finalists were treated fairly, but I think it’s a stretch to conclude that there was racist intent in not selecting them. We will never have all the information needed to judge Morris’s intent, but we can look at his other actions on racial equity issues since he became superintendent.

Amherst does not have a history of hiring only white school administrators. I don’t know the percentages, but we have had numerous principals and other administrators who were people of color, and we have had a Latino superintendent.

What about teachers? White teachers comprise 78 percent of the Amherst Regional faculty, compared to the 58 percent white student population. This 20 percent disparity is below the state average (90 percent white teachers, 60 percent white students). The Amherst elementary schools have a disparity that is slightly greater than the state average, with 77 percent white teachers vs. 48 percent white students.

I think we have two worthy goals that are sometimes in conflict. We want the percentage of white teachers and administrators to move closer to the percentage of white students, because students of color benefit from seeing authority figures who look like them. At the same time, we want to hire staff based on what’s best for all students, regardless of skin color.

Here are some facts to keep in mind while weighing the race question in the Amherst schools, and actions Morris has taken in response to it:

  • The percentage of people of color hired in the past year, and their retention, has been the highest it’s been in the past five years;
  • Morris scheduled a day-long workshop for staff on the topic of social justice, and it was held in March;
  • Embrace Race held a well-attended public event after the events in Charlottesville, Va. last August;
  • The high school survey of student “climate” featured questions such as “Do teachers treat me with respect?” and it showed a big improvement from 2015, especially for students of color;
  • A UMass professor made a presentation to staff, followed by a discussion, on discipline disparities for students of color;
  • The human resources and diversity/equity positions were merged and elevated to the assistant superintendent level;
  • Last year Morris started meeting regularly with a group of staff of color, in an effort to create the most welcoming and supportive work environment.
  • A Racial Equity Professional Learning Community was formed to increase understanding of racial inequities.

Is Amherst completely free of racism? Of course not. No school system can entirely escape the effect of the racial discrimination that has existed in America for hundreds of years. No matter how sincere and self-reflective we are, we will always face the challenge of confronting racism.

But if we automatically attribute anything negative that happens to a person of color to racism, then we diminish the credibility of information about genuinely racist acts. From what I know of Morris and what I’ve learned about the racial climate in the schools under his leadership, I am confident that his decision about the middle school principal position was made in the interest of all students and teachers.

 

Comments 6

  1. I challenge anyone to watch the public comment period in the meeting of 5/17 (archived on Amherst Media) and NOT have a despairing response.

  2. Good post, Nick. One quibble: you write that “it’s a stretch to conclude that there was racist intent … ” But intent is not always what’s at issue. Sometimes the issue is racist effect, which can arise from unconscious assumptions or unexamined bias. Some would argue that such assumptions are not just about race itself, but about, for example, what constitutes appropriate qualification for a job, or appropriate education. Beyond that, many would also argue that individual actions are rooted in the power structures and dynamics of our society, and therefore tend automatically to be racist, unless individuals and institutions make conscious attempts to counter these power structures. A deterministic view, to be sure, but a very common one. Check out Foucault or Coates.

    When people talk about “racism,” they could be relying on any of these definitions – and they don’t always say which one. So they very often talk past each other, which is one reason conversations are so difficult.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Nick. Having recently been a member of a municipal official search committee, I can confirm all the points you make re difficulties posed by confidentiality of the process. Kudos to Amherst for the progress it is making against racism. Most of us want it to be gone instantly…but the sad fact is that something that developed over centuries will not disappear overnight. Accusing hard-working, well-intentioned people who actively support diversity of racism isn’t the way to hasten this process.

  4. I agree with almost everything you wrote Nick, as well as the previous comments.

    But I will just throw one thing out there for thought: would the efforts we have seen in the past 5 years or so have happened had there not been the outrage and protest over the incidents you mention?

    Forget for a moment whether that outrage was misplaced or “over the top” (yes some of the comments at the 5/17 SC meeting were not helpful, to say the least). Just think about that question on it’s own. Also see the PS at the end of this comment.

    Most racism is not the overtly obvious kind, but more institutional. That kind of racism is harder to see and be outraged about, because it consists of hundreds of “smaller” incidents that white people do not encounter but POC do.

    My view is that over time POC get fed up with nobody doing anything — or at least not enough — about institutional racism. And so when an “incident” comes along they may see it as “our chance to protest”.

    That’s a white guy’s view of what POC are thinking, which is always a bad idea. But I have certainly heard directly from POC how fed up they are — enough so that this is definitely not “fed up for the sake of being fed up” — it’s real.

    You are probably right about the way outrage is expressed sometimes “diminishing the credibility” of those who express outrage. That can be true, while at the same time it can also true that there is a good reason for outrage — if not around this principal search, then around the hundreds of things that POC have run into over the years.

    We should not wait for the next “incident”. White people need to keep their eye on this ball every day.

    The good news is that our school system has clearly been moving forward on this issue, so let’s keep moving.

    PS:

    Here is an analogy, not perfect, but you get the idea:
    Would the Charter have passed had there not been the outrage and protest over TM voting down the new school plan? Many people had been fed up with how TM operates, but that “incident” was something people could latch onto and protest about.

    Also:

    I am not sure why conversations between the public and town boards (e.g. School Committee) needs to be limited to the public comment period before regular board meetings. Why not have separate “listening sessions” where a real conversation can be had between boards and the public?

    Also:

    Stats from DESE:

    Amherst teachers: 76.9% white
    Amherst students: 45.7% white
    31.2% difference.

    Amherst-Pelham teachers: 78.2% white
    Amherst-Pelham students: 58.2% white
    20.0% difference

    MA teachers: 89.9% white
    MA students: 60.1% white
    29.8% difference

    Also, on licensing:

    98.6% of Amherst teachers are licensed
    97.2% of MA teachers are licensed

  5. Post
    Author

    Thanks, Rick, that’s a really perceptive comment. You have a lot more experience with this topic than I do, and I’m grateful that you’ve provided a broader perspective.
    I was just today talking with someone about whether the charter would have passed without the Town Meeting school vote. It was certainly the single most important factor in the lopsided outcome; I remember leaving the MS auditorium that night and saying to someone, “Town Meeting just signed its own death warrant.” Certainly it would have been a lot closer.
    So what would be the counterpart in your analogy?

  6. I guess the counterpart is that it is sometimes necessary to “make noise” in order for people to see what is going on. The protests during the civil rights movement in the 60’s are the most obvious example.

    Of course, that would have fallen flat had there not been a “real” problem — but there was, of course, a real problem. The outrage over this principal search seems wrong to me in that there simply was no wrong there. I agree that “there must have been some good reasons” Mike made the choice he made. I feel like I know him pretty well, and he is not one of he clueless white people, far from it. In fact I am sure that he, like many of us, would be overjoyed to be able to choose a POC principal, probably to the point of favoring the POC candidate over he white one.

    An incident where a wrong was there is with Carolyn Gardner. What happened to her was clear, and galvanized a lot of people into trying to do better. A lot started with that. Not that it was horrible before that, but lots of good stuff got put into motion as a result of that, starting with the ARHS student assembly that was led by Mark Jackson after that incident, which was one of the most moving things I have ever been to. Our kids are amazing.

    While it is necessary to “make noise” sometimes, I do wish people would to try to stay a bit more centered, especially around facts. I like to say that things are never as bad, or as good, as the “noisy people” (on both sides) make them out to be.

    That is the real issue, for Amherst and for the whole country. I guess it’s called polarization. Whatever you call it, it’s bad.

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