After John McNamara was killed in the Capital Gazette shooting, his wife Andrea Chamblee took it upon herself to publish his last book — a love letter to D.C. hoops: "The Capital of Basketball."
Census Bureau data ranks Loudoun County as one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation. But as the Northern Virginia county experiences economic growth and rapidly diversifying demographics, the culture in its public schools has not kept up with that diversity.
Earlier this year, Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Eric Williams tasked the Equity Collaborative, a national consulting firm, with assessing the racial well-being of the district.
The 23-page report, issued in June, found that students of color are more likely to be disciplined and are often the victims of racial slurs, creating a hostile learning environment.
On the heels of the assessment, the superintendent’s office has issued an official proclamation condemning white supremacy and vowing to close opportunity gaps. The newly appointed Director of Equity will also work to bring all of the stakeholders to the table to address the findings of the report. But is this enough to reform the culture of the county’s schools and curb hate? And how will the well-being of all students be served while change is implemented?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
KOJO NNAMDILoudoun County, Virginia is among the richest counties in the nation, but as diversity and prosperity grow, its schools continue to struggle with racism and equity. In response to recent complaints and a rash of high-profile incidents, Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Erick Williams tasked the Equity Collaborative with assessing the cultural competency of the school district. The report found that students of color are more likely to be disciplined, and they're often the victim of racial slurs.
KOJO NNAMDIOn the heels of the assessment, the District has taken action with the appointment of a new position within the school administration called the Director of Equity. That Director of Equity is Lottie Spurlock. She joins us in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
LOTTIE SPURLOCKThank you for having me here.
NNAMDILoudoun County schools have experienced some high-profile racial incidents and complaints in recent years. What finally motivated the District to conduct a formal assessment this summer?
SPURLOCKYes. Thank you. As evidenced in the report, there have been a growing number of concerns over several years. I do want the record to reflect that the superintendent did commission the report because of these concerns and voices from the community. There has been, unfortunately, an increase in parents reporting racial incidences, discipline disproportionality for African American students and students with disabilities, and parent concerns and community concerns that there have been limited access and challenging opportunities for some of our students.
SPURLOCKSo, as I stated, the superintendent commissioned the assessment, and we wanted to look at it for a true picture of where our school division was and opportunities in which we can grow.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios at WUNC is Graig Meyer, who is a partner in the Equity Collaborative. Graig Meyer, thank you for joining us.
GRAIG MEYERAbsolutely. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIYou worked as a consultant on this report by your organization, the Equity Collaborative. First, what is the Equity Collaborative?
MEYERWe're an educational consulting firm that focuses on helping school districts deal with issues of race. And Loudoun County, like just about every school district in this country, has racialized achievement disparities, and is trying to figure out how to deal with the racial realities of the contemporary United States.
NNAMDIWhat are the main takeaways, or what were the main takeaways in your assessment?
MEYEROne takeaway is that Loudoun County has predictable student groups that are not achieving at the same rates as other student groups. African American, Latino students, students with disabilities are all underperforming when compared to their white peers or peers who do not have disabilities. As I mentioned, that's common to almost every school district in the country.
MEYERAnd then we also looked kind of under the hood at what's the culture within Loudoun County schools, and found that Loudoun County schools have a documented well-known history in the community of challenges with dealing with issues of race. And that, in fact, the adults and the students in the system don't have a very strong vocabulary and way of talking about issues of race. So, it's no surprise that they haven't been able to address all the issues that have come up, because they need a little practice in figuring out how to just discuss those issues and have some dialogue.
NNAMDIYou mentioned in the report among the emergent themes that school site staffs -- specifically principals and teachers -- indicate a low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy. Did you make any recommendations about what should be done about that?
MEYERWe think that the professionals in Loudoun County schools need to have some practice and help with understanding how to have effective conversations about race, what terms to use, how to deal with difficult racial topics that make people feel sensitive and vulnerable. And then, more importantly, be able to have those conversations with students to help students talk about the way that race plays out in our society, and to be able to use those dialogues both within the adults and with students to figure out: how do you change the achievement patterns? How do you help students of color, in particular, to achieve their full potential within the school district?
NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Pastor Michelle Thomas, who is president of the NAACP Loudoun County Branch Executive Committee. Michelle Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
MICHELLE THOMASThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIThe NAACP has pressured Loudoun County school administrators to address racial issues in the past. Does this report match what you have been seeing and hearing throughout Loudoun County?
THOMASThe report absolutely corroborates and validates our claims of 50 years of discrimination, so from the day that the Loudoun County public schools were desegregated. If you know your Virginia history, you'll know that Loudoun was one of the last school systems to integrate. And so from that day until now, we're having the same system -- we're having the same problems. In fact, these recurring themes of low level of racial competency, or the idea that hurtful words don't really have effects on our students, or thinking that their opportunity gaps versus achievement gaps, that type of mindset leads to what we consider systemic racism.
THOMASAnd so we're speaking about what's happening to our kids in the language of equity. But what we're really addressing and trying to dismantle is systemic racism. And we need to be talking about that and put that on a front burner.
NNAMDIYou talk about people who know their Virginia history. People who do not know their Virginia history may not only not know how long this has been going on, but they also may not know whether it has changed over time at all.
THOMASAnd in all fairness to the Loudon County Public Schools, we've made some great strides, right. So, I don't want to be dishonest. The evidence that we have an equity director speaks to the aggressive stance and policies that Loudoun County Public Schools has taken. So, we are encouraged, but we are not putting our foot off the gas. We must continue to move forward in progress and make sure that we dismantle systemic racism.
NNAMDIGraig Meyer, what did the assessment discover regarding severity of discipline among students of color in Loudoun County Public Schools?
MEYERWell, students of color are more likely to be suspended than their white peers, and also are more likely to have longer term suspensions or expulsions. And, again, Loudoun is no different than most other school districts in the country with struggling with that type of disparity. The goal that we would set for a school system like that is to ask the school system: how do you increase the amount of time that your students spend in high-quality learning environments?
MEYERIt's not just about keeping them away from being suspended, but it's about getting them into environments where they can learn. So, even if you have to remove a student from one type of learning environment, how do you keep them in another environment where they can continue to progress and learn?
NNAMDIDid you find that students of color are being disciplined more regularly and more severely than white students?
MEYERYes. That is a pattern across the school division, just as it is elsewhere.
NNAMDIHow important is teacher diversity when it comes to unequal discipline?
MEYERTeacher diversity is good for schools, in general. It's helpful for students to see role models who look like them and can be positive models for their race and culture. But you also have to have every teacher be culturally competent. If you're in elementary school, you have one teacher, not a set of teachers. I mean, you have special teachers and teachers for some classes that you go out to, but most of the day, you're with one teacher all day long. And so no matter what that teacher looks like, whether they look like you or not, they need to be able to support you and help you be successful in school. So, you really have to focus on developing cultural competence for the entire district, even while still trying to make sure you have a diverse workforce.
NNAMDIWhat was the most surprising finding in this assessment for you?
MEYERHonestly, I think the most surprising finding was the prevalence of having students who identified that they had heard comments, both from peers and their teachers, that they found to be racially harmful and, you know, really direct examples of racist beliefs. And I think we don't expect our children to be exposed to that, and certainly don't expect them to be exposed to it from adults that are around them.
NNAMDIHere's Wendy in Loudoun County. Wendy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WENDYHi, Kojo. I'm a longtime listener. Hi, Lottie. Hi, Graig. It's Wendy. Hi Pastor Michelle. I hope I spoke to everyone who's there.
NNAMDIYes, you have.
WENDYI just wanted to say I was thrilled when I turned the radio on today and heard the topic and all of your voices. As you all know, this is an issue that is very important to me and many parents across the county. And I was wondering if you could speak to what is the school system doing to promote transparency and accountability.
NNAMDIFirst you, Lottie Spurlock.
SPURLOCKExcellent. We've had several conversations and different opportunities recently to have some dialogue about this. And the school division truly believes in owning this work. It is together work. It's often referenced as shared work, and so the accountability measures are critical. One of our immediate next steps is to launch an equity webpage that will be part of the LCPS, a division-wide webpage. And, on that, once our equity assessment has been developed, we will post it there. And that's part of us owning the work and having a visible opportunity for our parents, students and community members to join us in measuring our progress.
SPURLOCKSo, we don't claim it to be perfect, but we are providing it as a real opportunity. We'll have measurable goals, and we will invite the public to help us in monitoring and offering input opportunities.
THOMASSure. Transparency is a real issue, and it is a deterrent for progress. And I found -- the NAACP have found several gaps, critical gaps in transparency in delivering transparent information and data. I'll give an example. For our gifted and talented school, we have Academies of Loudoun. Academies of Loudoun have had a history of, I wouldn't say denying access, but limited access to African Americans. Right?
THOMASSome of that has to do with criteria. Some of it has to do with other things. But the bulk of it is until we can get honest data from Loudoun County Public Schools, we will never been able to assess the problems and also assess progress. This year, I've met with Loudoun County Public Schools in August, I think August the 9th, asking them about the numbers of Academies of Loudon. They gave me a figure of six. Last year, they accepted one African American student into Academies of Loudoun. This year, they claimed on August the 9th that they had accepted six.
THOMASWhat we've since found out was it was actually three African American students that were accepted into two different programs. And so they counted those numbers as six. That is an overwhelming dishonest approach to transparency. So, if I'm going to assess the system and say we are making progress, I would've thought -- and I left that meeting in August thinking, okay, we've added five more African American students to the equation. And that was not true. We added three.
NNAMDIAnd we don't have any students here today, because this is being conducted during school hours, so former students will have to do. Here is Jocelyn in D.C. Jocelyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOCELYNHi, Kojo. I actually spent my entire public school career from first grade to 12th grade in Loudon County Public Schools. And then I actually was briefly a special ed teaching assistant for one of the high schools in Loudoun County. And I can just attest to the fact that growing up as a white female in a privileged location, there was, one, very little diversity in my school. And, two, there was absolutely no conversation around race.
JOCELYNAnd once I was working in the schools, I noticed the difference. I could see it vibrantly that most of the students in my special needs core classes were students of color, and they were not getting the same resources and success that the students that I had in other classes were that were more privileged and generally whiter.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Here now is Doug in Silver Spring, Maryland. Doug, your turn.
DOUGHi, Kojo. Longtime listener, big fan. Like Jocelyn, I grew up in the Loudoun County Public School system from kindergarten to senior year. My experience was a bit interesting. I was a theater kid and being one of the few students of color in theater programs throughout Loudoun County, I often felt viewed as the white black person. And students would often say that to me, like oh, Doug, you're white, Doug, or not really that black. So, something I'm interested is how can we have greater representation of people of color that do not fit the ideas that students are brought up with already? Thank you.
SPURLOCKSo, we're talking about representation...
SPURLOCK...in our classrooms? So, one of our steps that has been in progress for several years has been a Diversity Champions Network. And this is really managed through our Human Resources Talent and Development Department. And we are really striving to be intentional and deliberate about making sure that we provide opportunities for students to see themselves and the rich opportunities that come from that.
SPURLOCKSo, a lot of times, people think, hey, you're only trying to provide black teachers for black students. It's bigger than that. All students need to see all people, and we believe that there's rich learning for that. So, with the diversity champions opportunity, we're being intentional. As I stated, specific college visits to make sure that our recruitment efforts are onboard, as well as retention efforts. We know once we get people onboard, we really need to work to keep them there and make sure that our environment is a welcoming one for all.
NNAMDIWe only have a couple of minutes left, but the equity assessment and the NAACP have recommended implicit bias training for all administrators, staff and teachers. Does the District have a plan to put that training into place?
SPURLOCKYes, and that plan is actually in place. We started last spring with all of our administrators at schools being trained. There are three modules called Equity in the Center. All of our school-based administrators have participated and engaged in all three modules. And teachers at each school in Loudoun County Public Schools throughout the school year will receive the training, as well.
NNAMDIMichelle Thomas, you've talked about transparency. When it comes to that training, how does the NAACP intend to monitor that?
THOMASThat is a huge problem. Self-certification is probably one of the most dangerous things that we can have. And so a continued effort to have the NAACP present with these training sessions to make sure that we have input, to make sure that we are able to give our analyses on body language and whether teachers are engaged in this work. I think that is very important. So, the absence of that creates an environment where there will be little to no transparency, and we're at the mercy of the school to self-certify.
NNAMDILottie Spurlock, we've got about 30 seconds.
SPURLOCKJust want to quickly respond to that. So, we did provide, early on, an opportunity for NAACP. And I believe, Pastor Michelle, you were a part of that.
SPURLOCKAnd so we welcome the feedback. That's another way that we're trying to be transparent in this partnership with this work.
THOMASSo, we've done maybe three or four trainings, but this is not something that is a one-off. We have a crisis. We need to be included and not courted. So, courted says I'll bring you, you know, some flowers two or three times, you know. Included says, this is a part of our program. This is how we will roll this out.
NNAMDIAnd the NAACP is clearly not going anyplace. Pastor Michelle Thomas is president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch Executive Committee. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGraig Meyer is a partner in the Equity Collaborative. Graig Meyer, thank you for joining us.
MEYERI appreciate you having me on.
NNAMDIAnd Lottie Spurlock is the director of Equity at Loudoun County Public Schools. Lottie Spurlock, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
SPURLOCKThank you for this opportunity.
NNAMDIThis segment about racism and equity in Loudoun County Public Schools was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And our update on local approaches to dealing with the opioid crisis was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, Virginia's elections are less than a month away. We'll find out how changing demographics in the Commonwealth may affect the results. And rent control in the District is set to expire in 2020. So, what's next? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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