By Barney Blakeney
Charleston County School District on Monday at a midday luncheon publicly announced a new initiative to conduct a diversity and inclusion climate survey for the school district. A team of education experts from Clemson University made a presentation on inclusive excellence to county school board members during a meeting later Monday.
The district invited about 50 individuals representing educators, corporate entities and education partners to the luncheon where the team asked for comments about the proposal from the audience. The discourse was candid, but took on a more confrontational tone after several guests among the racially diverse group challenged district officials about inequities and racial discrimination inherent in the system.
Presenters from Clemson included Lee Gill, J.D., Chief Diversity Officer and Special Assistant to the President for Inclusive Excellence; Cherese Fine, Ph.D., Program Coordinator in the Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education; Daniella Hall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Educational and Organizational Leadership Development; Julio Hernandez, Associate Director for Hispanic Outreach in the Office of Inclusion and Equity; Greg Ladewski, M.A., J.D., Director of Strategic Engagement at the Office of Inclusion and Equity; Amber Lange, Executive Director of the Office of College Preparation at Clemson University; Janie Lindle, Ph.D., Eugene T. Moore Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership at Clemson University; and Curtis White, Ph.D., Coordinator of Faculty Development. They will initiate a process to conduct the diversity and inclusion climate survey for the school district and make recommendations based on their findings in June.
Without fanfare after a brief lunch, moderator Lee Gill opened the discourse to questions and comments. Guests responded with a barrage of comments about systemic racism and discrimination in the district that perpetuates disparities among different racial groups of students. District 23 Constituent School Board member Dr. Helen Frazier, a retired CCSD counselor and administrator said the district has perpetuated a dual education system. It has provided quality education to some students, but not others. “My question is what you are going to do about it?” she asked.
In addition to six of the district’s nine county board members, Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait was in attendance. Along with staff members, they attempted to address some of the concerns expressed. Some of those concerns included the absence of vocational training in neighborhood schools and whether there will be sustained engagement to address the issues that will be identified.
National Action Network S.C. Director Elder James Johnson posed perhaps the most impassioned challenge to what he called inherent racial discrimination in the district. That discrimination manifests itself in the lack of racial diversity among staff and resources to predominantly Black schools which affects Black students’ ability to become productive and employable members of the community, Johnson said.
Board members and Postlewait responded to the comments. Kevin Hollinshead said the county school board has been an architect of the disparities that exist and their systemic perpetuation. Rev. Eric Mack said the team has been tasked with identifying such issues and making recommendations to address them. But Michael Miller noted change and the implementation of any recommendations made will come from a committed board.
But there are no guarantees, Miller cautioned. Four board members will be elected in November. New members could sustain the effort or abandon it, he noted. School board Chair Kate Darby offered that the board is committed improving the quality of education provided all students and offered assurances future board members will have that same commitment. Johnson challenged her saying he knows Darby to be racist and is unconvinced she would champion efforts to eliminate racism in the district.
Several guests, including businessman and political activist Maurice Washington, sought to inject reason to diffuse the volatility of Johnson’s assertions. Washington said an obvious trust factor must be addressed as the initiative moves forward.
Postlewait pointed to a 1835 South Carolina law that prohibits teaching Blacks to read, which still remains among the state’s statutes. The racial divide that exists in the district didn’t occur overnight and won’t be resolved overnight, she said. The $135,000 project is a positive step toward addressing some of the issues, she said.
“We must acknowledge where we have been, accept where we are and commit to not allowing it to continue,” Postlewait said.