Aaron Randle, Kansas City Star, February 24, 2019
In virtually every measurable category, black Lee’s Summit students were being outperformed by their white counterparts, according to an extensive study commissioned by the district. And while black students accounted for 12 percent of the district’s enrollment, they represented nearly 36 percent of the district’s suspensions.
The numbers mirror trends in suburban districts across America, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.
But while some districts shrug at the disparity, Lee’s Summit sought out dynamic, new leadership to address it. Two years ago, the district hired its first black superintendent, Dennis Carpenter, who had been leading the Hickman Mills district. The Atlanta-born educator so tethers the importance of racial equity in education to his identity that he chose @EquitySupt1 (shorthand for Equity Superintendent) as his Twitter handle.
“The findings were undeniable,” Carpenter said. “There are children who are being put at risk in this district, and that had to change.”
Superintendent Dennis Carpenter joined Lee’s Summit schools in 2017 after leaving Hickman Mills.
The Star spoke with several black and white students, alumni, parents and administrators who say they experienced or witnessed explicit racism and implicit bias.
Several black Lee’s Summit North students said they tried to work with teachers to improve D and C grades but were told they were doing well enough because the grades were passing. “I just don’t feel like they would say that to their white students,” said one student, who asked for anonymity.
Last fall, after more than a year and a half on the job, Carpenter offered what he believed to be a mild suggestion to address bias and build equity: spend $7,000 for diversity training with the Pacific Educational Group, consultants who have spent decades working with educational institutions to erase racial disparity.
But in the ensuing months, the plan has erupted into a volcano of controversy that has cracked a seismic chasm in the Lee’s Summit community.
On one side were those who saw the training for teachers and staff as a needed jumping-off point.
On the other, those who vehemently opposed the initiative. And even after the school board scuttled the plan, they kept up their attack on Carpenter and the consultant.
Parents spoke out at meetings. On social media, white students openly questioned the superintendent’s resume and wondered if he had the skill set to lead. In January, a teachers union leader wrote a letter to the school board calling for Carpenter’s ouster. That same day, a white parent questioned his integrity while posting a photo he’d unearthed of Carpenter raising his middle finger.
In January, one day after the photo and letter were made public, the Lee’s Summit Tribune published a letter to the school board from Jeff Grisamore, a conservative former state legislator: “The rush by a few in our community to seek to influence all of you to force his ouster looks like a good old fashioned lynch mob with the modern trappings of social media.”
The ordeal has forced residents of the mostly white and affluent suburb to engage one another uncomfortably and unflinchingly on issues of race, policy and privilege.
“A witch hunt”
Glenn Singleton, the founder of the Pacific Educational Group in San Francisco, teaches school districts, local and state governments, universities and major corporations around the world how to overcome systemic inequality. His book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity Across Schools” is now the No. 1 recommended book by the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
He bristles at the criticism in Lee’s Summit.
“I have spent my entire life studying, learning, training, facilitating and becoming an expert on how to move people humanely to the next level so that we don’t practice the same ills of our fore parents,” Singleton told The Star by phone this month. “And what I’m sitting with are people who have never thought about these issues, who feel a little bit uncomfortable about race and dealing with a racial achievement gap, and all of a sudden their voice is more significant than mine? That doesn’t work. I’m the expert here.”
The critics aren’t buying it. The gripes against Singleton and Carpenter erupted anew Jan. 21 when a teacher, speaking on behalf of the Lee’s Summit chapter of the Missouri National Education Association, wrote a letter requesting the school board either delay the decision to extend Carpenter’s contract until a new board was elected or oppose the extension altogether.
The letter laid out grievances in bullet points: Teachers decried the consultant’s focus on “white privilege” — the built-in advantages white people enjoy, often unconsciously. It argued that the appointment of an assistant superintendent of equity and student services was a frivolous expenditure, and it called the search that led to Carpenter’s hiring “lackluster,” rushed and lacking transparency.
“I was floored,” Thompson, a mother of two elementary schoolchildren in the district, says of the letter. “It made me concerned, like, who am I sending my kids to every day? If they’re bold enough to do this publicly, imagine what’s being done and said privately. Imagine what’s being done and said to our kids. …
“It didn’t bother me that they had an issue with Dr. Carpenter. It was that they had an issue with trying to make things more equitable in the district.”
Thompson says the letter is just the latest example of white people telling black people how to remedy racism, often by placing white feelings before black lives. “There’s always a reason,” she said. “It’s never the right time, or the chosen method is never the right way.”
The same day the letter went public, a Lee’s Summit man shared a photo on Facebook that he had found online of Carpenter giving the finger. The accompanying comment: “If a student or teacher did the same, they would be suspended for their actions. Shouldn’t the Superintendent be held to the same standards?”
“It was a witch hunt,” Carpenter said.
“Tough on issues, soft on people”
One former Lee’s Summit teacher says she understands the frustration from both sides.
“In my personal journey, I have accepted my white privilege,” the teacher said. The Star agreed to keep the woman’s identity anonymous due to her concerns for her personal and professional safety. “I started to see how much I had benefited from it in small ways, and I definitely agree that Lee’s Summit needs some type of training related to that white privilege to get to the point of equity.”
The challenge, the teacher says, is how to communicate the concept of white privilege and show teachers how a phenomenon they benefit from, whether they’re aware of it or not, does in fact exist and likely provides a disservice to children who don’t look like them.
“We need to meet the teachers where they’re at,” she said. “You have those who understand concepts of white privilege and racism but then you have those who have no concept of those things. And for those who don’t know about that, an aggressive method of addressing it is going to create more pushback than not. I’m not against what PEG is trying to accomplish. I think it’s a noble pursuit. But I do wonder if their message is most effective from a methodology standpoint.”
Singleton can’t understand how teachers, particularly white ones, could question the efficacy of his work. “How is it that a curriculum from a black man could be taught to hundreds of thousands of people around the world for 25 years and it not be successful?”
The teacher says the root of the anxiety for her white colleagues was learning how much emphasis Singleton’s program places on whiteness as the root issue of racism and racial inequality.
John Beaudoin, a white parent of a young Lee’s Summit student and former publisher and columnist of the Lee’s Summit Journal, also worries that Singleton’s approach might be too abrasive. “We’ve got to be tough on issues, but soft on people,” Beaudoin said. “Right now we’re not doing that.”
Beaudoin, reflecting sentiments of the NEA letter and other residents, also says Carpenter should not have selected Singleton’s group without considering other firms or consulting with Lee’s Summit teachers. Had Carpenter done so, Beaudoin says, he would have uncovered objections early on instead of becoming bombarded by them.
Cameron Greenwell, a curious, conservative student who routinely attends school board meetings, says he began researching Singleton’s group after hearing it mentioned in a school board meeting months ago.
He took issue with Singleton’s emphasis on white privilege and racism as the main source of the achievement gap, and the “unreasonable amounts of money” the group charges school districts.
Greenwell is also slow to embrace Singleton’s curriculum, saying all signs point to marginalizing white students to help minority students. “What exactly are they going to do to narrow the gap between students?” Greenwell wonders. “The way to go about it would not be to promote a certain subgroup and see a decline in another. I would much rather see the promotion of all. … It seems to me there is no way to narrow the gap found in these inequities without pushing down one.”
Singleton, exasperated, says these are all smokescreens hiding the true issue — privileged white people not wanting to have a tough, critical conversation.
“I am not in a place right now where I can listen to unconscious white voices telling us how to address race. We have been doing this for nearly three decades,” Singleton said. “I’m tired of children of color being sacrificed because white adults are too fragile to have a conversation about race and power.”
He explains his focus on white privilege for the white participants: “Before I can talk to educators how race plays out in their classrooms, they have to understand how race plays out in lives.” That’s the topic of the first of two eight-hour sessions.
“We’re talking about addressing the implicit biases,” Singleton said. “Implicit biases that have been built into this education system for over a century. Teachers have never been trained, by and large, to address those biases, both the personal ones and the systemic ones.”
The second day trains educators how to create a diverse and inclusive environment and curriculum.
A walking back, and a look forward
Barely a day after the Lee’s Summit NEA letter calling for Carpenter’s ouster was published, a second letter was sent to teachers largely disavowing what had been said.
Despite the walking back, the anonymous teacher says the first letter did in fact represent a considerable faction of Lee’s Summit’s teachers.
In response to the backlash, Carpenter and his newly created department of equity services began brainstorming a new equity plan. They presented it at Thursday’s school board meeting, where it was approved 7-0.
Among the goals in the plan: adding more diverse school curriculum and recruiting and promoting a more diverse workforce.