Author’s Note: This OpEd piece was published in Education Week (Fall 2019).
As the negro spiritual encouraged the elders, “Don’t you get weary.”
Recently, equity-minded superintendents have been ostracized in their local communities for championing the work of systemic change. Dr. Dennis Carpenter in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, has endured endless attacks, resulting in calls for law enforcement protection assigned to him.
In Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Shawn Joseph’s productive tenure was prematurely cut short by vocal pundits implicitly and explicitly deriding his platform to develop policy and practice to better support historically marginalized students. The recent situation in Washoe, Nevada, is also troubling. Former Superintendent Traci Davis is a recognized champion for equity, most recently lauded by the American Association of School Administrators this past February. She was removed from her post under questionable circumstances in early July.
The challenges of equity-minded school leadership are not limited to African-American superintendents. Several years ago, Dr. Melissa Krull was embroiled in a significant battle to integrate her district’s schools in Eden Prairie, a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. In this case, the resistance to her commitment to her equity-minded leadership transcended her race, as she is a white female. Dr. Krull is one of the great equity-minded leaders in our country, and her work should never be forgotten.
Even in the liberal enclave of Athens, Georgia, I have been under constant scrutiny for my commitment to systematically reform our school district to meet the needs of all students, particularly students of color.
According to the 2015 Programme of International Student Achievement from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, U.S. students were in the middle of the pack based on performance. However, when the data are disaggregated, white students ranked third, only behind Canada and Finland. African-American students ranked toward the bottom, only outperforming Turkey and Mexico. Students of color routinely rank among the bottom performers on the National Assessment of Educational Performance. These data suggest that there needs to be a national call to build our nation’s schools so that they indeed serve every student well.
But even in light of the obvious need to build equitable practices in our nation’s schools to provide a fighting chance for our most vulnerable students, superintendents who endeavor to build such systems are being ostracized and criticized for their efforts.
In the face of such immense criticism, it can be easy for us to “get weary” and give up the fight. However, I challenge my colleagues not to give up. We must be even more committed to our equity work on behalf of our students during these treacherous times.
It is time for equity-minded leaders to develop a national agenda to address the needs of our children. This agenda will make it more difficult for overt and covert opponents to equity work to successfully remove and ruin the careers of moral, ethical and equity-focused educational leaders attempting to address the country’s original sin: the inequitable treatment of people of color inside and outside of education.
There is a pressing need for superintendents to create a national professional learning community to support one another in advancing the work of eradicating systems to advance learning for all students. In the age of Trump, we must unite as equity-minded superintendents and strategize on how we can better advance this critical work in our districts and support one another when attacks are levied against equity warriors across the country.
During these times of dissension, we need each other more now than ever before. Let’s not get weary — a camp meeting is coming! Equity minded superintendents, be encouraged. As the negro spiritual stated, “Mourn and never tire, There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”