New Richland 2 parent group want to discuss race

cclick@thestate.comMarch 31, 2014 

In this file photo, Richland 2 schools superintendent Debbie Hamm talks with Jack Carter, executive director of operations for Richland 2, and former school board chair Bill Flemming.

CAROLYN CLICK — cclick@thestate.com Buy Photo

A group of African-American parents has established a new organization in Richland 2, which leaders say was born out of the frustration among some parents that their concerns are not being addressed by the school board and the administration.

But Superintendent Debbie Hamm and other district officials say they have been frustrated in their efforts to learn about the organization or meet with founders to launch a conversation about the group’s issues.

The Richland 2 Black Parents’ Association is still in its infancy, with an inaugural meeting planned sometime in April. But one of its founding members, Stephen Gilchrist, said Monday the organization hopes to increase minority representation in the administration and on the seven-member school board, which now has three black members.

The group also wants to address such issues as the number of black males recommended for suspension or expulsion from school. Gilchrist said about 15 parents came together to form the group, including Glen Jones, Florine Handley and Keith Alexander, all parents.

“These are very well-educated African-Americans and the last thing they would raise is the issue of race,” said Gilchrist, a small-business owner and father of three sons. “But at the end of the day, many of us have gone to the district on numerous occasions, and said, ‘Guys, we have to deal with some of these issues,’ and they have chosen not to.”

Gilchrist, whose wife teaches in Richland 2, said the group wants to work alongside the administration, a move that both superintendent Hamm and board chairman Calvin “Chip” Jackson said Monday they would welcome.

“We are not trying to operate as an adversarial organization but as a complementary opportunity to represent black people in the community,” he noted.

But the presentation on the organization’s website, Richland2BlackParents.org, was more inflammatory: “PARENTS DID YOU KNOW!!!!! Richland School District 2’s student body is 68% Black? Most of the Administrative staff at the District Office that makes decisions about our children are WHITE?”

Hamm said she tried to contact the organization through the group’s website, Richland2BlackParents.org, when she first learned of the group several weeks ago, but got no response from her query. On Sunday, she asked some black parents, not associated with the organization, to a meeting aimed at learning more about the concerns expressed on the organization’s website and in the minority community.

That incensed members of the fledgling organization, Gilchrist said, but Hamm defended her action, saying she was seeking concrete information about the community’s concerns.

“As superintendent, I always want to know when one parent or a group of parents has concerns. It is my moral and ethical responsibility to do all I can to address any parent’s concerns,” Hamm said Monday.

Richland 2 spokeswoman Libby Roof said the group, which included six parents, “had a very open and frank conversation.”

Board chairman Jackson said that is one of a number of conversations that have taken place over the past two decades as Richland 2 has evolved from a predominantly white suburban district to a district that is now majority minority. Richland 2 is also less affluent than in the past, which has also required the addition of new initiatives to address children in poverty, particularly those who move in and out of the district.

For that reason, Jackson, one of the three African-American board members, said he was wary of shaping a conversation based solely on race in a district that has students who speak 40 languages and who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

“If you look at where the rubber meets the road, there have been changes,” Jackson said. Five years ago, the district’s four high schools had white principals. Five years later, with the addition of a fifth high school, three of those high school principals are black.

“Five years ago, we had 26 total schools, seven headed by African-Americans, “ he said. “We now have 31 schools and now 16 of them are headed by African-Americans.”

“The district does look different than in the past,” Jackson said. “But I can tell you from personal experience, my children and nephews and nieces did exceedingly well. Their race had no impact on their ability had to be successful.”

Gilchrist said many parents are alarmed that black males seem to be the predominant population at Bythewood Academy, the district’s alternative high school, although Jackson said that population fluctuates depending on those who are suspended and required to attend school there.

“We are just seeing so many black students being removed from the school district,” Gilchrist said. “There was really no course of action that gave any remedy to students that found themselves in these situations.”

During the 2012-2013 academic year, 2.7 percent of the district’s 26,000 students were recommended for expulsion, with 0.5 percent actually expelled, Roof said. Those numbers were not broken down by race.

The percentage of suspended students during that same year was 10.3 percent of the district population.

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