Tensions about how to address racial inequity bubble up in Lee’s Summit schools

The Lee’s Summit School board and its superintendent Tuesday night sat beneath a sign touting the district mission, “We prepare each student for success in life,” and took heat from parents opposing a plan to tackle inequity and the racially divided achievement gap in the district.

The opposition from the packed conference room was to the hiring of a group that district leaders and board members say would help elevate talks about diversity, equity, inclusion and how to close the achievement gap between Lee’s Summit’s white and minority students.

The board, at the recommendation of Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, had been set to consider a $7,000 contract for professional training sessions with Glenn Singleton and his Pacific Educational Group. Parents’ objections simmered several days on social media and came to a boil at Tuesday night’s meeting even though the item had been left off the agenda.

Singleton founded Pacific Educational Group in 1992, with a commitment “to achieve racial equity in education,” according to the group’s website. He also is the author of “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools,” which this month was the No. 1 book recommended by the Missouri School Board Association for educators and administrators to read his year.

Singleton’s seminars that aim to help schools identify and attack systemic racism in education have been celebrated for opening honest conversations about race in education. But his talk that teachers with students of color need cultural competence training also has been called controversial.

Carpenter said he believed that bringing in Singleton would give the district “an opportunity to hear from an expert.”

But social media comments and emails that bombarded district leaders condemned the idea as soon as it became public.

In a Citizens For LSR-7 Schools Facebook post, Lynn Hinkle wrote that, “it is so important to get to the BOE [board of education] NOW! They need to remember they are here to serve ALL students. That is NOT what Glenn Singleton is about. Not even close.”

Lanny L. Lewis posted: “I have never attended their conference and am only going by what I have researched on the internet. From what I understand it seems as though white teachers have absolutely no business teaching non-white kids unless they’ve been indoctrinated. From that point of view it’s a stereotype of white teachers only having skills to teach white kids and no one else.”

Administrators of the Citizens page recommended that its social media followers not support a district contract with Pacific Educational Group, and social media posters suggested Singleton’s group might draw resources away from the high performing students.

Other posters referred to Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent who uses the Twitter handle @EquitySupt1, as the “race doctor.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Carpenter, who came to the district last year from Hickman Mills, tried to explain why the district wanted Singleton’s group. Carpenter said that in addition to being recommended by the school board association, Singleton has been presenting his courageous conversations about race across the country. He said he wanted the best in Lee’s Summit.

Most of those attending the board meeting questioned the district’s racial diversity and equity training plans, but not the need for some more general discussion about equity.

“I don’t think anyone thinks we don’t need to have an equity conversation,” said Holly Godfrey, a parent with three kids attending Lee’s Summit Schools. “The question tonight is why are we choosing that it specifically targets racial equity. ... How is it more important than looking at the equity of a child with special needs or of other different abilities?”

Others wondered why the district had not sought alternatives to provide equity and diversity training to school leaders. School officials in a statement to The Star on Wednesday afternoon said Singleton was chosen for his expertise.

District spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said the district did not seek bids or alternative offers because it considers the learning program that Singleton and his group offer as one of a kind. The training sessions were presented “as an opportunity exclusively for the board of education and district leadership to hear more about equitable practices and closing the achievement gap for all students.”

During the meeting, Carpenter grew frustrated with what he called “naysayers.”

“I want to encourage people to press through on this issue for our young people,” Carpenter said. “It is about their future; it is not about our past.

“We know these achievement gaps in our district are not new. They’re lingering.”

Carpenter added: “I get to raise two brown children. I don’t like it, as your superintendent, knowing there’s a significant gap — regardless of their income or background — that they’re going to experience in relation to their white peers right there in our neighborhood. ... There are communities that have grappled with this and they have done it successfully, and I hope we can be one of them.”

Not everyone was opposed to the district seeking help from the Pacific Educational Group. Hilary Graves, a member of the district’s Parent Teacher Association, stepped up to the podium and backed the district.

“We want every child in every school to receive a rigorous and equitable education, but we can’t achieve these goals until we have an authentic open conversation about the achievement gaps within our schools,” Graves said.

“To have a conversation about achievement in this district, we must address race and social privilege. ... You know as well as I know that our schools are not equitable. The test scores prove it, the facilities reflect it and the parents tell us.”

Wachel said in an emailed statement that “as a school district and community, we have to determine how to continue these conversations and deepen these conversations in service to all of our students.”