When Steven Price was hired as superintendent of Middletown City Schools in Ohio six years ago, he was charged with three tasks: raise academic achievement, fix dilapidated buildings, and address the district’s diversity issues.
He’s been pretty successful. Middletown’s report card grade has risen from a performance index score of 71.4 to 82.5, resulting in a jump from “Academic Watch” to “Continuous Improvement,” under No Child Left Behind. And Price hopes for an “Effective” grade.
On the building front, the district demolished in 2003 and slowly rebuilt its elementary schools, with the last one reopening earlier this fall. But addressing Middletown’s diversity has become anongoing process, and it has led to a paradigm shift in dealing with race not only in Middletown but throughout Ohio.
Middletown is one of 21 urban districts in Ohio and suffers from declining enrollment: Families once brought to Middletown by the allure of steel factory work are relocating to places where the economy isn’t forcing businesses to close.
About 24 percent of the district’s students are minority students, nearly 70 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches. With that diversity has come a gaping achievement gap not unlike those seen in other urban areas. To Price, achievement gaps are in part the result of an inherent discomfort in identifying race—not just economics—as the heart of educational inequity in the United States school system.
“Advocates recognize that the achievement gap is persistent. But rushing to solutions like we’ve done has not solved anything,” says Price. “Great conversations about the achievement gap are about identifying the root causes that are uncomfortable to talk about.”
Closing the Gap, Opening Discussion
In 2007, Price and educators from districts across Ohio—including Butler Tech, Fairfield, Lacota, Mason, and Talawanda—and the Ohio Department of Education, in association with Miami University, collaborated to create the Consortium on Racial Equity in K-12 Education, which aims to eliminate the racial predictability of achievement while raising the level of achievement for all students by teaching teachers to better understand (and in some cases, admit) their racial biases, and to break through barriers in the classroom attributed to how teachers—and students—view race. “People want to talk about cultural language, barriers, poverty—but race, we have to be brave enough to confront,” says Price.
The consortium is led by a group of nationally recognized professionals dedicated to addressing racial inequity in education: Glenn E. Singleton, a professor, coauthor of Courageous Conversations about Race, and founder and president of Pacific Educational Group, which provides support to school districts striving to meet the needs of students of color; and Circe Stumbo, president of West Wind Education Policy, which provides policy analysis, knowledge building, and systemic equity leadership development promoting a K12 education system that overcomes what the organization calls “historic inequities” in learning. Participants also include the Ohio Leadership Forum. “When I first came, the focus was in a very broad senseon diversity,” says Price. But after working with Singleton and Stumbo, his sitessharpened to race and equity.
Through “equity teams” comprised of teachers, administrators, staff members, and a board member, the consortium helps Price give Middletown a guideline for confronting the issues of race and culture in the classroom. Ideas are as simple as changing how teachers refer to racial achievement gaps, and evaluating the differences between “underachieving” and “underserved” students. Price continues to help Middletown shift from discussing “achievement gaps” to “racial disparities.”
According to the Middletown Journal, Ohio’s Department of Education stated that black teachers made up 6.2 percent of Middletown’s teaching staff in the 2005-06 school year—more than double that of any local school—and still employs the highest number of black teachers across the county.
Price attributes the district’s consortium involvement as a carrot that helps attract more teachers and administrators of color. He proudly promotes Middletown’s participation in the consortium at conferences such as the National Conference on Student Assessment, and this fall’s Summit for Courageous Conversation. Similar consortiums are being considered by school districts in Indiana, Connecticut and Minnesota.
If the current models prove successful, Price hopes to work with the Department of Education to make the consortium model national. “What a great legacy” it would be, he says: “Strong for Ohio, and for the nation.”
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.