Baring the Wound

At the end of the summer of 2007, I was hired as Principal of Brandywine High School in Delaware and was charged with restructuring the school under the auspices of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). What follows is a polished version of the draft “script” I prepared as principal prior to my third meeting with the Brandywine High School Faculty. It is not a transcript of the meeting; rather, writing a “script” was the device I would use to prepare for a meeting because doing so allowed me to collect and organize my thoughts. I only referred to highlighted sections of the script during the meeting; therefore, what follows is not what was shared word-for-word with the faculty, but it does represent with close approximation what I did share with the faculty in the first month of the 2007-08 school year (as well as in subsequent conversations). The details of what is shared below are fact.

Good Afternoon … I am dispensing with the agenda that was mailed to you two days ago because of something I want to share with you about what I had to deal with at the end of the day yesterday, and I’ve decided that the best way to begin is for me to share my perception of the history of Brandywine. I’m beginning in this way for two reasons: one, so those of you who have been here far longer than I will be able to decide for yourself whether or not my perceptions are reasonably accurate, and two, we have twenty-two faculty who have three or fewer years of tenure here at Brandywine. I want to be sure they are aware of some key events in our history.

Most of you know that Brandywine earned a reputation, during its first three decades, which began in 1957, of being perhaps the best high school in the state, based upon the number of graduates who went on to prestigious colleges and universities. Over a third of you were hired during that time, and I think you would concur that reputation is why Brandywine is still referred to by a few as “The Academy.”

Would those of you who have a long tenure here or in the state agree with me that my understanding is accurate? (the faculty did affirm my supposition). It’s my assumption that many of you hired in the last twenty years applied to Brandywine because of that reputation. Is that a fair statement? (much head nodding; there had been no disputing of this claim)

Then it’s fair to say that for many of you, your experience and your perception of Brandywine is related to the reputation of excellence that has been cultivated about Brandywine High School over the years. But then last summer, the state drops a bomb. DOE (the state’s Department of Education) announces that because we have never met NCLB targets for black students or for special education students—neither the absolute targets nor the growth targets—we are one of only three high schools in the state that have to restructure, something no other high schools have ever had to do in the state’s history.

Why were our advantaged parents, our politicians, and concerned taxpayers so stunned when that news made the headlines? I believe it was because Brandywine’s administrators and staff—and more significantly, the school district leadership—has expended a great deal of effort and resources over the years to emphasize the achievements of individual students who have reflected the legend of “The Academy,” and to bury or diminish as much as possible any data regarding our failure to raise the achievement of our black kids or our special needs kids. As a result, the failings about which some of you have known for years ended up being a surprise for a lot of people.

I think there is a lesson to be learned here: it’s always best to acknowledge challenges because such challenges are best addressed in the light of day. There should not be any need for pressure from the outside to address failures, but apparently, there has not been sufficient pressure, fear, embarrassment—call it what you want—from the inside to address those failures. Public acknowledgement that this school needs to restructure has changed all of that, but what I was told yesterday confirms that at least some of you believe restructuring is not the result of our failure; rather, some of you believe restructuring is the result of the changing demographics of our catchment area over the last twenty years.

For those of you who don’t know, that change began with a court-ordered desegregation decree in 1978, which was followed in 1990 by the closing of Claymont High School and the shifting of many of its students to Brandywine. But changing demographics are not the point of my tossing today’s agenda—at least, not totally. What I want to address is what I believe to be the deepest root cause of why this school is being restructured: race. (When delivered during the actual meeting, I paused to let this sink in; to my knowledge, it was the first time this assertion had ever been acknowledged by school leadership.)

Most of us in this room are middle class and white, and we’re not comfortable talking about the insidious impacts of racism. Most of us who are white cannot recognize forms of racism even though they’re right in front of us every day. I know that many of you in this room are probably angry with me for bringing it up, that I’m overreaching or exaggerating because you don’t see it, and because you don’t see it, you don’t believe racism exists within the walls of this school.

All I know to do to open eyes is to share a few things with you, the first of which is what happened yesterday, a bit after four. I was in my office when three of our black kids, two seniors and one sophomore, told one of our assistant principals that they overheard three of you, after school, discussing our being forced by the state to restructure. I’d have already discussed this with you three if the kids had revealed who you were, but they would not.

According to them, the three of you sounded angry, and they claimed one of you had said, “If it wasn’t for the damned black kids, we wouldn’t be in this mess and have to restructure;” the kids alleged the conversation proceeded in that vein. I have no reason to doubt their claims, especially since they said they “didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.” The reason why they came forward was because they were worried that they were being blamed for what they knew was a very disturbing situation for everyone, including those three kids. They are proud of their school, and with the public proclamation of restructuring—like a lot of you—their pride has taken a hit.

Keep in mind that if it wasn’t for the 37% of our student body that is black, our student body might be 37% smaller, and 42 people in this room would be unemployed, but you know employment isn’t what I want to address. What we need to address is this fact: we wouldn’t be in this “mess” if we had done everything that was needed in order for all of our kids to achieve at high levels, but more about that in a moment.

Some of you may be thinking, “This guy has his shorts in a knot because of one incident,” but you need to know those kids coming to me isn’t an isolated event. (My predecessor) shared a letter with me when I arrived at Brandywine last year. It concerns the four officers of last year’s Senior Class. Those of you who know them, know them to be four of our brightest graduates, and they have matriculated at prominent colleges this fall. They had been, I’m told, the best class officers in recent memory, and for what it’s worth, I found them a remarkable team with whom to work. The letter in question was pointedly focused on the fact that all four students were black.

The letter built the case that it was highly improbable that a student body, which was only 37% black, was likely to elect four black kids as officers, and then went on to accuse (my predecessor) of having rigged the election. The letter was signed anonymously: The Fine Families of Brandywine . (My predecessor) was certain who it was who had sent the letter, but he felt his opinion was not sufficient to confront who it was who had written the letter.

I will share the letter with any one of you who wishes to see it, but I will not copy and disseminate it. If you read the letter, you will find that it is well-written, with vocabulary, grammar, and syntax typical of a college graduate, which is evidence that the letter is not the likely work of a stereotypical racist. (My predecessor) felt sharing the letter with you would have been like opening Pandora’s box, but when I became Principal, I knew I would be sharing the gist of the letter with you—baring the wound, if you will—I just wasn’t certain when I would do it, until yesterday. It’s time.

Race has been an educational issue in this state since before the founding of this country: slavery, reconstruction, and then segregation; the expenditure of Pierre du Pont’s private funds in the years following 1920 to build 89 schools for black kids because our state legislature initially refused to improve those schools; our state’s inclusion in Brown v. Board of Education; the massive deseg order for our county that I’ve already mentioned, which led to immediate and significant white flight—now green flight—from public schools to private and religious schools, and now to places like Wilmington Charter (the prestigious charter school in town). There are a lot of white folks, probably most white folks, who think race is no longer an issue, but I can assure you that the letter (my predecessor) received is proof that racism is alive and well in our school community.

But there is more proof that I want to share with you, proof that I discovered within the first month of my arrival here last year as an assistant principal, proof that racism has been right here in Brandywine for years in the form of the two schools that make up Brandywine High: the White School and the Black School.

• 61% of our students are white, 2% are Asian, and 37% are black; however, 4% of the students in our honors and AP (Advanced Placement) courses and 88% of the students in our general classes are black.

• The number of AP courses offered has doubled over the past twelve years, but there is already an undercurrent of conversation about dropping Contemporary Dance, which you know is an elective course that is highly subscribed by black students.

• If you’re a typical black student, your average class size is 23.6 students; if you’re white, your average class size is 20.8.

• The parents of white students are unofficially granted the privilege of selecting their children’s teachers, and in some cases, certain white parents have been contacted and offered that option directly by at least one Brandywine staff member. Black parents do not know that such an unofficial option exists, perhaps because it does not exist for them.

• If you’re a typical black student, the curriculum you receive is a watered down, and frankly, boring version of that taught to the majority of white students.

• Student participation in the AP program is the reason why Brandywine was on one list of America’s top 1000 high schools, but the performance of our black students on state tests is one reason why this school has never met AYP (NCLB-mandated Annual Yearly Progress) and is why the school is being restructured.

• 83% of significant disciplinary infractions are written up for black students; 92% of suspensions are issued to black students, who, I will remind you, only comprise 37% of our student body.

• The cumulative G.P.A. of white and Asian students is 3.07; that of black students is 2.15.

It is because of this data that I have no qualms about identifying the existence of two schools within our school. And there is something else I have no qualms about bringing to your attention: I know that some of you consider the last two bullets to be proof that our black kids aren’t as smart as our white kids, that they’re not as well-behaved as our white kids, that they don’t have the same parental support as our white kids, but I’m here to tell you that we’re going to be spending a significant amount of professional development time exploring decades of research that indicates teacher and school expectations have a highly significant impact on student achievement and behavior.

And we’re going to be looking at the data from urban high schools around the country where the percentage of disadvantaged black students is far higher than here at Brandywine, and where the involvement of black parents is just as low as here, but in those schools, students are performing at far higher levels than are our disadvantaged black students. You need to understand and accept the data that says students who perform higher than they are expected to perform, or students who are not meeting standards of achievement, are often just living up—or down—to the actual expectations of their teachers.

We’re also going to be examining how we implement the Discipline Code here at Brandywine. As administrators, are we holding all students—regardless of race—to the same expectations? Will the numbers indicate that we’re being more lenient with some students than we are with others? And we’re going to be looking more critically at referrals themselves. If there is a significant difference among the referral rates of teachers teaching the same students—and I can tell you there is—we need to understand why, so that we can help correct whatever is at the root of that significant difference. This does not mean we’re going to be turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior; rather, we’re going to be opening our eyes to all inappropriate behavior and how we deal with it.

We’re also going to be exploring the reality that the culture we create in our classrooms and in the school as a whole, including the nature of instruction and the expectations we have for all students, has a direct bearing on student behavior. This means we’re going to be spending a great deal of energy on culturally responsive teaching, which, for those of you to whom this is a new concept, is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. We’ll be reflecting upon how the cultural frames of reference that black kids have are not just different from mainstream white culture—their frames of reference are oppositional to the mainstream because of hundreds of years of being impacted by racism—which means we have an extraordinary challenge and opportunity to be cultural translators, to be the people who help our black kids overcome white cultural boundaries here at Brandywine.

If we increase our cultural responsiveness, if we take on the challenge of being cultural translators, if each of us takes a long look inside to see if there are latent vestiges of racism within us and then deal with them, if we raise our expectations for all of our students and couple that with the instructional strategies needed to support those expectations, we will not only meet Annual Yearly Progress, we will create a school of which we can all be proud because we’re going to see all of our students soar.

* * *

Afterword: Five months after I had shared with a mostly receptive faculty and administration the de facto racism and teacher expectation differential I had observed, Brandywine students took the state tests. Despite the fact that there were no systemic changes in governance during those five months, no significant changes in the alignment of curriculum with state tests, no significant changes in instructional practices, and much less professional development than I had promised and hoped for—in other words, despite the only observable changes during those five months having been changes in the expectations and behaviors of Brandywine’s adults toward historically under-performing students—black students and special education students met and exceeded the NCLB/AYP targets for growth for the first time in the School’s history.

In the spring of 2008, the school board approved a comprehensive Brandywine High School restructuring plan; however, the following August I discovered that there was no intention on the part of the school district to provide the staffing and other aspects of the plan that were crucial to its success. Rather than fight the matter, I acquiesced to the political inertia of the situation and decided to retire, which I did the following June (2009). During the year after my retirement, much of what we had begun to establish as a part of the school climate was undermined by a small number of veteran, recalcitrant faculty members and by a new principal, the impact of which validated an observation by a highly respected colleague who had told me that the good works of change agents (of which I had been one) lasted about as long as the exhaust fumes from their cars as they drove away for the last time. Within two years, white flight had reduced the Eastside student population by a quarter, and there was not significant improvement in the achievement of Brandywine’s remaining students: America’s systemic and societal racism had once again reared its insidious head.

I had bared the wound, but to my lasting shame, I did not persevere. My colleague’s prophesy came true: both the changes we had begun and the exhaust from my car were quickly dispersed in the strong winds of the status quo.

Dear Reader: your “follow” will be most appreciated (click “Menu” in this post) as will forwarding this post’s link to a friend who you think might enjoy the blog. Thanks! Jeff

(The featured image is from Pixabay; copyright infringement is not intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images.)

One thought on “Baring the Wound

  1. very moving, thank you. *Bob George*

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    On Sat, Dec 19, 2020 at 4:17 PM Growing Up Boomer wrote:

    > Jeff Lee Byrem posted: ” At the end of the summer of 2007, I was hired as > Principal of Eastside High School (not the actual name) and was charged > with restructuring the school under the auspices of No Child Left Behind > (NCLB). What follows is a polished version of the draft “scr” >

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