A collection of materials from a recent training program for teachers and administrators in Chatham County schools has been making the rounds on social media recently.
The training, held last month, aimed to help teachers understand equity and race as part of improving classroom inclusion efforts – but instead sparked claims that CCS teaches CRT, or Critical Race Theory, to students.
A selection of documents, published in an opinion piece in the online “Chatham Journal” on September 1, showed the outline of the diversity training material. The article, which purported to illustrate how the system was engaged in teaching CRT, quickly sparked outrage from some parents and community members who lambasted CCS’s administration and board members.
Critical Race Theory is an academic framework taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels that examines the social construction of race and how racism is embedded in legal and social systems. In recent years, it has been increasingly introduced into the public debate as it relates to K-12 schools. It is not uncommon, however, for mandatory or voluntary equity and social justice training for administrators and staff to be interpreted by some unfamiliar with CRT as CRT training or CRT indoctrination.
But CCS officials say the interpretation doesn’t make it a reality, especially when it comes to K-12 classroom instruction.
CCS teachers told the News+Record that looking at the documents, it’s hard to see these trainings as problematic or out of the ordinary. The outline outlines how to help teachers identify white privilege, understand unconscious bias, and highlight the ways race and class play a systemic role in determining academic outcomes.
“A Completely Manufactured Problem”
CCS teachers who participated in the training, titled “Culturally Respectful Teaching,” also said they were confused and concerned by the outrage from some community members they saw online. One, Edward Walgate, a science teacher at Northwood High School, is president of the Chatham County Association of Educators.
“Critical Race Theory is a completely fabricated problem,” Walgate said. “The idea that graduate theory is being taught in our public schools…I think people are doing it for political gain.”
He said it’s disappointing that politicians and some parents have worked to persuade others to distrust public schools through systemic underfunding and disrespect. Walgate said teachers are already underfunded and overworked, so they don’t have time to indoctrinate students with liberal ideologies.
“We don’t have time to politicize our classrooms,” he said, “but outsiders do it for us.”
The training itself, he said, while informative, was nothing outside of standard procedure. In fact, it was a speaker from EduConsulting, which provides professional development for teachers across North Carolina through “research-based solutions.”
“They guided us through thought experiments to reflect on our backgrounds and pre-established stereotypes,” Walgate said. “I think it was a very healthy thing for the CCS teaching corps. Unfortunately, teachers are not as diverse as our student population, so it is important to remember that our students come from very different backgrounds than ours.
“An uncomfortable truth”
He said this type of cultural awareness and unconscious bias training is standard practice for most college graduates with an education degree.
Malinda Quinn, a Grade 6 social studies teacher at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, also participated in the training sessions. She was a CCS teacher for 30 years and said equity training is nothing new – it just evolves over time.
“What we’ve always talked about is that we can’t reach our students if we don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Quinn said. “We try to give our students representation so that they see themselves a little bit in something that we teach.”
She said that as a history teacher, she is obligated not to share just one part of the story, but rather to try to share global perspectives. She said cultural sensitivity means making the curriculum relevant for all students.
“You can’t teach Civil War without teaching slave stories, that’s an uncomfortable truth,” Quinn said. “But you can’t hide a truth to make another person feel safe. You have to know where you come from to answer the questions of the present.
Incidents like last year’s JS Waters School ‘fictitious slave auction’, where black middle school students were targeted by their white classmates, are a reminder of why diversity, equity and inclusion must be at the forefront of educators’ concerns, Walgate said.
“A good regular drip to remind teachers of certain issues is good,” Walgate said. “A lot of teachers are really busy, and it’s easy for things to get pushed off the to-do list. It’s healthy to be reminded periodically of what’s really important.
CCS officials agree, so they’ve bolstered the district’s equity efforts by appointing veteran educator and Chatham native Chris Poston as Executive Director for Excellence and Opportunity to Strengthen and lead the district’s equity push.
“Following last year’s incident at JS Waters, we realized that not all of our employees knew how to have conversations about racial issues and we wanted to make sure we were prepared for those conversations at the future,” said CCS public information officer Nancy Wykle.
Wykle said the trainings better equip district employees to have conversations about race. She also said the district received positive feedback from administrators who participated.
“No, we don’t teach CRT,” Wykle said.
Gary Leonard, chairman of the CCS Board of Education, also previously told News+Record, “We don’t teach CRT. In particular, we try to ensure that we care for each child socially and emotionally.
Rumblings of critical race theory in Chatham County schools first emerged amid debates over masking in schools, according to Walgate and other teachers who spoke to News+Record. He thinks some parents and community members in the district began to leverage these hidden debates as the school district returned to in-person learning and leveraged that traction to fight for this new CRT issue.
The narrative of the CRT “indoctrinating” CCS students and the idea that the school system is engaging in “social experiments” through these types of trainings boiled over at last week’s school board meeting.
A group of frustrated parents, Republican presidential hopefuls and several people from outside the district spoke at the board meeting after reports surfaced online last week that a student from Bonlee School was reportedly “bullied” by a teacher because of his love for the Bible.
While the main reason many showed up for the meeting was the situation at Bonlee, many speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting used their time to address ideas related to the CRT.
Raleigh’s John Amanchukwu – a black pastor who describes himself as “a rising voice exposing racist ideologies of abortion and critical race theory” – spoke at the meeting, saying public school systems and Chatham County schools teach critical race theory, transgender and grooming politics, which he called “tragic ideologies”.
Another out-of-town pastor, Allen Mashburn — who co-hosts the “Carolina Conservatives” podcast and preaches in Seagrove — also spoke at the meeting. He equated diversity and equity training with bullying and harassment. Mashburn also incorrectly stated that these equity trainings had been going on for two weeks; records show they lasted no more than two and a half hours a day.
Walgate was also present at the meeting, but did not speak. He said he thought it was troubling that people from outside Chatham County were attending a school board meeting where they didn’t know what happened inside the classroom and were talking fears of conservative parents hoping to gain political points or extra subscribers for their podcasts.
“It seems like a handful of people were exploiting the situation for their own gain,” Walgate said. “I find it disappointing – although I like to think it’s a minority of people – who believe that teachers and the school system are indoctrinating students.”
Quinn, the 6th grade teacher, was not at the meeting. But she saw the comments on social media from parents and community members about the idea of CRT in CCS.
“When I see people making these comments, it’s like, ‘You just don’t understand my world,'” she said. “I’m the expert, but I still feel that in the long run, parents have the rights they ask for.”
The social studies teacher said she believes politicians are turning public schools into political pawns that heighten concerns and strike fears.
“I don’t think they would want me to come home and tell them how to parent,” Quinn said. “And while I appreciate their opinions, I don’t think parents always have the necessary degree to understand why I pick the material I pick… not trusting is really hard.”
The district says it does not teach CRT in schools and does not believe these equity trainings have played a role in changing classroom procedures or outcomes. There have been no mandatory changes to the classroom as a result of the ‘Culturally Respectful Teacher’ trainings.
Journalist Ben Rappaport can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @b_rappaport.