Wake County's new school equity chief to be 'pebble in the shoe'

khui@newsobserver.comJuly 4, 2014 

Rodney Trice - the Wake County school system's newly designated "pest" and "gadfly" - is now on the job to help promote equity and diversity in North Carolina's largest school system.

Wake school leaders used phrases such as "a conscience for the organization" in describing the role they wanted for the new position of assistant superintendent for equity affairs. For Trice, who started in that new position Tuesday, he'll have the challenge of helping Wake deal with persistent problems experienced by African American and Hispanic students who score lower on exams and face higher dropout and suspension rates than their white peers.

"We want to make sure we are doing everything we can reasonably do to make sure that we're meeting the needs of all students in the school system," school board vice chairman Tom Benton said. "When you see the statistics, you see the need to have someone at the table who is an assistant superintendent making sure we're hearing the voices of students who aren't being as successful."

But critics question budgeting $204,846 a year for the Office of Equity Affairs, which includes Trice's $125,000 base salary.

"I don't deny that the disparities exist," said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank. "I just don't think this office and this position will improve them."

But school board members say it will help to have a specific person to develop strategies and promote equity as a philosophy.

"The issues of diversity and inclusion need to be addressed," school board member Keith Sutton said. "It's a problem that is well documented. To me, the need for the position is irrefutable."

Sutton was school board chairman in spring 2013 when he persuaded his colleagues to create the Office of Equity Affairs. He argued the new position was needed to help Wake promote diversity in more ways than just using student assignment to balance school populations.

In addition to helping with close the racial achievement gap, school board members say Trice can help to determine how to provide funding and resources equitably to schools across the county.

"The one overarching goal we've been talking about for a very long time is increasing equity across the school system by moving everybody up, not by pulling people down," school board member Jim Martin said.

The position and office went unfilled during the 2013-14 school year as Superintendent Jim Merrill, who started in August, helped define goals and duties for the new position.

"There are going to be so many things that I expect this person to cover," Merrill told the board in December. "They may not be as much of a doer as they are an observer, an adviser, a collector. If they get too mired in one thing, then they don't have the mobility I need. Involvement in departments, a conscience for the organization. Those sorts of phrases come to mind. A pest."

Pebble in the shoe

Merrill's description is how Trice envisions the new job. He comes to Wake after having been the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system's associate superintendent for student and school services and equity oversight.

"In any district that has an equity office, it's kind of like having a little pebble in your shoe," Trice said. "It doesn't turn your school district upside down, but it's a reminder that you need to be mindful of the decisions you're making."

Trice, 39. said he's always had an interest in dealing with issues of justice and equity in education. It began when he was growing up in Michigan as the son of educators who'd talk around the kitchen table about the power of education to transform the experiences of those who are less fortunate, socially and economically.

Trice said social justice was stressed during his schooling, including the period spent obtaining his doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill.

One of Trice's goals will be to see that Wake is using "culturally relevant teaching practices," something he said benefits all students. An example, he said, is having teachers go beyond the traditional model of being a lecturer.

"We know that all students - particularly students of color - respond to proximity," Trice said. "Getting close to students, making sure students are on task and not needing help is one (factor) that's very basic, but something to be mindful of."

Singular focus

Trice says putting a "singular focus" on issues can accomplish results. As examples, Trice cites two Chapel Hill programs he worked on that reduced discipline issues among minority students at an elementary school and will lead to more minority and low-income high school students taking Advanced Placement courses.

That could be a key issue in Wake, where the district is under federal investigation over the high suspension rates for minority students.

Accomplishing the goal of promoting equity will require community involvement, Trice said. He's already begun reaching out to local pastors and community groups.

It's something that Trice did in his prior job, according to state Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat. Meyer, who was Chapel Hill-Carrboro's director of student equity, said Trice worked to make sure that schools were not "places of oppression" for minority students.

"He was really passionate about connecting with the community," Meyer said. "Advocates in the community knew they could talk with him about the issues."

Money better spent?

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said he believes the money being spent on the Office of Equity Affairs could be better spent elsewhere.

"Rarely, if ever, does the addition of a central office administrator do much of anything to raise student achievement," Stoops said. "Having a new highly paid central office administrator isn't going to address some of the problems identified by the school board and by school administrators and by teachers."

But Sutton, the school board member, said it's not fair to single out one position in a $1.37 billion operating budget.

Trice and school board members say the public should allow for some time for improvement.

"It won't be the grand slam where one day the district is moving along and then the next day gaps will close by 90 percent," Trice said. "That won't happen. We're really in a marathon. It's not a sprint."

Hui: 919-829-4534

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