New Wake County schools equity chief talks about job

Posted by T. Keung Hui on July 7, 2014 

Rodney Trice, the Wake County school system’s new assistant superintendent for equity affairs, has a daunting job.

As noted in Saturday’s article, Trice will be asked to tackle such persistent issues as the racial achievement gap and the disproportionately high suspension rates among African American and Hispanic students. Add in issues such as reducing the dropout rate among minority groups, recruiting more male and minority educators and helping how to equitably provide resources to schools.

“The reality is inequities in Wake County are the same inequities you find in Chapel Hill, which are the same inequities you find in Detroit,” said Trice, who started his career teaching in Detroit and was most recently the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system’s associate superintendent for student and school services and equity oversight.

“There may be some differences in the rates that the inequities happen, but the work is the same. I thought of it as a challenge. It’s a bigger district. Larger entities aren’t as nimble. It was a challenge I was willing to tackle.”

Trice said he was attracted to working in Wake because of the district’s academic and instructional focus. He said that focus is needed to tackle the persistent problem of closing the achievement gap.

Social justice has been a lifelong issue for Trice, 39, who can recall 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 when he was getting his bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College in Atlanta, his master’s degree at the University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan and his doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill.

This will be the first time that Wake has had an Office of Equity Affairs, which is funded in the 2014-15 budget for $204,846. Trice’s base salary is $125,000. He’s in Superintendent Jim Merrill’s leadership team and reports directly to him.

“You are finding more and more districts are bringing in personnel to handle the issue of equity,” Trice said. “It lends a focus to an area that is just really important. For any school system or school, being able to see, to understand and interrupt inequities is important. Inequities can be a drain on the system both in human capital and fiscally. It’s about fairness. “

Trice said he sees his role as working with school leaders, parents and the community to uncover inequities that may exist in the district.

Trice is embracing the description that Merrill and school board members gave in December of the position being a “gadfly, “pest” and “a conscience for the organization.”

“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 you school district upside down, but it’s a reminder that you need to be mindful of the decisions you’re making.”

One of the things that Trice said he’ll look at is whether Wake is using “culturally relevant teaching practices,” which he says benefits all students. An example, he says is moving beyond the traditional model of teaching lecture style.

“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 that’s very basic but something to be mindful of.”

Trice said teachers need to build relationships with students and help them connect with their future selves.

While the tasks being put on his shoulders look very daunting and can’t be done by one person, Trice said he knows he’s not doing it alone. He wants to bring the community together to problem solve.

Trice said he’s committed to community engagement and becoming full partners with the community.

Trice said he’s already gotten off to a start by contacting local pastors and community organizations. He said he was attending local events on the weekends even before he officially started his job in Wake on July 1.

But Trice said the problems won’t be solved overnight.

“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.”

When asked about examples of what he’s done in Chapel Hill, two programs came to mind.

In one example, Trice said he began working this past school year with Equal Opportunity Schools, based in Seattle, to make sure students of color and economically disadvantaged students are enrolled in representative numbers in Advanced Placement courses in high school. He said Chapel Hill had been looking at the issue for 10 years but it took working with an outside group to move the needle.

Trice said they identified 200 students through a process that included speaking with parents; talking with students, teachers, coaches and counselors; looking at historical test data and seeing which students had expressed interest in the past in taking AP courses.

Trice said they began contacting those students to encourage them to enroll in AP classes for the 2014-15 school year. He said they didn’t want to just throw those kids into classes without support so they assured them they’d provide them support.

Trice said that students who’ve never been enrolled in an AP course may have a lot of self doubt so one of their goals was to help remove that doubt.

In the other program, Trice said they worked last school year with McDougle Elementary School on eliminating racial predictability of student discipline outcomes.

Trice said they got staff involved with the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program and the Responsiveness to Instruction (RtI) program together to focus on discipline referrals.

When they talked about students who were having discipline problems, Trice said they problem solved it and found it was most often tied to academic problems. With the use of RtI, behavioral problems decreased and the result was you could no longer predict the school’s discipline outcomes by race.

Trice said both programs showed what can happen when you put a “singular focus” on an issue.

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