90% of Orange County high school teachers are white. This group wants to change that.

Orange County Schools has 108 high school teachers. Ninety-eight of them are white.

This week, an interfaith group offered to help the district find more diverse teachers and bilingual front-office staff.

The group, led by the Rev. Phyllis Portie-Ascott, held a prayer vigil outside the district’s office and made its offer at the Board of Education’s Monday night meeting.

Portie-Ascott said it was time for some divine intervention.

“We’ve been protesting, we’ve been calling, we’ve been emailing, and we just feel like it has fallen on deaf ears,” she said.

The Rev. David Stanford of Saint Titus’ Episcopal Church said the group became concerned when it saw the recent divide between male and female votes for board chair. In two 4-3 votes last month, both split along gender lines, Will Atherton was elected chair and Tony McKnight was elected vice chair. Brenda Stephens received the women’s three votes for chair, and Hillary MacKenzie received the women’s three votes for vice chair.

“There were clearly other dynamics going on, and we began to be concerned, and also saw the lack of progress around the equity issues,” Stanford said. “Luckily, they’ve just hired an equity officer, so maybe that will change.”

Stanford hopes to see more leaders in the school system with whom students of color can identify. Stanford said the group is as widely interfaith and interracial as possible, with representatives from many Christian denominations and the local Muslim community.

Stanford said they are committed to helping the district reach more diverse candidates.

“If they say there’s not people out there, we want to say ‘Yes there are, and we would be glad to help you locate them,’” Stanford said.

Portie-Ascott said the group would “serve on whatever subcommittees we need to serve on,” sit down with the board to talk about equity more and even help on recruiting trips.

They also asked the district to focus on five things going forward.

  • Model the leadership it expects to see in the schools.
  • Hire and support teachers of color.

  • Hire bilingual support staff to be available when needed to assist families who visit each school or service area.

  • Build a safety plan where all staff know when to identify and evaluate a serious concern and when to notify parents.

  • Demonstrate a commitment to reducing all disparities.

Portie-Ascott said respect among board members would show progress, as would more teachers of color and bilingual staff.

“We expect to see a turnaround in the interactions among staff, parents and leadership,” Portie-Ascott said. “We expect to see a turnaround in the commitment level to address the racial and equity disparities in our school system.”

District efforts

The district included an equity officer in this year’s budget request, and it filled the position earlier this month. Dena Keeling will begin operating as the chief equity officer on July 1. She has been a counselor in Guilford County Schools for 14 years and vice president of the N.C. School Counselor Association.

As the N&O has previously reported, the district doesn’t have a systemic equity training plan.

“There wasn’t any specific plan before,” board Chairman Will Atherton said in May. “There could have been a few people trained here and there, but it wasn’t systemic.”

The interim superintendent, Dr. Randy Bridges, will also begin on July 1.

The district asked the county for $1.2 million for new projects in next year’s budget, but the county gave it $528,000. At the board meeting, district representatives said the top priorities for the expansion money they do have are equity training for the staff and tuition assistance for district staff who want to become certified teachers.

The initial request for tuition assistance was for $81,000 for 10 staff members. This assistance will be available for anyone working for the district, from bus drivers to teacher assistants, and will help attract and retain community members, Atherton said in May.

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.