The Discussion About Racism Is Important But So Is The Tone. Tales From A Red Clay Board Meeting.

Cab Calloway School of the Arts

Last week, at the Red Clay Board of Education meeting, a huge and heated conversation took place about the lack of diversity at Cab Calloway School of the Arts.  It turned into something ugly and what I would not expect from a sitting board member.

For those who may not be aware, Cab is a 6-12 magnet school in Red Clay Consolidated School District.  What started out as a state-run magnet school eventually became one run by Red Clay.  Cab Calloway and Conrad Schools of Science have never had a diversified school the way comparable Red Clay schools have.  While Cab has made efforts in attempting to increase their enrollment of African-American, Hispanic, special education and English Language Learner students, they still have a long way to go.

At the board meeting last week, a heated conversation took place between board member Adriana Bohm and the Dean of Cab Calloway, Julie Rumschlag.  A committee was formed by the district to make headway in increasing the numbers of different subgroups at the school.  But the 2017-2018 school year did not show the growth they were expecting.  At Cab, there are different assessments choice applicants have to go through in the application process.  Cab’s different art programs include piano, instrumental, communication arts, dance, visual arts, vocal, and theatre.  Some advocates for diversity feel the assessments and the scores needed are the very thing keeping many Red School students from getting into the school.  Cab, as a choice school, has an out of district percentage of students at 24%.  According to the Delaware Department of Education website, their demographics are almost similar to other charter schools in Delaware folks have said do not match the areas they reside in.

While a lot of focus on inequities in Delaware schools rest on schools like Charter School of Wilmington, Newark Charter School, and Sussex Academy, Cab and Conrad’s numbers show a very similar tale.  Minorities are under-represented based on the overall numbers in the district.  The school has a vast majority of white students and Asian populations that are higher than other schools.  Low-income student percentages are lower as are special education.  Considering public education in Delaware has 15% special education students, 4% is ridiculously low.  African-American students are around 30%, Hispanic students are around 17.5%, English Language Learners are over 9% and rising fast, Asian students are less than 4%, and white students are around 44%.  For Red Clay as a district, African-Americans are under 21%, Hispanics are at 27%, ELL students are 14.9% and special education students are at 12.7%.  White students are comparable to the state at 42.3%.

At Cab, even though they lowered the cut score for assessments for Red Clay students, the number of African-American students went down this year by over 1%.  But the Hispanic population went up a full percentage point.  For special education, even though their numbers are very low, it went from about 3% in 2016-2017 to 4% in 2017-2018.

The board discussed Cab Calloway during Superintendent Merv Daugherty’s monthly update to the board.  What ensued was conflict brewing among the board members and an almost open attack against Rumschlag by one board member. In listening to the audio of the board meeting, the district would still be instituting changes to the application process to increase the numbers of sub-group students.  Plans are underway through 2020 to address that need.  Cathy Thompson, a long-standing board member, expressed concern that even though there was slight progress, she wasn’t seeing any changes to the dance and theatre programs of the school.  After this, Bohm asked a question- how did we get here?

Rumschlag answered that they are not only a choice school but also a magnet school for the arts.  Board member Ashley Sabo responded there has been growth and it won’t happen overnight.  She pointed out the increases in low-income and special education students at both Cab and Conrad.  She pointed out that Cab is not allowed to ask if a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in the choice application.  But she also saw a need for parents to let the school know this during the assessment.  She said there should be accommodations for those students during their assessments to get into the school, just as they have during academic assessments.  Despite all of this, Bohm wasn’t satisfied with the answers she was hearing.  “I know you guys think I’m a ballbuster, but I’m really not.  I’m actually very sweet.  But it seems I’m constantly dragging you to talk about race, and racism, and classism.  We have to have these conversations and it gets frustrating when Red Clay refuses to respond to those questions.  We have to deal with the experiences those groups have to get to the other side.”

But the committee wasn’t formed just to increase enrollments of minority students at Cab.  It was for ALL student sub-groups to increase.  There are barriers in place outside of the district’s control in terms of the experience an applicant brings to the table.  Many children who have abilities in the arts receive lessons beforehand.  Those lessons involve money from parents or guardians who have the ability to fork that over to private companies.  That is something the district can’t change.  While Daugherty did point out there has been an increase in the arts at the elementary levels, the in-depth training children get in private lessons is more extensive.  And that costs money.

Bohm brought up the other sub-groups in her comments but kept asking the same question- “How did we get here?”  Rumschlag explained that the school has always been an open door for the LGBTQ community and they have many students who feel accepted there.  Bohm asked the same question again but her tone became louder and more frustrated when she asked, “Did they see the lack of inclusivity as a problem and what did they do to address it?”  The very fact there was a committee formed to address this issue shows it was being addressed.  This is where things began to get testy with Bohm.

Rumschlag replied.  “Cab does believe in diversity. Cab has always had a strong basis for diversity in our schools.  We have always welcomed every child that walks through our door.  The group that you don’t see here is the LGBTQ community.  And we have students who come to our school specifically because we are diverse in that way.  And we are welcoming and accepting of every single child. And that is important.  And yes, that matters to me.  And it matters to me if they are gay or lesbian or black, or Hispanic, or poor, or white, or whatever they are.  We want every kid who has a passion for the arts.  And who love the arts.  They have an opportunity to come and excel in their art.”

Bohm became more frustrated and began to interrupt Rumschlag.  “So why are we here?” Bohm asked again.  At this point, board member Faith Newton asked Bohm to stop interrupting Rumschlag and to let her answer the question.  Bohm responded to Newton by saying “Thank you for your admonition Faith.”

At this point, you could hear Rumschlag’s voice lower.  She was upset.  “So my bottom line is I absolutely believe in what we do with our school. And we believe that every child, EVERY child, who has a passion for the arts should have the opportunity to come to our table.  And we will welcome, and support, and love, and wrap our arms around them to help them be better.  We will not allow them to fail, we don’t want them to leave, we want them to be successful, we want them to be passionate, we want them to embrace their art.”

Bohm responded that she understood what was in her heart but that didn’t change the numbers.  Sabo attempted to explain the growth again and asked Bohm if she acknowledges the growth.  Bohm never directly answered Sabo.  At this point, Daugherty explained there was a plan to change the numbers and to see if it worked.  If they didn’t, they would have to go back to the drawing board.  He said he wished other districts would develop magnet schools like Cab so they could make Cab a Red Clay only school.  He even talked about a conversation he had with Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows about this possibility in their district.

These are my thoughts on this conversation.  I don’t mind talking about race.  I am all on board for ALL Delaware schools to match the demographics of the areas they reside in, or even the district if it is a choice school.  I find it absolutely deplorable, as a parent of a special needs child, that special education percentages tend to be the lowest in the state at magnet schools and the charter schools I mentioned above.  But I learned a few years ago it is how you present your argument that makes the difference.

I spent my time during the opt out saga of 2015 doing my fair share of yelling and screaming.  Even at public meetings.  Matt Albright from the News Journal called me a “table-gripper” as I spoke at a Senate Education Committee meeting about the opt out bill.  I didn’t do the movement any favors with how I presented myself.  And this gets back to the title of this article.  We can talk about race but it seems like the whole “white privilege” thing has resulted in those who want to have the conversation but really don’t want to hear from those who aren’t African-American.  It has evolved to the point where those who are not black should feel guilty.  It is not my fault what the idiotic white people of America did to African-Americans in the past.  It is not my fault what some white people feel about African-Americans.  The very words “white privilege” is continuing the heart of racism, judging other races.  I know what I feel and what is in my heart.  I live in a mostly African-American neighborhood.  I talk to all my neighbors.  I really like the elderly man two doors down and chat with him all the time.  I don’t care what color you are.  Or what you believe.  As long as you show kindness.

To hear Bohm tear into Rumschlag the way she did was unnerving.  And I was only listening to the audio.  I can’t imagine what she must have felt like in front of all those people.  I get what you are saying Adriana!  I truly do.  But when you tear into someone, THAT becomes the thing people remember and not what your concerns are.  As a publicly elected board member, you also have an obligation to represent the district.  Yelling at the Dean of one of your schools is not a shining example of what is expected of an elected officer.

While I agree with Bohm that conversations need to take place about how certain schools got to a certain place in terms of their demographics, the fact the district is having the conversation about how to change that is evidence that conversation is happening.  Personally, I think the district should just say no to out of district placement in a school they run.  While they have no control over the charter schools they authorize, CSW and Delaware Military Academy, they can say no for both Cab and Conrad.  If other districts want to start similar magnet schools, they certainly can.  With that being said, even if CSW were to change their enrollment preferences where the school was welcome to any student, it would take time for those numbers to increase.  At least 3-4 years because they are a high school.  For Cab and Conrad, it would take longer because they are a 6-12 school.  The different classes of students would become more diversified over the years, but most students tend to stay at magnet schools so it takes time.

I firmly believe the heart of school choice is rooted in white flight.  Many white parents wanted to get their kids out of traditional schools.  This mass exodus exploded when charter schools came into existence in Delaware, especially in Wilmington and Newark.  But many parents who would have placed their children in private schools saw the charter movement as a way of getting a “free” private school.  Add the two up, and specialty schools, aided and abetted by Red Clay and the Delaware Department of Education, became schools with mostly white and Asian students.

That is how we got here Adriana.  We all know this.  That isn’t the question.  The question is how we change it.  How do we become a society where we see everyone as the same?  How do we see beyond the color or the disability or the belief or the sexuality and just accept people as they are?  But more to the point, when do we change as a country to the point where we remember the history of racism but learn from it?  Racism exists.  We see it every single day in this era of “Trumpism”.  Before that it was quieter but still bubbled under the surface.  But since Trump became President, people feel they can express their views more openly.  And there is some very ugly stuff coming out.  But that ugliness has always been there.  It is how we react to it that will change history.  The best way to confront a racist is to ignore them.  Do not give them the audience they crave.  They will hide behind laws and statistics to make their point.  Just let them babble on.  If you ignore them, they sound like idiots.  If you confront them, they will get louder.  And more stupid.

The question behind racism, as it pertains to public education, isn’t “Are our schools failing African-American students.”  It should be “Are our laws, lack of meaningful employment and income for parents, gang activity outside of schools, drugs, school choice programs for certain schools, and the lack of core family values creating a situation where students are failing, especially minority students and those with disabilities?”  I believe the answer to that question is yes.  We spend so much time trying to answer the first question in public education that we fail to address what is going on outside of the schools.  And yes, we can put band-aids on these students in schools, but until those other areas are addressed, we are tilting at windmills.

I saw someone post something on Facebook today that law enforcement allows gangs to run certain neighborhoods because it is contained there and won’t spread.  That is a major problem.  That confines the children that live there to trauma those of us who don’t experience can never imagine.  Our schools can’t fix that.  Only laws and a true cultural change on how we deal with gangs and drugs can do that.  Do you think those parents are thinking “How can I get my kid into Cab“?  No, they are wondering if their kid is going to be alive the next day and how the hell am I going to make enough income to get the hell out!

I did reach out to Bohm for her thoughts on this but did not receive a response.

One thought on “The Discussion About Racism Is Important But So Is The Tone. Tales From A Red Clay Board Meeting.

  1. Over the past number of years they have removed many things that were barriers before. They do assessments at the title I schools during the school day so transportation is not an issue. They removed all questions about how many years of lessons and training outside school a student has had. They share the assessment requirements with elementary arts teachers so they work with students. Work in a positive direction is happening.

    If they have no assessments what makes it a performing arts school? The premise of the school changes completely.


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