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Manchester Schools Head: 'You Have To Have The Uncomfortable Conversations'

Courtesy of Manchester School District

The debate over so-called "divisive concepts" has been a large focus of the state budget process this year. The New Hampshire Senate passed their version of the budget last week, which includes language allowing for public employees to opt out of any training that suggests race or sex could make someone inherently oppressive or oppressed, even unconsciously.

It also lays the ground for lawsuits against school districts that don't comply.

NHPR's Rick Ganley spoke with John Goldhardt, the superintendent of Manchester Schools, about how the latest proposal could affect that district's efforts toward a more equitable school system. What follows is a transcript of that conversation. 

Rick Ganley: Last summer, the Manchester School Board approved a resolution promising that district staff and policies would change to reflect the city's diverse student population. You and I did have a conversation about that here on Morning Edition. What actual changes have been made since we talked about a year ago?

John Goldhardt: One big change has been the de-leveling policy, so that we will no longer have a system where students are assigned a level when they hit middle school, because we found that those levels tended to align with race and income, and that will raise students up to higher academic levels overall as they go through our system.

We're also trying to recruit more employees of color and employees from other areas to try to diversify our teaching staff, but [they] always have to be qualified. And we are adding a chief equity officer to our cabinet.

'What we're trying to do is become a more caring, a more supportive and more effective, a more understanding education force.'

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Ganley: Has there been any consideration on how issues around race are taught and addressed in the actual classroom right now?

Goldhardt:  We have not, but that is definitely an issue because as we look at the data, that has been a factor, because the majority of the students that have been placed in these Level 1 classes have been minority students.

Ganley: Many institutions have committed to more training around implicit bias, diversity and inclusion. I'm wondering about the possible future, if you have teachers that are able to opt out of that kind of training, how that would affect your efforts to make Manchester's educational system more equitable?

Goldhardt: Well, generally, those types of trainings, if you have somebody who's adamantly against being there, they're not going to listen anyway. However, it's unfortunate for somebody that could learn something to help them become a better educator, to be more connected to the children that they teach, and to be a better citizen themselves and to help the community would be unfortunate.

However, the [“divisive concepts” language] will make it so that things will have to be done in a different way. And there will be some educators who will choose to opt out of such trainings, and they will miss out on some incredible opportunities to help our students be better and to help our entire school system be better.

Ganley: Do you see the debate around divisive concepts in the Legislature as kind of a backlash to what your district and some others have been have been working on this past year?

Goldhardt:  I think there is a little bit of that involved. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding and there's a lot of individuals who don't fully see the need for it happening, because for the most part, this is a very rural state. They're seeing issues across the country that are much different.

But it can be done in a very fair and unbiased way, because we're not trying to teach everybody that all white people are racist at their core. What we're trying to do is become a more caring, a more supportive and more effective, a more understanding education force, and that we are helping every student. And when we say “every,” we mean every student in our district.

Ganley: So do you feel that there's a misunderstanding about what you are trying to do and trying to teach?

Goldhardt:  Yes, because we're not trying to do it to divide, by any means. What we're trying to do is help people have better understanding and to have perspective, and to provide an understanding of where folks are coming from and why there is a point of view and why there is the tension that is out there, so that we can address it.

You have to have the uncomfortable conversations – and they are uncomfortable – but you have to have them. And we have to address the issues, because they are present. And we are an education system: We're about learning; we're not about dividing.

Ganley:  Are you worried about the possibility of lawsuits against the district if the governor does approve this budget as it currently stands?

Goldhardt: I can see a potential for lawsuits. We would have to adapt and make sure that we are following the law, but also making sure that we are meeting the needs of our students. It'll be a very, very fine line, quite frankly.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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