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Color Bind 

Everyone agrees the Burlington School District has a race problem. Now what?

One year ago, Jeanne Collins was singled out as Vermont’s No. 1 school superintendent. The Vermont Superintendents Association selected Burlington’s top administrator because she “personifies the terms service and commitment,” the press release read. The Burlington School District, Vermont’s largest, responded with its own news bulletin hailing Collins, 53, as an “effective, collaborative leader.”

Now, just 12 months later, the state’s celebrated Superintendent of the Year finds more than her reign coming to an end; Collins is at risk of losing her job. A report last October from the district’s Task Force on Diversity and Equity — alleging an achievement gap between students of color and their white peers in Burlington — has sparked months of heated allegations of institutional racism within the BSD.

Increasingly, the attacks have been directed at Collins, who got her start in Burlington schools directing programs for students learning English as a second language. As superintendent, she has been credited with establishing Vermont’s first two public magnet schools, improving after school programming, and developing new hiring and professional-development practices to improve staff diversity.

Next week, the school board is meeting to decide whether to renew her contract.

How did it come to this? School board member Haik Bedrosian described the situation as a “perfect storm.” It was more like an avalanche. In January, Burlington High School math teacher David Rome refuted some of the statistics in the task-force report. He was promptly accused of being a racist. One leader in the local minority community, Sara Martinez de Osaba, later issued a press release on behalf of aggrieved refugee students who were moved to protest perceived racism in the district. She called Rome’s response the “final straw.”

In February, Trevor Christopher resigned as principal of the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler. Although he hinted that race played a part in his decision, he did not reveal any specific complaints to the press. Then, two weeks ago, Christopher went public with a different complaint: He had tried to rescind his resignation, but the school board refused — because he is African American, Christopher claims.

Students, too, have weighed in. A group of African refugee teenagers protested outside of the high school in April, expressing their displeasure that Rome labeled them “statistical outliers.” They argued that English-language learners don’t get enough resources and that their academic potential could not — and should not — be judged by scores on standardized tests. And they carried signs that read, “End Racism at BHS.”

The accumulation of race-related complaints “creates the impression of a whole narrative from a distance,” Bedrosian says, that makes headlines and sells newspapers.

What’s really going on? The conversation around equity and diversity in the district has narrowed in recent weeks from the big-picture problem of student achievement to the superintendent, who arguably bears responsibility for the culture of the school district. Had Collins addressed issues of equity and diversity earlier, her opponents say, the schools might not be caught up in this conflict.

But Collins is an easy target in a debate that, so far, has been short on specifics.

“Why me? Why now?” Collins asks rhetorically while insisting she’s eminently qualified to lead Burlington schools though this troubled time. Depending on what the school board decides next week, those questions could take on different meaning.

Still the Whitest

It’s no surprise that this “conversation about diversity” — the polite term for it — has started and grown ever louder in Burlington’s schools. Schools are where change originates within a community, says Kyle Dodson, director of the Community Service and Civic Engagement Program at Champlain College and parent to three biracial students in the BSD. He points to the nation’s complicated, sometimes violent history of desegregation in public schools as evidence that the classroom is often the front line for racial tensions in the U.S.

“One would be really pressed to argue that somehow Burlington exists outside of that context,” Dodson says.

The difference, of course, is that the demographic shift from a mostly white, homogenous community to a more diverse one is relatively recent in Burlington. Vermont’s population is 95.3 percent Caucasian, according to 2010 census data, making it the whitest state in the nation.

The state’s cultural identity is also largely progressive and liberal — which doesn’t jibe with accusations of bias. Lindsay Reid is an African American woman who, starting in 2008, worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer at BHS assisting French-speaking immigrants. She says that when she brings up concerns about discrimination among white friends or acquaintances, the response is often something along the lines of “Why are you saying this about us nice Vermonters?”

Denise Dunbar agrees. The longtime volunteer coordinator of the Reading to End Racism program in Burlington says that Vermont likes to consider itself a “race-neutral state” — owing, as de Osaba suggests, to the state’s early abolishment of slavery, its role in the Underground Railroad and its support of Barack Obama.

“It’s all hype,” says Dunbar.

Compared with the rest of the state, though, Burlington is a veritable melting pot. Roughly 11 percent of the Queen City’s population is nonwhite. The schools are even more diverse; students of color make up slightly less than 30 percent of the total student body.

That’s due in large part to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which has been bringing refugees to Chittenden County for roughly 30 years — in recent years, about 300 individuals annually. Where the program once brought in groups of Bosnian and Vietnamese people, now it’s mostly Bhutanese, Burmese, Somalis and Iraqis.

Refugees tend to be young parents whose children enroll in Vermont schools. Since 2005, the percentage of students of color in the schools has doubled. In 2000, when Collins joined the district as the director of special education and the English-language-learners program, the district had 250 students enrolled in ELL classes designed to bring nonnative English speakers up to speed. By 2007, there were 550.

Robert Appel, the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, worries that Vermont’s refugee population may be reluctant to report instances of discrimination. He points out that students must have the consent of a parent to file a complaint, and adult refugees are often anxious about speaking up against a powerful institution. “It’s risky,” he says. “These are relatively small communities, and people are afraid of retaliation and exclusion.”

VHRC has received 41 complaints of violations of civil or human rights against Vermont schools in the last seven years. It found reasonable grounds for the complaint in four cases, dismissed 23 without finding such evidenced and has seen 14 settled prior to a decision.

These complaints are all confidential — and the fact that there aren’t often blatant, public incidences of racism makes it that much harder for white Vermonters to understand the complaints.

“We, as white folks, are not subjected to the shunning, the ridicule, the anger, the exclusion, the refusal to engage in conversation or touch,” says Appel. “It’s awfully difficult for people who don’t experience that to accept and understand its impact.”

Along similar lines, the district’s Diversity and Equity Office anonymously interviewed 11 staff members for a pilot study on school climate and retention. Dan Balón, who directs the office, says the study was meant to establish a baseline against which future interviews can be compared. Though answers varied, several staff members consistently voiced feelings of isolation and discrimination within the district. “The passive-aggressive nature of racism we’re experiencing now is much more than when the hostility and aggression was out in the open — at least you knew who was against you,” one said. Eight said that they wouldn’t recommend that a family member or friend work in the district.

A few were more positive. “Their hearts are certainly in the right place,” one interviewee said. “I think it’s a super district to work for.”

Balón, for one, is trying to walk the tightrope between the district and vocal minority activists. “I’m going to sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth,” he says. “I wanted change yesterday, too.” But “as someone who is working within the institution, and acknowledging all of the different influences on organizational change, I can honestly say that in the four years I’ve been here … there’s been significant change. But I can also say, from the other side of my mouth, that it hasn’t been fast enough.”

One of the successes that Balón points to is an uptick in the number of staff members of color who have been hired, particularly in the last two years. Thirteen hires have been people of color — but that’s not sufficient, says de Osaba, who points to the “nationwide glut of talented and unemployed educators and administrators” who could step in to replace white employees resistant to change.

Meanwhile, the data paint a picture — that has been disputed — of how race affects student achievement. The Task Force on Diversity and Equity report unveiled in October sketched out a five-year road map for improving student achievement and school climate, drawing on “best practices” used at schools around the country.

The report also outlined statistical differences in achievement and treatment in the schools. While 2010 data showed that students of color made up 27 percent of the student body, the report stated that only 13 percent of students taking and passing Algebra I were minorities. Students of color also made up a disproportionate number — 34 percent — of those being punished with in-school suspensions. Black students made up 13 percent of the student body but accounted for 27 percent of out-of-school suspensions throughout the district.

“I think that what people are arguing for is a vibrant district that believes ‘we can do better,’” says Stephanie Seguino, an economics professor at the University of Vermont and a member of Diversity Now, a group of parents and higher-education professionals who’ve provided outside analysis of school-district data.

But the numbers became a point of contention just months after the task-force report was released, most notably when Rome’s response refuted many of the statistics. Rome, a math teacher, not only criticized the numbers — pointing out, for instance, that drop-out rates among black students were significantly lower than indicated in the report — he also called for the school board to reject the report altogether.

Rome’s reaction landed him in a story on the front page of the Burlington Free Press — and prompted calls from activists for him to be “silenced.” As a result, many white community members and teachers say they are afraid to voice their opinions. At a May 29 school board meeting, BHS English teacher Eve Berinati described the situation as “intimidating.”

Activists see it differently. They say that teachers who are defending the superintendent, or questioning claims of discrimination in the schools, are just digging in their heels and protecting their own jobs.

“There are elements that are fighting really hard to maintain the status quo,” says Kenneth Palm, an African American Winooski resident.

De Osaba has stronger words.

“They fought and resisted change long and hard in the South, too,” she wrote in an email to Seven Days. “Change is inevitable — it will happen with or without some current staff on board.”

A Question of Leadership

Whether or not racism exists in Vermont continues to be debated in public forums — with some parents calling their children “color blind,” and others bemoaning subtle discrimination and “micro-aggressions” registered in the course of day-to-day life. The bigger question now seems to be how the school and Collins have responded to students’ and community members’ complaints that racism does exist.

In recent weeks, their tones have turned confessional.

“I do recognize the racism and harassment that’s happening in the Burlington schools,” says Collins.

An admission like hers is still not good enough for Dodson. “The current challenges demand that the leader makes it clear to folks that we currently have a very different school district than we had 10 years ago,” he says. Without someone steering the conversation, Dodson adds, “we end up squabbling or quibbling back and forth about what’s in that report. I don’t really care whether it’s 15 points or 12 points, it’s still not good. We’ve got work to do.”

Collins admits she was slow to react to this year’s gathering storm — she said as much in a May 15 public apology that appeared in the Burlington Free Press, and she echoed the sentiment again at a press conference last week at which she unveiled a new plan called “Diversity: Our Gift and Our Future,” which Collins hopes will close the achievement gap in the schools. She calls for additional professional training and diversification, and for reorganizing top-level management to create a director of diversity, a director of equity, and a recruitment and retention specialist.

But just as soon as Collins had laid out the meat of her plan, the press conference turned personal, with reporters grilling her and school board chair Keith Pillsbury about the superintendent’s future in the district and her response to the unfolding controversy. “The major mistake that I made is that I was responding as a bureaucrat,” said Collins, adding that, from now on, her heart “has to be in this.”

Collins’ tone — increasingly personal as she campaigns, in a sense, to keep her job — might be the result of some coaching from a strategic communications firm: Montpelier-based KSE Partners. The Burlington School District, along with Winooski’s, received $3.7 million in February from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for a three-and-a-half year project called Partnerships for Change.

“The Nellie Mae grant has given us some funds to work with a communications company just for six weeks to help get our message out about diversity and equity within the district,” Collins says. The funding for KSE totals about $4000. Asked if the decision to hire the firm came in direct response to the contentious debate of weeks past, Collins says Nellie Mae approached the district with the offer — not the other way around.

As if on cue, Collins’ supporters are starting to speak up. At a school board meeting on May 29, dozens crowded the BHS cafeteria and wore buttons emblazoned with “Save Our Superintendent.” Collins’ backers stood up one after the other to plead their case to the board. Of the 20 or so community members who spoke at the meeting, all but two or three supported Collins.

Their message: The schools aren’t perfect, but teachers, parents and administrators are working hard to improve. Change may not come as fast as some would like, but, to their minds, Collins is the right person to orchestrate it. In oblique comments about the importance of civility and not pointing fingers, the superintendent’s supporters also alluded to the vehement criticisms hurled against her and the district in school board meetings earlier this spring.

“Though other voices have been louder in recent weeks and months, I urge the board to draw out a wider range of perspectives before making this important decision,” said BHS’ Berinati, adding that the school board meetings were an intimidating forum for many in the school community. “I think the worst possible thing the board could do in this situation is to be shouted into a quick decision. Then the bullies really will have won, and the students will lose.”

It was later in the meeting that Bob Abbey, a third-grade teacher in the district and the president of the teachers union, asked the question that many others danced around: “Has the goal of combating racism in our communities and the schools become more about power and politics than helping the students?”

It’s a question few are willing to answer on the record. Yet, as the conversation around race — and, more recently, about Collins — has grown more heated, other theories have started hatching. Is Collins a scapegoat? Is the push to oust the superintendent really about racism, or is there some agenda — be it personal gain, the quest for headlines or angling for Collins’ job — at work behind the scenes?

Refugee families in particular seem at risk of getting lost in the shuffle. After a group of African students protested on BHS grounds, then later traveled to the Statehouse to testify before lawmakers about discrimination in the schools, their parents converged on the high school for two meetings with school administrators. They were surprised and concerned to see their children pictured in the newspaper. BHS principal Amy Mellencamp says administrators reassured the families that, in the United States, such protests weren’t going to land the teenagers in hot water.

The parents also told Mellencamp they weren’t acquainted with the adults who were reaching out to their children. They asked the school to “run interference,” as much as possible, when their kids are approached by reporters and other community organizers.

“They talked about people coming to their students and getting them to do things. They didn’t know who those people were,” Mellencamp says. “The request from the parents was to focus on academic progress.”

De Osaba is still acting as a go-between for students and the media, but Reid and other minority leaders in the community scoff at accusations about a hidden agenda in the debate.

“I don’t know who would have anything to gain from fanning the flames,” says Reid. And she and others say their criticisms of Collins aren’t personal — they’re simply asking tough questions about school leadership.

Seguino agrees. If a company such as JPMorgan Chase, IBM or Fletcher Allen Health Care suffers a setback or puts out a flawed product, she says, people understandably take a hard look at the company’s chief executive. Why should a school district be any different?

“A leader does have to have a vision. They have to be ahead of the curve. They have to anticipate problems, and they have to be able to bring the community together,” says Seguino.

“I’m really not seeing that from the superintendent,” adds Reid.

Here, Collins’ critics and supporters alike say the focus should be on students.

“If racism exists in schools, we are called to respond, and not look at it as if someone’s pointing fingers,” says Dunbar. “Students are in need, and we need to look at the bigger picture.”

What are students saying?

When the group of mostly Congolese and Somali Bantu teenagers walked out of classes in protest in April, they were angry about the use of state test scores to evaluate their progress and academic potential. The students’ concerns — about the difficulty of making friends across cultural barriers and about the rigor of their academic programs — are all genuine, says BHS principal Mellencamp.

She’s especially sympathetic to their concerns about test scores, given that refugee students are being lumped into the same pool as native English speakers who’ve worked their way through the school system since kindergarten.

“Part of the untold stories, perhaps, is that community members should feel really proud of the fact that students who come to us with very little or no experience in reading or writing — we take them in, we teach them how to read and write, and we advance them as fast as they can go,” says Mellencamp. “Within the school, what we really value and want to celebrate is the yearly progress that students make given their starting point.”

But in clarifying her position, and in pointing out successes — which do exist — Mellencamp sounds defensive. That’s part of the problem, according to Bedrosian.

He says Mellencamp and Collins both need to learn how to respond to accusations: to listen, and respect the validity of people’s feelings when they make a complaint. It’s the default position for any leader to defend the record of his or her institution, Bedrosian says, but “that’s something we have to grow out of.”

The Devil We Know

If the Burlington School Board fails to renew Collins’ contract next week, the soonest she would leave is June 2013. Rabbi Joshua Chasan, one of her most vocal supporters, points out that would most likely delay the change her opponents are clamoring for.

And, of course, there’s no guarantee that Collins’ replacement would be any more acceptable in the community’s eyes.

“You might hope for somebody better, but you might not find anybody,” admits Bedrosian. That logic led him to vote to extend Collins’ contract two years ago. She was the devil he knew, he says, rather than the devil he didn’t.

“I really like Jeanne,” Bedrosian says. He says she’s a hard worker, with a “subdued” leadership style. To his mind, she’s been successful at managing the day-to-day work of educating thousands of children — a not minuscule task, he says, that sometimes gets overlooked in the current debate. “I’m not always happy with her. But I have to keep in mind the magnitude of the job she’s doing. I think she’s dedicated to all children, and I certainly don’t think she’s racist.”

Given her May apology, and her new action plan, Chasan says he’s baffled by the continued calls to end Collins’ tenure. “While no one can read into anyone else’s heart, I am concerned that some minds are not open to what has happened,” says the rabbi, who describes Collins as a sensitive and thoughtful leader who deserves a show of public support. “Her aloneness in this is unseemly.”

He worries that some members of the school board have been “intimidated” by Collins’ outspoken opponents, and says that while he’s hopeful the school board “will do the right thing,” he’s concerned they won’t. And then?

“To bring her down now will create a divide in this community that threatens to tear us apart,” Chasan says.

Dodson, leafing through Collins’ action plan, calls it “clearly the boldest articulation” of the district’s stand on diversity to date. He has circled words such as “our duty” and “eradicate” and “eliminate” in the report, and says it’s the first time he’s seen this kind of decisive language enter the conversation from an institutional standpoint. “I’m glad to see this,” Dodson says, adding that this boldness is what’s needed to move the ball forward within the district.

Asked if the report reassures him about the direction of the district under its current leadership, however, Dodson shakes his head, citing the history of insufficient action: “No. This statement could have been made some time ago.”

Collins has a response for that, too.

“What’s being laid at my feet right now is at least two decades of superintendents who haven’t put in place something sustainable,” she says. “OK. I’m sitting here. I get that. But I also get that I’m the one who has the opportunity to do it right now. If it’s too little, too late, that’s not enough reason to not do it.”

On Wednesday, June 6, Rabbi Joshua Chasan and other local religious leaders will lead a call to the community to respond to verbal, racist attacks on children of color, at noon in front of Burlington City Hall on Church Street. Info,

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About The Author

Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg is a Seven Days staff writer. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine. She lives in Shoreham with her husband and son.


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