Six days after Bunnell Elementary School held two assemblies exclusively for Black and biracial students, Flagler County School Board Chair Cheryl Massaro and Interim Superintendent LaShakia Moore apologized during a hastily called news conference.
With television news crews, reporters and members of the community jammed into the School Board’s workshop room on Aug. 24, Massaro called the assemblies a “horrible, horrific mistake.”
The school made national news with the Washington Post, CNN and USA Today running stories about the assemblies that were designed to persuade students to improve their standardized assessment scores.
Moore announced that an investigation into the assemblies “from the beginning stage all the way to the implementation” is ongoing. She said Bunnell Elementary Principal Donelle Evensen and Fifth Grade Support Facilitator Anthony Hines have been put on paid administrative leave.
“The purpose of this (news conference) is really to offer an apology to our students, to our families, all of our families, and to this community,” Moore said. “And that's where we want to start, with acknowledging our heartfelt regard, because this should not have happened. But it did, and as the interim superintendent of Flagler Schools, it is my responsibility to identify, why did this happen?”
African Americans in the fourth and fifth grades at BES were pulled out of class on Aug. 18 to attend the two assemblies — one for each grade. The district released the presentation’s PowerPoint, which described “The Problem,” “The Solution” and a challenge. Ironically, the PowerPoint had several typos and grammatical errors.
This should not have happened. But it did, and as the interim superintendent of Flagler Schools, it is my responsibility to identify, why did this happen?”
— LASHAKIA MOORE
“The Problem” stated that “AA” (African Americans) were underperforming on English and math standardized assessments tests, with 32% receiving a Level 3 score or above. “We are supposed to have at least 41%”, the PowerPoint stated.
The solutions included commitment to earning “at least a Level 3 or higher” and concentrating on passing all curriculum assessments “with at least a 75% or higher.” The challenge would pit students against each other in attaining the higher assessment scores. The winners would be rewarded with meals from McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A.
Alexis Smith, whose 10-year-old son was pulled out of class to attend the fourth-grade assembly, said the match-up challenge “was almost like a Hunger Games.”
TRAUMATIZED BY PRESENTATION
Parents said the students were told that if they weren’t responsible in school they would be in danger later in life of getting shot and killed or going to jail.
The parents were not informed that the assemblies were planned, and they did not learn about them until their children came home that day.
“They’re super clingy. They don’t want to sleep in their rooms.” — JACINDA ARRINGTON, BES parent
Jacinda Arrington, Smith’s sister, has a 9-year-old daughter who was in the fourth-grade assembly. Arrington and Smith said their children were traumatized by the presentation.
“They’re super clingy. They don’t want to sleep in their rooms,” Arrington said.
“They don’t know what segregation is,” Smith said. “My child is getting settled after losing his father two years ago. Now he has to go through it all over again.”
Nicole Aviles told the Observer on Aug. 21 that her fifth-grade son was in his second day at Bunnell after transferring from Wadsworth Elementary School when he was called into the assembly.
She said her son came home, told her about the assembly, and said, “Yeah, Mom, this school is racist.”
Jeff Reaves, the district’s director of Teaching and Learning, told the Observer that school presentations such as this one do not have to be pre-approved by the district.
Parents who spoke to Evensen said she told them she approved the PowerPoint, but had not approved the statement about getting shot or going to jail. Evensen was finishing her first full week as principal on the day of the assemblies. She was the district’s Assistant Principal of the Year last year.
The assemblies were not limited to underperforming African American students. Both Arrington and Smith’s children had received Level 3 scores and were on the honor roll last year, the parents said. The students in the groups with the highest assessment scores of 4s and 5s were called up on stage.
“They paraded them in front of other students. That’s stupid,” said Pastor Jearlyn Dennie, who attended the news conference.
'YOU ARE CAPABLE'
Dennie organized a support group on the morning of Friday, Aug. 25, outside of Bunnell Elementary School. The participants prayed and sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and walked along the sidewalk to the bus drop-off area carrying signs with positive messages for the students, such as, “You Are Capable,” “You are Smart,” and “Please Remember You Are Loved.”
Dennie, of Jearlyn Ministries and Reverse Church, held up a sign that read, “I Love Your Skin.”
“We are here praying love and mercy of Christ. We are not here to protest,” said Betty Anne Perch, a retired school teacher who taught at several Flagler Schools, including BES.
Massaro and Moore were flanked by the other School Board members — Will Furry, Christy Chong, Sally Hunt and Colleen Conklin — when they spoke at the Aug. 24 news conference. While Moore took questions, Massaro had a scripted statement. She said the district offers no excuses, “but extends our apology, all of our apologies. It should not have happened. If we had known about it, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Flagler Schools was the last district in the state to end segregation. Black school George Washington Carver High closed in 1970 after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a court order requiring full integration. The district previously had a policy of “voluntary integration.”
The Flagler School Board does not support segregation. It has not for many many, many years.”
— CHERYL MASSARO, School Board chair
“The Flagler School Board does not support segregation,” Massaro said. “It has not for many many, many years. So, please understand, yes, a horrible, horrific mistake was made. This district will do all that it can to get us back on track.”
Districts are required to collect data on how subgroups — such as students with disabilities, students for whom English is not their first language and African American students — perform on the assessments. Moore told the Observer on Aug. 21 that a teacher (Hines) suggested that they try talking to the students directly to encourage them to improve their grades.
AN APPEAL TO WORK TOGETHER
At the news conference, Moore appealed to families and the community to work together to help improve the academic performance of all the students in Flagler County.
A community forum that was scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29, at the G.W. Carver Center in Bunnell was postponed on Aug. 28 due to Hurricane Idalia, which was expected to make landfall on Aug. 30.
“This will be an opportunity to have an open dialogue with Flagler Schools administrators, local officials, community-based organizations, families, stakeholders and students,” according to a district news release about the forum, which the district said will be rescheduled.
Moore said the Flagler County NAACP and the African American Mentoring Program were among the local organizations that were scheduled to participate in the forum.
“There are members of the community, I don't know if it's our community or the greater community, that feel when I ask for support from the community that I am deflecting this,” Moore said. “I am not deflecting this. I own this. But I've been a longtime educator here in Flagler Schools. I am committed to the success of these students, not only because I am the educator, but because I am a member of this community.
“I need every community member. I need our business partners. I need our faith-based (leaders). I need everyone to come together. Let's have a hard conversation. Let's identify what happened here and what we need to go forward. But at the end of the day, we got to educate students,” she said.
Moore said she has spoken to most of the families involved in the assemblies since she heard about them on the afternoon of Aug. 18.
“I am committed to calling each and every one of those families,” she said. “We will continue to move forward. We will get more information, and we will respond according to the information that we have.”
Moore also said she is making sure that teachers and staff are empowered to say something if they feel like something isn’t right.
“How do we address that?” she asked. “We address that through continuous professional learning, and we address that by me making that statement to them and demonstrating that that is the expectation of Flagler Schools.”
Conklin, who has been a School Board member since November 2000, said she doesn’t remember the district holding a press conference like this before.
“But I think it was warranted given the situation,” she said. “It was inappropriate. It should have never happened, and we need to send the message loud and clear that it is not acceptable. It will be interesting to see what comes out in the investigation.”
Smith, the mother of a fourth grader, was asked if she thought the district dropped the ball.
“They not only dropped it,” she said. “They rolled it across the floor and dunked it.”