Bibb school system considers deal with controversial Singleton group

pramati@macon.comMarch 18, 2012 

In his Macon Miracle school improvement plan, Superintendent Romain Dallemand said he wants to hire the Pacific Educational Group to close the achievement gap between white and Asian students and those of color, primarily blacks and Latinos.

The mission statement of PEG, founded in 1992 by Glenn Singleton, is fairly straightforward: “At Pacific Educational Group we believe systemic racism is the most devastating factor contributing to the diminished capacity of all children, especially black children, to achieve at the highest levels, and contributes to the fracturing of the communities that nurture and support them.”

One of the Macon Miracle’s goals is to train people throughout the district to recognize racial factors in the classroom -- by providing ongoing PEG training.

But in recent public meetings, many Bibb County parents have voiced their concerns, saying the PEG program needlessly attacks white teachers by telling them they are racist. Those parents said Singleton is a polarizing figure, attracting as much criticism for the PEG methodology as he does praise.

“I think it’s horrible to tell students they can’t learn because of the color of their skin,” said Andy Wilson, a Bibb County parent of three. “I’m all for giving students help, but not because of the color of their skin. ... This is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and if my child brings (racist teachings) home, I’ll be the first one to file.”

But Dallemand, who worked with Singleton in Hartford, Conn., and Rochester, Minn., said the issues that Singleton brings up in his training are necessary if Bibb County schools are ever to close the achievement gap.

Critics in Macon and other cities also have balked at the cost of hiring PEG, noting that school districts across the country have spent $100,000 or more -- with little data showing that those schools closed the achievement gap.

Dallemand said no contract has been signed yet with PEG. However, because it qualifies as staff training, the superintendent said he has the authority to sign a deal without school board approval.

“That’s under staff development, which is something the district has done forever,” Dallemand said. “It’s about creating a system and providing a system to staff members to help all students perform at high levels.”

Who is Glenn Singleton?

Even Singleton will admit -- deservedly or not -- that his name attracts controversy.

According to his biography on PEG’s website, the Baltimore native attended public elementary and independent secondary schools. Singleton earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

Twenty years ago in San Francisco, he founded PEG to provide educational support for families. Later, the company added to its mission “addressing systemic issues of educational inequity by providing guidance to districts as to how to meet the needs of under-served students of color populations.”

Singleton co-authored “Courageous Conversations About Race” with Curtis Linton in 2006, which Singleton said provides a blueprint for people to identify racism and overcome it.

The book provides tools for the reader to engage in race discussions, but some Bibb County parents have raised concerns about the book’s content, claiming it’s biased against whites. One chapter is titled “Let’s Talk About Whiteness” with a subsection called “White Privilege.”

Singleton said during a phone interview that raising questions about uncomfortable topics is key to beginning a community race discussion.

“We approach racial disparity from a multipronged approach,” Singleton said. “First and foremost, we engage in a dialogue cross-racially. We provide the training, support and tools to talk about race. ... We wouldn’t have been around for 20 years if we were racially divisive.”

Still, critics often have argued that in some of the places where PEG has been hired, the argument is one-sided against whites and Asians. The Cherry Creek school system, located in a suburb of Denver, hired PEG for a six-figure sum in 2006 to run the program there.

Vincent Carroll, now an editorial writer for The Denver Post, criticized the PEG philosophy as the editorial page editor for The Rocky Mountain News in 2006, just after “Courageous Conversations” was published.

“The program also promotes a world view in which American society is relentlessly oppressive; in which individuals, even today, remain at the mercy of their racial origins; in which ‘white talk’ is ‘verbal, impersonal, intellectual’ and ‘task-oriented,’ while ‘color commentary’ is ‘nonverbal, personal, emotional’ and ‘process-oriented,’ ” Carroll wrote in a May 10, 2006, editorial. “Enlightened whites, in the authors’ description, speak in the chastened, cringing language of someone who has emerged from a re-education camp.”

PEG continues to work with the Cherry Creek school system, though not at the level it did in 2006, said Tustin Amole, the district’s director of communications.

Amole credits PEG with helping start the conversation about race.

“We had teachers who pushed back a bit,” she said. “The newspaper wrote editorials that were very critical. But we kept pushing forward, because it was too important not to consider trying something to see if it worked.”

Amole said the district has seen some gains in closing the achievement gap, but that it’s difficult to attribute those gains to PEG because hiring the consultant group was just one of several initiatives at the time. Most notably, Latino graduation rates are up 5 percent, she said.

“Can I tell you it’s because of what PEG did? No, I can’t,” she said. “We’ve seen improvement (in the achievement gap). It’s not as high as we would have liked or as quickly as we would have liked, but there has been improvement for African-American and Latino students. It’s not all due to the work PEG did, because there is no simple strategy.”

Impact of conversations

Amole was part of the Cherry Creek district’s team that got PEG into the school system.

“You may have assumptions that are very hard to hear,” she said of the training. “You realize, despite your best interest, many of the things I might say or do can be harmful (to another race). Different cultures learn differently.”

Some Bibb County residents who oppose hiring PEG have pointed to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision against Seattle public schools, in which the court ruled 5-4 to overturn that district’s use of certain racial guidelines established in 2001. That system adopted the use of student assignment plans that used race to determine where students attended school in order to increase diversity.

Much of the blogosphere links Singleton to that decision, since PEG consulted with the district at the time. However, the school system and Singleton deny that claim, saying his conversations on race and the district’s decision on how to integrate the schools were separate.

“The Supreme Court never commented on our work,” Singleton said. “The U.S. wants to operate race neutral, and that’s just not possible. There’s racial disparity in every aspect of society -- being neutral and colorblind is just not possible.”

Cathy Thompson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Seattle school district, said race was used as a tiebreaker under the policy that drew the lawsuit.

“It was an open-enrolled district,” said Thompson, who was a parent and teacher at that time. “Race played a factor as to where kids got in. But after we were sued, we no longer used race that way. ... (Since then), it’s been much harder to integrate.”

According to school system data, in the past five years, Seattle has seen a slight increase in achievement across all racial groups at the same rate, with whites and Asians still outperforming blacks and Latinos.

Thompson, who is white, said she and other Seattle educators had a very positive experience with Singleton.

“It went really well,” she said of the training. “At times, people cried because of the way they treated someone or the way they were treated. At some of the schools, some of the teachers didn’t want to talk about it, which says to me that they had a fear to talk about it or a resistance.”

Thompson, who has been in the education field 19 years, said she became much more conscious about how she worked with children of color, which made up 97 percent of her school’s student body. That meant everything from having a more diverse collection of books and pictures in the classroom to making home visits to connect with a child’s family.

“(Race) does play a factor and relates to how well (children) do in school,” she said.

Still, controversy about the terminology the program uses and what message it sends to people of all races continues to follow PEG across the country. Singleton admitted he doesn’t list which school systems PEG works with on its website because he knows his name alone can be a lightning rod.

But Kehaulani Minzghor, equity coordinator for Portland public schools in Oregon, is a believer. She said PEG’s training helped remove barriers for minority students there.

“There were some real benefits,” she said. “(The training) makes what is invisible visible. It looks at structure and what gets in the way of student achievement. (Before the training), there was absolutely not intentional barriers (for minorities). But the impact was there, from the way we structure classes with discussion to who gets thrown out of class and why. (It asks) what is going on in your classroom.”

After the training, Minz­ghor said, minority students were sent out of class at a lower rate.

“Having kids in the class learning raises their achievement,” she said.

Working together

Dallemand first worked with Singleton when Dallemand was an assistant superintendent with Hartford public schools, and he later brought the PEG program to Rochester, Minn., when Dallemand became the superintendent of that system in 2007.

According to an editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune just over a week ago, Katherine Kersten -- a senior fellow with the Center of the American Experiment, a nonpartisan nonprofit in that state -- said at least 16 school districts there have engaged PEG for a combined $2 million. She accused Singleton of employing “racial stereotypes that most Americans rejected years ago.”

“How does indoctrination like this help children who struggle to master phonics and the multiplication tables?” she wrote.

In Rochester, school board member Breanna Bly and former board member Sandy Soltis had opposite views on PEG and Singleton.

“It’s hard to have difficult discussions about race,” Bly said. “These were pretty difficult conversations for Rochester. The testimony of the principals was that it changed them dramatically how they thought of their students. They never dreamed that using terms like ‘slave driver’ or ‘task master’ could be harmful. The training caused a lot of stress. Some people liked it, while some people had grief. But it was very good training.”

Bly, who is white, said she didn’t know what to expect from the training, but she thinks Rochester has closed the achievement gap because of it.

“Did it solve everything? No, of course not,” she said. “But it opened a lot of people’s eyes.”

Soltis, who is white and was a former educator in her school system before joining the board, said she didn’t go through the training herself but spoke to many staff members and teachers who did. Many of them, she said, told her privately that they felt ashamed or humiliated afterward.

“(Singleton) has come through Minnesota and other states and has provided some interesting and good information,” Soltis said. “However, and this is my thought: It makes people feel ashamed, mainly whites. It’s like we can’t help people of color because we’re living with the sins and actions of people many, many years ago. For the big bucks, it was very controversial.”

Rochester has spent just over $200,000 during the past five years on various seminars with PEG, district officials said.

“I think we have to have an awareness (about race). We have to have a sensibility about what goes on, but I don’t think it has to be an ongoing, multiyear event to have them come in and talk with teachers and staff,” Soltis said. “I think there was information that needed to be said and heard, but it was just so far beyond that it was overkill. People came out and their self-esteem was right on the floor. ... Our staff (are) very caring people, and they felt really down.”

Singleton contends that if some school districts that work with PEG don’t show any improvement after a couple of years, it’s because the district hasn’t fully bought into his program.

“If we don’t see improvement in the second or third year, I’m quite skeptical about the will of the district,” he said.

What about Bibb County?

School board member Lynn Farmer, one of three board members who voted against the Macon Miracle, said the divisiveness that often follows Singleton concerns her.

“I’m not in favor of him coming,” Farmer said. “I haven’t seen any evidence that what he does increases student achievement. ... Show me the numbers.”

Farmer said she has researched PEG and Singleton and is concerned about employees’ filing harassment suits against the district, which she said has happened in other districts where PEG has been. She said she hasn’t read Singleton’s book but intends to.

School board President Tommy Barnes, however, said PEG training is necessary for the district, especially because support for the Macon Miracle has often split along racial lines.

“I think (PEG) has a very comprehensive plan that deals with a very uncomfortable subject,” he said. “We need to deal with that subject. ... I think there are a lot of sensationalistic accusations around this group.”

Ultimately, Singleton said he knows he’s in for a challenge should PEG training come to Bibb County.

“We’re in a racially divisive situation,” he said. “If you look at it regionally, there are strong patterns of problems. It’s unlikely we’re going to come in and not be polarizing. ... This is a major opportunity for Macon. There have been so many attempts to get at this.

“Overt conversations are a new approach,” he said. “We’re going to see new challenges, but hopefully we’ll have kids who are not sitting at the same table we’re sitting at right now.”

What does PEG programming involve? See Monday's edition of The Telegraph for more on this story.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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