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At the first cultural competency council meeting of the year Tuesday, Williamson County Schools superintendent Jason Golden heard from parents concerned about a lack of diversity.

He addressed those concerns and laid out his goals of putting students first, having empathy toward students and teamwork. 

“We are telling our teachers, spend time getting to know your students. Don’t make assumptions about their life, but learn from them,” Golden said.

He also said he wants to build trust among teachers so they “don’t go it alone” but rather share roadblocks that arise in the classroom so they can get support.

“Allow the whole team to help the child, not just one person,” Golden said.

Most of all, Golden assured approximately 35 parents at the quarterly meeting that the district’s focus is “students first.”

“We will strive to meet students where they are and this year focus on putting students first — focusing on what’s best for students, not the adults,” Golden said.

“We have told our teachers, develop empathy for your students, know where they are coming from so you don’t interfere with their ability to receive instruction.”

At the meeting, parents conversed with Williamson County School District administrative staff in small groups, while Golden visited each group, listening to parent input.

During the break-out discussions, some parents said they would like to see more understanding of cultural differences, more diversity among school district staff and more transparency regarding the committee itself. 

Incidents of discrimination reported

The committee has been meeting quarterly since 2018 with a focus on promoting diversity, inclusion and cultural awareness in the district.

When multiple culturally insensitive incidents in the district came to light last school year — including a racially insensitive history assignment on slavery in which students were asked to pretend they owned slaves — parents flocked to the committee to learn more about how teachers are being trained in cultural diversity and sensitivity.

The school district apologized for the eighth grade assignment on slavery at Sunset Middle School, and two teachers, who gave the assignment, ultimately resigned or retired from the district.

Later, some parents, members of the community and school board members criticized a district-created teacher training video series on race and cultural diversity because of its use of the term “white privilege” to explain the concept of racial bias.

Ultimately, the district pulled the video series from teacher training. 

Following the controversy over the inappropriate assignment on slavery, former WCS Superintendent Mike Looney also revealed that in 2018 the district reported 19 race, color or nation of origin discrimination complaints to the office of civil rights. He added that the district “deals with on average” 50 discrimination-related incidents a year, ranging from lawsuits to complaints as well as filings with the office of civil rights. 

Parents see shortcomings on issues of diversity

Some parents discussed the lack of diversity in Williamson County in race and cultural groups, explaining that being a minority in the county can be challenging.

Parent Shifay Cheung, who has a background in diversity outreach and has been part of the council from its commencement, said from her experience, international families have difficulty assimilating in Williamson County.

Cheung, a Franklin resident of 10 years, grew up in diverse urban areas of England with her family, who are natives of Hong Kong.

“When I first moved here, after reviewing the numbers, I couldn’t help but notice it was the whitest place I had ever been,” Cheung said.

“Many times I feel that people make assumptions,” Cheung said Tuesday.

“For example, some people refer to the ‘ghetto Kroger’ in Franklin. But my thought was, you must not know what a real ghetto is.” 

Demographics changing in Williamson County 

Cheung also said she believes the demographics are changing and families with various backgrounds are moving to Williamson County.

According to the 2019 Williamson Inc. Market Research report, released last spring, 58% of Williamson County residents were born in a different state.

During the discussion, elementary school Superintendent Denise Goodwin said she does see demographics in WCS changing and becoming more diverse with Kenrose Elementary School showing the most diversity “by far,” she said. 

 Aside from race and socioeconomic barriers, Cheung, whose family is Buddhist, also emphasized that assumptions about religion can be present at school, explaining that some teachers have made Biblical references in the past, possibly assuming, she said, that her children would understand the references.

Ultimately, Cheung wants the remove the air of “secrecy” that she believes surrounds the committee.

“We want people to know that everyone can come.”

Parents ask for staff diversity

Parent Yalonda Ross-Davis, who attended the meeting for the first time, reacted positively to Golden’s approach.

“I took the year to watch, and I think there is awareness, and that is wonderful. But awareness without action is pointless. It remains to be seen how this will progress.”

A few parents called for more diversity in hiring teachers to better reflect the changing demographics in Williamson County.

Parent Laquita Stribling, a county resident since 2002, who has three children who have attended Williamson County Schools, explained that her sons have never had a black teacher in WCS.

“As a whole my experience has been very positive,” she added, though, “sometimes there have been challenges with relatability.”

Audrey McAdams, parent at Nolensville Elementary School, said she would like to see more diversity among district staff.

“I would like to see staff and support staff be representative of the demographic at the school. It’s refreshing to see the how the diversity in the student population has grown with the growth of Nolensville,” McAdams said.

“But I would like more (minority) representation, even from a gender standpoint as well.”

Golden later acknowledged that the district could improve its outreach to minorities when recruiting new teachers. 

“I want our human resources department to make sure we have a broad spectrum of candidates,” he said. “We are always looking for the best teachers we can find but I don’t want us to close off any source for those teachers.

“We want to make sure the scope of our reach is broad.”

Want to attend the next meeting?

The cultural competency committee will meet again as follows:

  • Oct. 22, 6 p.m.
  • Jan. 28, 2020, 7:30 a.m.
  • April 14, 2020, 6 p.m.

Kerri Bartlett covers issues relating to education and children in Williamson County. Contact her at kbartlett@gannett.com, 615-308-8324 or follow her @keb1414 on Twitter. 

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