A D.C. schools official who addressed a group of teachers gathered for professional development sparked outrage Wednesday after making a comment about children in the poorest, predominantly black part of the city that many attendees perceived as derogatory.
The topic was social and emotional learning, a priority for the new chancellor, Antwan Wilson, that puts an emphasis on educating with the well-being of the child in mind, not just grades and test scores. But the mood in the Alice Deal Middle School auditorium turned sour after a white presenter said the teaching style isn’t just for “those” children in Southeast Washington, according to three teachers in the room.
The comment, apparently meant to dispel stereotypes, prompted groans, murmurs and, later, shouting. Several other D.C. Public Schools officials tried to mitigate the remark, culminating with an apology from the district’s head of instruction and a letter from the chancellor.
For teachers and administrators preparing for classes to start next week, this exchange turned into a learning opportunity for themselves.
“With the climate how it is — the things going on in Virginia, the administration — everyone is kind of tense at the moment,” said Paul Brown, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher who was at the meeting. “So when you have a white guy talking about a predominantly minority school system and he’s saying ‘those children,’ it was just a bad choice of words.”
DCPS did not identify the employee or confirm what he said but acknowledged that it was a poor choice of words.
“The comments said today do not reflect our approach to supporting our students, families, and staff,” Wilson said in a statement. “The social emotional well-being of all students, families, and staff at D.C. Public Schools is a priority for all of us, and we are working to include these practices in our work.”
In an email to teachers, Wilson said he wanted to “lean into” the tension from the meeting as an example of how social and emotional learning is applicable to adults, too.
“Educators experience frequent and sometimes extraordinary stress working in our schools, and we should make sure they have the supports they need to attend to that stress,” he wrote.
Inequality between predominantly black schools east of the Anacostia River and schools with greater white populations in wealthier areas is one of the most vexing problems for the school district. Many teachers and Southeast residents are sensitive to depictions that treat its children as outsiders.
“Do not ever exclude any child, teacher, owner or person in Southeast District of Columbia because, guess what, we pay taxes, we are not stupid, we are educated,” one teacher shouted, according to a video of the contentious meeting posted on Twitter.
Brown said that once things calmed down, the exchange boiled down to a reminder of the importance of effective communication.
“He wasn’t actually putting down the children in Southeast,” Brown said. “He was saying it’s not just for them, it’s for everyone.”