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Recent Paducah Public Schools equity audit presents racial disparities, distrust, and potential solutions

Gregory Vincent presenting at the Paducah Public Schools school board meeting on Nov. 15.
Gregory Vincent presenting at the Paducah Public Schools school board meeting on Nov. 15.

A recent equity audit of Paducah Public Schools with more than 1,700 survey respondents found racial disparities over placement in academics, a high level of distrust among the community and district, and perceived poor communication from district administration, among other findings.

Paducah Public Schools asked staff with the University of Kentucky’s Education and Civil Rights Initiative to perform the audit following protests and uproar last year after a 2002 photo of the district superintendent in blackface surfaced on social media.

The Education and Civil Rights Initiative was started over the summer of 2020 in collaboration with the NAACP, which wanted to center education as a part of their advocacy efforts on racial justice and equity. Initiative Executive Director Gregory Vincent said it was the first time the civil rights organization has partnered with a higher-education institution in the wake of widespread protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

He also said the Paducah Public Schools audit was the first such audit performed by staff at the initiative, with another audit being conducted in San Francisco and other research conducted at school districts in Texas. Vincent said with the painful stories and perspectives that were shared in the audit, he was impressed by the cooperation from the school board and the response from the community to the audit.

“I know there's a commitment to do better, and the community is committed to do better and to hold leadership accountable but do it with love and empathy. And I respect that. So I believe that this is going to be a jumpstart,” Vincent said in an interview.

Audit Findings

The initiative auditors collected their findings beginning in May 2021 with surveys sent to students, school personnel, family and eventually the larger community. An equity action committee made up of stakeholders in the district community, which included school board members Janice Howard and Felix Akoije, also helped shape survey questions and facilitate focus groups, according to the report.

Auditors held focus groups with elementary school students, middle school students, community members and district faculty, staff and administrators from May through October. The auditors also reviewed Paducah Tilghman High School’s curriculum guide, Paducah Middle School’s student handbook and the code of “Acceptable Behavior and Discipline” for the district.

The audit found that Black personnel and family members had a much lower sense of inclusion in the district community compared to their white counterparts.

“This year has been extremely difficult. The issues we face in racial equity have been around for a long time and were exacerbated by a hurtful choice,” a white female personnel member said in the audit. “It has been hard to watch as our families and teachers of color have experienced devastating emotions. I am afraid they feel unloved, unimportant, and any trust that existed is now gone.”

Auditors heard perceptions from stakeholders that white students were overrepresented in Gifted and Talented programs in the district, resulting in Black students and other students of color being tracked into less challenging curriculum and exacerbating disparities in educational opportunities in the district.

Reviewing the most recent federal data available from 2017-2018, auditors did find racial disparities among elementary school students in the district, which carried on into middle school and high school: “The same Civil Rights Data Collection shows that at Clark [Elementary School], white students comprised 56.3% of the student body, but 79% of students in Gifted and Talented. The program at Morgan [Elementary School] was also disproportionately white (59.3% of GT versus 38.2% of the student body).”

By middle school, white students were four times more likely to be in Gifted and Talented programs than Black students, according to the report.

Disparities were also found among what students were taking more challenging classes, in particular Advanced Placement courses.

“I think maybe there’s a perception that some students are not welcome in certain courses, AP and honors courses, because of their race, because students in there don’t look like them,” a Black male personnel member said in the audit.

Federal data showed auditors that while less than half of the student population identified as white, more than three-quarters of students enrolled in AP courses identified as white. Black students made up about 42% of the student body in 2017-2018 but only 14% of those enrolled in AP courses.

Negative perceptions on student discipline and racial disparities on who is punished were also shown by auditors.

“The policies of punishment are unfair to people of color they are punishment [sic] much harsher and more often compared to their white counterparts,” a white male student said in the survey.

Black students at the elementary school, middle school and high school level disproportionately received in-school and out-of-school suspensions, according to federal data. The report also states perceived concerns over dress code enforcement targeting female students.

“Some of our girls are curvier so when they wear the same thing as a skinnier girl, it looks different and they get dress coded,” a Black female community member said in the audit.

The auditors also found a high level of distrust in the district community, in part because of a perceived lack of communication from school district officials. That distrust included employment decisions made by the district, with both white and Black school personnel perceiving that “the deck is stacked against them.”

Solutions Offered

Throughout the report, the auditors also offer several solutions and potential ways forward for the district. For example, auditors state that Advanced Placement courses should be made standard senior-year level courses in high school, setting an expectation for all students to achieve at a higher level. Vincent said the power of expectation can be impactful.

“When I come back to Paducah...what I want to see is a change in that perception that every student can be there,” Vincent said. “The reason why we threw that out there was because we want to challenge the school district to say yes, open this up, make everyone meet that.”

Auditors also suggest the district move away from a model of discipline centered around a code of conduct and move toward a model around a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to empower students in solving issues and problems between others. Vincent mentions student peer mediation as a way that can be done.

Overall, Vincent said the district leadership should try to overcommunicate future decisions to the community to help build transparency around the process of making the district more equitable in future years.

“We sent you an email, we sent you a flyer, we said it over the loudspeaker. And, you know, given this time, and given where Paducah is, the sense is that that's not enough,” Vincent said.

Initial Reactions

Vincent and another initiative colleague presented the audit report at Paducah Public Schools’ Nov. 15 school board meeting, with school board members and community members offering commentary.

School board Chairman Dr. Carl LeBuhn read a statement at the meeting thanking the initiative staff, the equity action committee of local stakeholders and those who participated in focus groups and completed surveys. He said he wished an audit was done sooner at the district and that it would take continued efforts in the district and community to address the problems mentioned in the report.

“We will need the ongoing effort of the board, of Shonda Burrus our chief equity officer, Superintendent [Donald] Shively, Assistant Superintendent [Will] Black, district and school personnel, parents and students and the community to improve inclusiveness and to continue the removal of barriers to opportunity for every student in our district.”

LeBuhn also said he was excited for the next phase of the audit, mentioning the district will work specifically with a consulting firm specializing in equity and culture. Other parents and community members also spoke at the board meeting.

“That's what we felt, what we knew, and what you're just now getting the truth that we've already been telling you,” Andiamo White said, one of the parents who protested last year. “It's nothing new to us.”

White also raised questions regarding the professional training on diversity Superintendent Donald Shively has been receiving, echoing comments made by board member James Hudson at a previous meeting about how to measure Shively’s personal growth. He said after meeting with Shively for several months, he believed it was “time for a change at the top.”

Paducah-McCracken County NAACP President J.W. Cleary also expressed the question of how to measure Shively’s professional development, but also said he supported the audit.

“We want what's best for our students. I think that's the ultimate goal,” Cleary said. “We're not gonna be here forever. So, we got to train our students to be better than us.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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