Schools’ record on black teachers is embarrassing

Too often, the people running the county’s schools arrive at decisions that do not make sense.
Sometimes, these decisions are so wrongheaded that we’re left to wonder if the folks making them are deliberately corrupt or merely inept – because, when exposed to public scrutiny, those are the only reasonable explanations.
This is another one of those times.
Here we are in a county where our school officials are using our tax dollars to pay big bucks to a Kansas City-based law firm to wrestle with a 50-year-old, federal court’s desegregation order that, among other requirements, compels our school district to make a “significant effort” to hire minority teachers in proportion to the student population.
It’s embarrassing enough that today, well into the 21st century, a federal court desegregation order – a relic of the civil rights battles of the ’60s – still stains the reputation of our community.
But our school district has abjectly failed to meet the targets set by the court for recruiting and retaining high-quality black teachers. Year after year, the school district doesn’t even come close.
And yet, as a new school year begins, we have a well-respected and amply qualified black man – an experienced high school teacher who has earned both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree and is only a dissertation away from his doctorate – not being permitted to teach.
Instead, this man, who is also state-certified in Exceptional School Education and is the newly chosen vice president of the local teachers union, has been assigned to oversee in-school suspension classes at Sebastian River High School.
In other words: He’s a glorified
babysitter.
“My job is to sit there, keep the kids quiet and make sure they do their homework,” Joe Nathaniel said.
Yes, THAT Joe Nathaniel – the criminal justice teacher who Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell foolishly tried to fire after the former assistant football coach physically subdued a foul-mouthed, violently aggressive and out-of-control 18-year-old student during a classroom scuffle at Sebastian River in November 2015.
Nathaniel, who had worked for the district for 13 years with an unblemished record, was suspended with pay in January 2016 and, armed with overwhelming support from students, parents and peers, spent the next 13 months defending himself against Rendell’s trumped-up charges.
Finally, this past February, a state administrative law judge exonerated Nathaniel of any wrongdoing and trashed Rendell’s bogus case, writing in his colorful and lopsided ruling that the embattled, 6-foot-4, 300-pound teacher “should be given a pat on the back, not a pink slip.”
Shortly afterward, the School Board voted to return Nathaniel to work, but not in his classroom.
When Nathaniel returned to Sebastian River’s campus last spring, he spent the final weeks of the academic year watching over in-school suspension classes. Principal Todd Racine, with Rendell’s blessing, had phased out the criminal justice program during the teacher’s suspension.
And despite its enormous popularity with students, Nathaniel’s courses were not reinstated for this school year.
“It’s not just a shame,” School Board Chairman Charles Searcy said of Nathaniel being relegated to the role of chaperone. “It’s a terrible waste of talent.”
Schools officials said Nathaniel’s program was eliminated because, although it was part of the Career and Technical Education curriculum, it did not provide an industry certification.
Rendell wrote in a March email to a parent: “This is often a technical certificate that can enable a student to get a job immediately after graduation in that field. Unfortunately, Criminal Justice does not have an industry certification component.”
Rendell added that the criminal justice program was the district’s only CTE course that did not lead to industry certification.
“For that reason,” schools spokesperson Cristen McMillan wrote to me in an email, “it was discontinued.”
What both Rendell and McMillan failed to mention, though, was that the district receives $430 in state incentives for each CTE student that passes a certification test.
So unlike the district’s other CTE programs – among them are automotive, culinary, digital design, nursing assistant and welding – the criminal justice courses didn’t make money.
And, apparently, the money mattered more than the fact that students flocked to Nathaniel’s classroom, where they learned from a former Oklahoma police officer and Louisiana corrections officer who also has experience working with at-risk juveniles as a program administrator at the VisionQuest facility in Pennsylvania.
Not only was Nathaniel’s program popular, but he said some of his students went on to seek careers in law enforcement and corrections, and others pursued legal studies in college and beyond.
“I know of several students who went to the [police] academy in Fort Pierce,” Nathaniel said. “I know of at least one who is working on a law degree.”
Nathaniel’s classes, through an articulation agreement with Indian River State College, also offered students the opportunity to earn dual-enrollment credits if they completed his three-year program: Introduction to Criminal Justice (10th grade), Corrections (11th grade) and Criminal Investigations (12th grade).
“If they went on to attend IRSC,” said Nathaniel, who taught the course for six years, “they’d have as many as nine credit hours free.”
Surely, that’s worth something, at least to the students and their parents. And we’re not talking about some easy-to-pass, fluff course that has no value.
So why not continue criminal justice as an elective?
“I don’t know,” said Searcy, who was one of Nathaniel’s staunchest supporters in the aftermath of the classroom altercation. “I’ve asked the question and haven’t really gotten a good answer.
“Why was the program good enough to keep for the past five or six years and now it’s not? Nobody’s given me a logical answer yet.”
I, too, asked the question in a follow-up email to McMillan, but her response offered nothing useful: “No further comments, Ray.”
Meanwhile, the district continues to struggle – and expend more large legal fees – trying to get out from under the federal desegregation order, including the requirement that 20 to 40 percent of new and replacement hires be black until the percentage of black teachers matches the percentage of black students.
The latest numbers available show that 17 percent of county students are black, roughly 10 percent more than the percentage of black teachers.
According to a $150,000 study done by the Husch Blackwell law firm, hired by the district to conduct a study of its desegregation status, the percentage of black teachers had increased only slightly from 2006-07 (6.08 percent) to 2015-16 (6.73 percent).
While the percentage of black teachers at middle schools increased from 7.32 percent to 13.54 percent during that decade-long span, the percentage of black teachers at elementary (4.94 to 4.63) and high schools (7.67 to 6.63) actually decreased.
Yet our schools officials, while actively seeking to have parts of the desegregation order dismissed, won’t allow Nathaniel to do what he was trained to do – what he wants to do.
“I have a passion for teaching, and I’ve definitely made a difference in the lives of my students,” Nathaniel said. “That’s all I want to do. [The criminal justice class is] a good program for the kids and that’s what should matter most,” he added.
Whatever the real reason or motivation behind the dim-bulb decision to reduce Nathaniel to a school-day babysitter, someone needs to consider the message this sends to the district’s other black teachers and to the black candidates needed to satisfy the desegregation order.

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