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BOE addresses controversy over summer program, votes approval

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Jun 11, 2021

CHARLES TOWN — The Jefferson County Board of Education, in a special meeting on June 2, approved hiring staff for the summer program, Black Math Genius (BMG). The program had drawn some concern from members of the public at a previous board meeting, who questioned whether Jefferson County Schools was promoting the idea of Critical Race Theory and offering programs that could potentially be divisive and promote racism.

In addition, the posting of positions for instructors had raised concerns for at least one board member, Donna Joy, who pointed out that the board, which makes decisions on job postings via public vote, had never been made aware of the program or approved the posting of job vacancies for the positions.

At the start of the special meeting, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson made a point of saying that “context matters a great deal,” regarding the BMG program.

“Jefferson County established a comprehensive plan for success for all students,” Gibson said, which includes she added, goals to close achievement gaps. “The lowest gap in math has been our black students. We have sought programs that will increase the performance of these students.”

Gibson clarified that the BMG program is a way of teaching methods that work well for black students. She added that any student of any race can participate in the program, even though its methodology geared toward methods that help black students.

“The positions you are looking at tonight are open to any teacher in Jefferson County Schools, if they are willing to go through training,” she said.

Tanya Dallas-Lewis, cultural diversity/staff coordinator for Jefferson County Schools, said the need for the program is data driven.

“Black Math Genius is data driven; it champions the growth of this particular group of students,” Dallas-Lewis said. “It is student focused, but let me be clear,” Dallas-Lewis stressed, “it is designed for this data target group. The approach resonates with black students and champions their strengths that are often seen as deficiencies.

“Some in the community have concerns about equality,” Dallas-Lewis said. “I introduce the word ‘equity.'”

Gibson told the board members that 54 families with students in grades 5-11 had already signed up for the program.

Gibson and Dallas-Lewis both likened BMG to clubs or even sports geared toward specific demographic groups, such as Latino clubs or gender-based teams.

Several members of the public spoke on behalf of the program, including Jefferson County NAACP President George Rutherford, who blamed any gap in achievements on previous Boards of Education.

“Before Brown versus the Board of Education there were no gaps,” Rutherford claimed, saying that with the 1954 court case, black teachers were forced out and an entire generation of black students were forced to get lower education.

When the motion was made to hire two summer positions to facilitate the program, Joy questioned not the program itself, but the procedures that were not followed.

“We need to follow our procedures. The position was not approved to be posted but was posted before board approval,” Joy said, stating that even after she had requested information on the program and the instructional positions, she did not receive the information.

“The curriculum has never been approved,” Joy said. “The budget has never been approved. We need to follow protocol and be fiscally responsible.”

During the discussion prior to the vote to approve positions, board president Kathy Skinner dismissed Joy’s concerns, saying the program was “just a summer enrichment program that does not change curriculum at all.”

The board voted approval of the program and the hiring of the two positions, although, according to Public Information Officer Hans Fogle, 10 positions were budgeted in case enrollment required that many. Fogle also said registration for the program had been ongoing before the special meeting, as had registration for all summer programs.

According to Fogle, the Black Math Genius program’s $63,280 cost will be funded by the ESSERF2 (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund), through the CARES Act. Included in that total is a fee paid to the developer of the program, who will facilitate training in the county for the program.

Although the program was compared to clubs and sports geared toward specific demographics, Fogle was unable to provide funding amounts provided to those groups by press time.