On March 19, Cherokee School Board approved the appointment of CCSD’s first administrator focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Cecelia Lewis, who currently serves as a Principal in Maryland and has extensive school and district leadership experience. She was scheduled to join CCSD this summer as an administrator on special assignments for student services. She resigned two days ago after a May board meeting where board members were threatened around diversity and inclusion efforts.
Cecelia Lewis’ press release:
The message I received from the Cherokee County community, who has never met me or tried to get to know me, not the position, is we do not want you here, you don’t belong here, and you’re not welcome here, highlighting the fact that the work of celebrating and appreciating diversity, instead of denying or judging it is much needed in this district. I certainly know that there was some support, and that most of the community are not represented through the hate that has transpired towards me over the past month. Unfortunately, there is still enough to assure me that this is not God’s will for me. I was denied access and opportunity, the core what equity truly promotes, because of stereotypes and lies created about me before I even had a chance to say hello. I pray that this does not happen to any student or family the school system is charged with serving, protecting and supporting under their care. After much prayer, deliberation and counsel from family and friends, my decision to terminate my contract with CCSD came down to me no longer feeling safe and the work I was hired to do not supported or prioritized by the CCSD Board of Education.
This unfortunate journey has created an incredible whirlwind of emotions. I am heartbroken for the overall experiences I have endured this past month ending with chaos and attacks of my character and authenticity. I had not heard of critical race theory until a few weeks ago when I was falsely accused of bringing it to the district to indoctrinate everyone. Ridiculous! The irony of it all is that those cussing, screaming and fighting so hard to keep it out of the district are the ones who introduced it to the district in the first place. I am no stranger to conflict. Leadership is primed for it (new levels, new devils) and will fight to no end for what is best for students and staff, but as I shared with Dr. Hightower, this certainly is an unfair battle when your foundation is quicksand. Without a solid foundation of what the true vision is for all students in this district, which starts with and must be clearly communicated from the top, the work will lead to a swing and a miss; and this work is too important to miss. I learned a long time ago that your beliefs are reflected in your choices and actions.
The choice to create a resolution did not align with the vision that led to the creation of this position because there was no dispute to resolve. There was never a plan for integrating/adopting critical race theory so there should not have been an argument or contention regarding it; thus, no resolution is needed. Once those concerned about it were told no, critical race theory is NOT what CCSD’s DEI efforts are about, the discussion should have been over. I have no issue with parents and community members asking the question. It is important for all stakeholders in a community to be informed and get clarity on school-related actions. I believe family partnerships are the foundation to successful schooling and it is vital for parents to have full transparency of what is being taught to their children. They have a right to know why the position was created and what the vision is for this work. Once the school leaders answered the question, however, those who didn’t want to accept the truth should’ve been left arguing with themselves because the truth was told. This was the perfect opportunity to take a stand and reiterate what DEI and SEL is and why CCSD believes in it. Instead of standing, I witnessed a tremendous fall into doubt and concession with a resolution on something that was never a part of the truth anyway. I do not have the time nor energy to argue with insanity or irrational people who will make up things and who can’t see beyond their own agendas to appreciate the value of work that makes every child a priority and leaves no one behind. That’s what community is about.
The diversity I know and celebrate in education highlights the importance of recognizing that during Ramadan, any student who practices Islam may be more lethargic due to fasting or getting up before dawn to enjoy a meal with their families. Therefore, as educators, we need to be cognizant of this and be empathetic if a student needs to put their head down during class (but still actively listening) or have a modified activity during PE. Discussions about diversity in school also promote having a variety of resources for students to choose from, including books that have people and stories about individuals and cultures that don’t represent the majority or mainstream culture in the class or even in the community. This builds a beautiful foundation for appreciating diverse perspectives and experiences. This is the work I’ve done. This is the work I believe in.
Diversity is not a bad word.
The equity I know looks like transforming the One Room Schoolhouses, historic sites within our community that are a part of our 5th-grade social studies field trips, to make them wheelchair and handicap accessible by working with local businesses and the school system to build ramps for access. Understanding that ramps provide access to everyone because people can walk on them too. Prior to this work, any student with a mobility restriction, in a wheelchair, walker, etc. had to go to another building away from their peers and watch a video on what the inside of the schoolhouses looked like, removed from access and the opportunity to see and experience the real schoolhouse. Educators need to make sure that any field trip they plan has been vetted for full access to all. It also means ensuring all students who have the talent and meet the requirements for All-County, All-State, and All-District band, chorus, or orchestra try-outs have the means to get there, or we at least consider providing multiple locations so the access is more equitable. Equity is about reflecting on your current programs and practices to ensure every child has access and opportunity to them. This is the work I’ve done. This is the work I believe in. Equity is not a bad word.
The inclusion I know means that every teacher presumes competence for every child, not just some students, and ensure they have full access to grade-level standards no matter if they need intervention supports or extension tasks. It’s understanding that every student needs both intervention and extension opportunities throughout various points in their learning. It’s understanding that special education and gifted education are not placements/locations but services that should be provided in inclusive environments whenever possible with access to grade-level standards. Inclusion ensures that every child has access to rigorous instruction while understanding that everyone has different access points but still must be challenged with appropriate supports to meet their needs. It’s about reminding educators to use person-first language when speaking about children. For example, not calling a child autistic, as if that defines his/her identity, but calling them by their name and saying he/she has autism instead. You see, when you don’t use person-first language, it perpetuates stereotypes about a person’s ability and often, unintentionally, creates a barrier for presuming competence about a person by focusing on limitations (and assuming they have limitations) before learning about their strengths. This is the work I’ve done. This is the work I believe in. Inclusion is not a bad word.
Allowing the opponents of DEI and accusers of critical race theory indoctrination to turn these words into negatives is absurd. It’s as absurd as someone seeing me use the items divider in a supermarket’s checkout line to separate my items from yours as a courtesy and someone saying that because I did that I must believe in segregation. Something as innocent as that highlights how anyone can create an issue and turn something good into something bad so easily. The saddest part is, as soon as someone throws out a comment like that, others jump on the bandwagon and say, “yep, she believes in segregation”. The louder and more aggressive they become, the more people believe it with no basis for supporting the made-up accusation.
It’s beyond belief that this tide has turned to such a negative outcome. I wholeheartedly fell in love with Cherokee County when I came to visit and accepted the position, but somehow, I got caught in the crossfire of lies, misinformation, and accusations that have zero bases. During my visit in March, the vision shared for diversity, equity, and inclusion support for the staff and students inspired me. The commitment CCSD outlined for celebrating diversity and ensuring that all students have access and opportunity was encouraging. Somehow, misinformation inaccurately translated diversity, equity, and inclusion into bad words and the position that the district created and offered to me has turned into a platform for negativity, hate, and extremism. Even more upsetting is that every second, hour, and now weeks that have been spent on responding to this nonsense of fabricated indoctrination has taken the time and precious energy away from investing in students and I don’t have time to waste when it comes to prioritizing student supports and effective teaching and learning. Our students lost too much time already with the impacts of the pandemic and I’m choosing to continue my commitment to doing what’s best for kids, not arguing and trying to convince adults that the lies they’re making up about me and the job I was hired to do are insane and invalid.
The unfounded and inaccurate representation of who I am, what my work was intended to promote, and dragging my name and reputation through the mud are unacceptable. I have never and will never promote hate, divisiveness, guilt or victimization of anyone. The board meeting last week brought the extensive revelation that I need to remove myself from this darkness and protect my own light and integrity. Not one person gave me an opportunity to even say hello before an entire narrative had been made up about me, my intentions, and my work. Instead of taking so much time and intrusive efforts to violate my privacy in attempts to find anything about me to justify their lies and fears, anyone can call any student, parent, colleague, a community member of any district I ever served and would find that my heart and character are, always have been, and always will be, aligned to doing what is best to promote excellence among all kids and my colleagues.
I’ve worked very hard throughout my career to successfully unite communities and promote a positive culture and climate in every environment I’ve ever worked in. I put students first and live by the old medical adage “Do No Harm”. Those who are now harassing me, invading my privacy, and slandering my name know absolutely nothing about me, but felt it necessary to create a false representation of who I am and what I’m about. They created a phantom; a scary character coming to steal and destroy the educational foundations and beliefs of Cherokee County Schools. I have been referred to as an “outsider”, “yankee”, and “black lady from the north” by people who lead their arguments in a public forum with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about not judging people by the color of their skin but by their character. Yet, I am being judged on assumptions, no truth, no evidence – just pure stereotyping, without a single courtesy of getting to know me as an educator or just as a human being relocating to a new state, willing and wanting to serve a community. Instead, I have been contacted on my job and work email accusing me being a Marxist and coming to take jobs away and opportunities away from some students to give their seats to “others”. What ever happened to adding more seats, more voices, perspectives and experiences to the table, or is Cherokee County out of chairs? We only gain and grow when we include, accept, encourage and celebrate one another.
This is unfathomable to say the least. No one gave me the benefit of the doubt to get to know my character or my heart, even though the opponents at the board meeting talked incessantly about character and heart being most important. I guess it only applies to those they already know, not an “outsider”. A clear message was sent that I am not welcome there and how could I feel safe when a board of education meeting, an institution designed to serve and protect students, requires people to go through metal detectors and not allow bags. A place where adults should be able to come together to ask questions, discuss concerns, and collaborate for making decisions that maximize student learning and supports is now unsafe? A place where board members get into verbal and physical altercations because it’s so contentious? I’m leaving a school, district and overall community who have poured so much love into me and who I love back beyond measure and will miss more than you could imagine. I
refuse to come to a community where a target was unfairly put on my back and pushed me away. I have no interest in coming to a hostile work environment.
The work that I’m committed to every day is based on ensuring every child has an environment that is safe, welcoming, and provides them with a sense of belonging. This was not afforded to me in Cherokee County, so I am shifting to another opportunity to continue to do what’s best for kids and work with people who model professionalism and decorum, even during conflict or when faced with diverse perspectives. I certainly wish things could’ve been different and my prayer is that someday soon this district will have the support of the board of education and community to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in it’s true, beautiful form. I hope they can see that even if the district was 100% of any race, gender, or any element that defines culture, that there is still diversity within that dynamic that needs to be recognized, celebrated, and supported. Maybe one day people will realize that equity is not a bad word but a powerful unifier that facilitates the eventual elimination of hate and division that so many modeled May 20th Thursday at the board meeting.
Most importantly, I hope no student, staff, or Cherokee County resident ever experience the unfair, biased treatment I have. I will not judge or stereotype Cherokee County, even though I didn’t receive the same courtesy. Instead, I will pray for Cherokee County. The God I serve is forgiving and the ultimate model for my own life. My unfortunate and brief experience revealed that DEI is not the only or even priority issue that needs to be addressed. There are humanity issues that need to be addressed first in this district: being kind to others, not judging people before you get a chance to know them, and not making up lies to create a platform for attention. I wish nothing but the best in all present and future efforts to help heal the brokenness within this community.