By John Crowder
A ceremony celebrating the promotion from middle school to high school of African-American students residing within the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) has generated intense scrutiny on social media, with some claiming that a flier sent through the AUSD email system was a misuse of public resources, and that both the flier and the event may have violated laws against segregation and/or separation of Church and State.
The flier was received by parents of students attending Dallas Ranch Middle School (DRMS) on Friday.
According to Dr. Donald Gill, AUSD Superintendent of Schools, though, the flier should not have gone out.
“Unfortunately a flier that had been prepared by one person at one school was forwarded to others, but it was not authorized by the District,” Gill said.
Gill also commented about the event. “It was a community celebration,” he said. “We support community events like this. But, we wouldn’t support the use of the AUSD logo for this.”
“We support any organization that wants to honor and celebrate the milestones of our students,” he added.
Stephanie Anello, Associate Superintendent, Educational Services, while expressing her support for the event, said that the District was taking steps to ensure that the public is not misled as to the sponsorship of such events in the future.
“I very much support celebrating the achievements and milestones of all students,” she said. “The District acknowledges and respects the right of community organizations to sponsor celebrations for students that attend District schools. Those celebrations are separate from District “promotion” ceremonies which recognize the achievements of all students.”
However, she added “We are going to be meeting with key staff members to determine where District procedures and protocols may have broken down in order to address future instances wherein it may appear that an event is a District event when, in fact, it is a community sponsored event.”
Anello also acknowledged that District resources were used in support of the event.
“Upon investigating the matter, it appears that District resources, including District email, and perhaps some office supplies, were used in support of this event,” she stated.
She went on to say, though, that Dr. Lamont Francies, who is a counselor at Black Diamond Middle School and the pastor at Delta Bay Church of Christ, where the event was held, used his own time and resources in order to have the function.
Ed Dacus, Principal of DRMS, and Pamela Price, a counselor at the school, related the sequence of events surrounding the flier. They said that, some weeks ago, they had received an email with the flier attached, from Francies, who created it.
Dacus related that he believed his role was to disseminate the information it contained to his school community. He had the flier posted throughout the school; in common areas, in the office, and on windows.
Later, on the day of the event, he said he had a conversation with Price, in which she asked if anything further should be done to inform the school community about the function. He then advised Price to inform school parents through School Loop, which she did. “I had no information that the flier was not to be resent,” he said. Price also acknowledged her role in sending out the flier. “I sent it,” she said.
When asked about the event on Tuesday, June 2, Price responded “Is there a problem?”
After being told by Herald staff that it was a private event promoted using school district resources, she pointed to a copy of the flier on the window to her office, unaware that it was not a district sponsored event.
That was confirmed in an email from Gill, received by the Herald Tuesday afternoon, in response to a question of whether district staff were informed that the event was not sponsored by AUSD.
“Yes, a memo was sent this morning,” he stated.
When reached for comment, Francies said that he had sent an email with the flier attached on April 24, and again on May 20, informing District personnel about the event. He said that he had not directed or asked anyone to send the email, or the flier, to anyone else.
He confirmed that there was a conversation between him and Anello, on or about April 27, in which they discussed that the program was not a District sponsored event, but it was in the context of funding for the event, and no discussion of the use of the letters ‘AUSD’ took place at that time.
Francies was unaware that any distribution to the public had taken place at DRMS until the evening of the event. Francies did provide fliers to middle school staff members to be used as they thought was appropriate, and handed the fliers to parents and students at Black Diamond Middle School who expressed an interest in the event.
However, a revised flier without the AUSD information included, was not created or distributed.
Francies described the event as a way to build trust between members of the African-American community and AUSD administration, and as a way to encourage families to focus on the value of a good education.
“A number of our kids are struggling academically,” he said. “These types of events are common in African-American communities, and are a part of our tradition.”
Francies also talked about the church connection.
“The black church is at the heart of our community,” he said. “This was a celebration of black culture.”
“We can’t separate that from our faith tradition,” he added.
“The celebration of one culture is not a denigration of another culture. People have asked about having other cultural celebrations. I support it. I’ll attend,” Francies added.
In fact, this reporter, who is white, was in attendance at this event, having been invited by the African-American parent of a student being honored. While most people attending the event were African-American, many other races and ethnic groups were represented, both in the audience, and as part of the program. As my son and I walked up to the entrance, we were greeted very warmly by a church member, who said, “Welcome to Delta Bay Church.” Throughout the evening, everyone we spoke with was welcoming, and several in attendance made it a point to introduce themselves to, and interact with, my young son.
The message, delivered by Pastor Kirkland Smith of Grace Bible Fellowship, prior to the handing out of achievement certificates to all students in attendance, focused on the importance of obtaining a good education, and on parenting skills.
Francies said that he hopes to expand the event next year.
School Board Member Debra Vinson, who was in attendance at the event along with fellow Board Member Barbara Cowan and several district administrators, provided a statement in which she spoke positively about the function.
“I saw this as a community-sponsored event from community members that wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of students that attended their church, lived in their neighborhood or had received some form of social emotional support from various places in the community,” Vinson shared. “This was not a graduation; it was not a promotion; it was a community celebration and was no sponsored by AUSD.”
“This event was open to all students and there were students and families from non-African-American backgrounds that participated,” she stated. “The flyer should not have been released in its current format by anyone without final approval from District Administrative Staff.”
Vinson continued, “I would hope that the educational achievements of all students would be appreciated because celebrating our students in this community helps to reduce crime, builds self esteem, builds pride in Antioch and sends the message to students that they are not alone in the ‘educational process’ and that the community of Antioch stands behind them. Yes, I want all of our school age students in school daily.”
Explaining the motivation behind the event, Vinson said, “Many students struggle daily to remain focused on learning because there are so many non-educational choices available to them and they have many personal hurdles to overcome. If there are people in the community that want to help students maintain success by celebrating their learning milestones, then we should all stand behind that!”
Vinson concluded, “I hope that the community of Antioch will continue to celebrate our students because it will promote positive ‘citizenship’ and teach them to respect this community called ‘home.’”
When asked about the flier in an email sent to all board members, Walter Ruehlig responded, “I never saw this – I saw it on an AUSD weekly calendar memo given to [the] Board, but thought of that as a throw off favor, much like they might mention State of City (as example). Though I did not attend, I assumed it was like the baccalaureate, privately organized sponsored, funded and promoted. We are meticulous to disassociate baccalaureate from AUSD and I assumed that protocol was in keeping with this.”
“To go the extra mile we rotate churches and invite the entire public,” he added.
Board Vice President Diane Gibson-Gray also responded to the email about the flier, on Sunday night.
“The promotion ceremony on May 29th was described as ‘…a joint African American 8th grade Baccalaureate Ceremony,’ which was not on school property and faith based, as is the high school Baccalaureate Ceremony this evening at Most Holy Rosary Church, which is not an AUSD event. I did not see the promotional flyer until it was published on EastCountyToday.net post event. I now understand it has AUSD’s logo on it and was promoted using district resources.
I did not attend the African American 8th Grade Promotion Ceremony. That evening I was attending the E.N.C.O.R.E. Promotion Ceremony, an AUSD event. I will be attending three of the five middle school AUSD Promotion Ceremonies this Wednesday, in which all 8th grade students promoting on to high school will be celebrated.
My knowledge of the history of the African American 8th Grade Promotion Ceremony is:
·I received a last minute invitation for the 2014 ceremony. I voiced my concerns about it being an AUSD event and did not attend.
·Based on the 2015 ceremony description, I did not view it as an AUSD event and did not attend.
I’m asking Dr. Gill for additional background and information. I have asked that it be placed on our agenda for school board discussion.”
Cowan responded by email with links to a 2011 article entitled “Are black graduations at traditional colleges ‘reverse racism’?” and a report from the Journal of Pan African Studies entitled “Using Cultural Competence to Close the
Achievement Gap.” She did not answer the questions in the email from Herald staff.
Board President Claire Smith did not respond to the email.
Comments on the Herald Facebook page, in response to a commentary by Barbara Zivica, included one by Antioch resident Darcie Hill Cooper.
“This is just crazy,” she said. “This is a step in the WRONG direction.”
Another Antioch resident, Ron Zaragoza wrote, “This doesn’t seem helpful to the people of our community. Seems like it supports divison (sic)…”
Francies responded to the criticism levied by some that the event was exclusionary.
“I understand the backlash. I’m not shocked by it,” he said. “I did this to celebrate one culture and not to exclude anyone else. Everyone was welcome. It was targeted to a group who feels disenfranchised. I make no qualms about that. Of course my intention was never to offend anyone else. We’ve never turned away any kid of any color who wanted to participate.”
Allen Payton contributed to this report.