Part 2 of a Multi-Part Series
By Michelle Antoine
In January, Johnston County Schools welcomed Tonya Williams Leathers, from Durham County Schools. She is our newest six-figure hire, approved by the Board of Education in November 2020. She replaces Dr. Ben Williams who took a position with Wilson County Schools. She was well liked by her Durham staff, they found her to be dedicated and engaged. Ms. Leathers will be making a significantly higher wage of $125,000 annually, while she has less diverse experience and fewer academic credentials, than Dr. Williams who was earning $97,607.
The Johnston County Public Schools (JCPS) introduction letter describes her as a leader in excellence, regarding achievement. The schools she oversaw as Principal showed some growth, but she failed to bring her schools to proficient levels in standard content learning. The debate over growth versus proficiency has been ongoing for two decades. The measure of how much progress a student makes over the year, even when the student does not become proficient, is considered growth in today’s education circles.
The more traditional measure of success is through proficiency, by meeting the standards, typically on a test, to demonstrate sufficient learned knowledge to be at an established grade level of learning. Ms. Williams was awarded credit for growth, which encompasses any increase in a nebulous forward movement, rather than actual mastery displayed by proficient scores and better rankings. Growth in failing students doesn’t show excellence, according to NC Department of Instruction compiled data all three schools she led had either overall declines, or almost no change.
In 2008-2012 she served as principal of Eno Valley Elementary School. According to public documents, in her term the school went from an averaged standard score across all grades of 16 in 2008 and an NC state rank of 11%, meaning 89% of North Carolina schools scored higher, to lowered scores by 2012 of 14 with a 7% NC state percentile rank. The school remained a DPI graded F school.
From 2012-2016 she was principal at Sherwood Githens Middle School, the standardized scores across grades dropped from 23 to 17, with NC statewide performance staying the same at 15% for those years, and it remained a D rated school.
Leathers spent 2016 thru 2020 serving as principal at Riverside High School, this was the one school she moved average standardized scores from 25 in 2016 to 31 in 2019, and increased the statewide performance from 32% to 34%, yet stayed a C graded school through her tenure. The 2020 progress grades aren’t yet available to average in.
All three schools have abysmal rankings, and she could never budge them out of their mediocre to failing DPI grade stations, yet she was chosen to drive excellence in our schools according to the JCPS announcement letter. In that letter Superintendent Eric Bracy stated, “I am confident that her experience as a strong instructional leader will help our district increase student academic achievement.”
She will be working as the Assistant Superintendent to High Schools, and her job entails the following, “She will plan, develop, and monitor results of programs to be implemented across all high schools, assist in the implementation of district initiatives, and develop policies, standards, and a vision for all high schools.” Ms. Leathers stated her purpose for coming to Johnston County is to drive the equity agenda, saying, “I am excited for the opportunity to assist Dr. Bracy as he continues to focus on equity and excellence in Johnston County Public Schools.”
So, what will Ms. Leathers vision look like?
In my opinion, it appears it will be hyper-political and focused on subjective social leveling. During the 2020 General Election, candidate Biden made a total of 57 campaign stops. One was at Ms. Leathers Riverside High School. She retweeted the announcement on her now suspended account, news articles covered the stop widely. She also tweeted out her support of using the leftist Anti-Defamation League’s article as a resource tool for children to deal with election results.
The article stated, “Many young people are afraid, especially those who identify in groups targeted during the campaign”, suggesting the Trump campaign targeted groups of people for physical or emotional harm. I found where she promoted and donated to an organization called Working to Extend Anti-racist Education under the Color of Education organization. The mission statement of this group is, “We are collaborates with children, families and educators to dismantle systemic racism in schools and beyond.” The group provides training for educators in such things as desegregation and diversity in teaching. The group is funded by partnerships including one with Duke University.
This anti-racist idea is premised on the theory that white culture is built on the oppression of people of color, and in fact our entire culture right down to food is racist. Duke University Sanford School, with guiding board members who partner to the anti-racist program Ms. Leathers promoted an article and podcast called Identifying and Countering White Supremacy Culture in Food Systems. The project narrative reports, “Whiteness permeates the food system in the ways it articulates white ideals of health and nutrition, offers whitened dreams of farming and gardening that erase the past and present of race in agriculture, mobilizes funding to direct programming toward non-white beneficiaries, and creates inviting spaces for white people.”
In this short clip of a training by Extend Anti-Racist Education, the leader describes how a teacher writing a minority child up for misconduct is a display of the teachers need to control her space through power, putting the child in a “system of harm”. To me it is clear the driving message is that disciplining students of color in the classroom is racist.
The video moves on to describe how media and culture is “white affirming”, and how we must be “disruptive earlier on to how racial biases are forming at earlier ages.” It is suggested this form of “white supremacy” must be driven out of the culture, that white students are affirmed in their whiteness, and not children of color through books, toys, and media.
You are now described as a white supremacist for having a garden and racist for being a white agriculture land-holder. If you have any doubts to what I am describing, or need a demonstration of the sheer insanity of the narrative being spun, listen to the podcast on the Duke article above and download the research brief.
I believe the new vision being ushered in with the approval of the Johnston County Board of Education will do away with Equality. We’ve moved into the arena of Equity. Equality ensures opportunity, while equity promises outcomes. The belief that some people start with disadvantages, so a stop gap must be placed to ensure all outcomes can be equal. These disadvantages can be race, income, family situation, disability, gender, the list is endless. Lip service is paid to raising standards, but actual policy has removed rigor, discipline, and graded merit.
The Color of Education, the organization Leathers fundraised for, had a speaking engagement in 2018 for Nikole Hannah-Jones. Jones is the author of the 1619 project, a story of the racist founding of America, which has been roundly criticized for its deeply flawed historical record of truth.
In my opinion, Ms. Leathers is a progressive activist in her personal life. Leathers wears her rainbow catch phrase shirt on her profile picture for social media, with the statements, “love is love, black lives matter, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal,” and adorns her social media with Black Lives Matters banners. I believe she will drive the Vision of the Future for Johnston County High Schools.
How will your child be treated if they don’t fit the right racial group, income group, academic strata, political group? What about the child who has law enforcement professionals in their family? When families send their child to a community school, they certainly do not expect a challenge to the moral and cultural values of home, they expect a sound basic education, as is constitutionally provided for.
While Ms. Leathers has the right to her beliefs and political activism, it should not permeate into her job responsibilities. The focus is supposed to be on traditional or vocational education, which has neither a leftist or right center view, rather a value of instructional learning and building knowledge for academic proficiency. Yet, her stated purpose in being hired is to promote equity.
The Chief of Equity for Johnston County Schools, Crystal Roberts stated in her October 8, 2020 Racism in Education forum hosted by Johnston County Heritage Center, “We want to teach people how to behave in an anti-racist way…we really and truly want anti-racist behavior and that takes action.” Understanding what ‘anti-racist’ behavior is becomes paramount to uncover how Ms. Leathers role will manifest itself. Given the JCPS Equity Chief’s statements and how anti-racism is encapsulated, how can Ms. Leathers position be anything but political and meant to include her leftist, activist agenda.
Divisive policy under the guise of fairness and successful outcomes is bound to fail. It already has. Measures implemented since 2010 under the Race to the Top grants that launched Common Core have failed students. School performance charts over the past decade tell the story with historic drops in national math and reading scores.
I reached out to Ms. Leathers for a comment for my commentary article. She replied, “As an assistant superintendent for Johnston County Public Schools, I work with all principals and staff to deliver robust educational programs consistent with the policies of the Johnston County Board of Education and the North Carolina State Board of Education. If you need any additional assistance regarding this request, please contact Crystal Roberts in the Office of Equity, which was created to advance the district’s commitment to fairness and impartiality. To that end, the office provides support and resources in alignment with the district’s overall goal of student achievement, district policies, and practices, and works collaboratively with Curriculum and Instruction to ensure that the content supports that goal.”
While Ms. Leathers may have an honest belief that her progressive activism will be good for children, and I acknowledge some good ideas in this new wave do exist, I believe the implementation of anti-racist policy is damaging. It won’t change education outcomes, and it will simply disenfranchise a new set of people.
Yes, our past is marred with terrible injustice specifically to the black community. Historical preservation and acknowledgment of those wrongs should continue. The fabric and founding principles of the United States remain good, demonstrated by our ability to reverse those reprehensible policies. Acknowledging that reversal, rather than ruminating on a past, we cannot undo and punishing a corrected culture by simply upending it, won’t likely provide a closing of the achievement gap in schools.
I believe the equity explosion has become an educational echo chamber, flooding new promising ideology to cure schools. It is a paper mountain, as fast as it was built it will burn. Equity and excellence will never be in the same wheelhouse – they are antithetical. It will only drive worse outcomes for all.
Michelle Antoine, B.S., B.A., M.S. is a Johnston County resident, formerly licensed teacher, counselor, education reform advocate and mom to eight children.
Read Part 1: Activists In Our Schools – The Propagandist