Amherst schools leaders say they are determined to ease racial tensions this school year

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014
AMHERST — School Superintendent Maria Geryk is approaching September with measures she hopes will help put to rest the trauma of a school year marred by racial tensions at Amherst’s high and middle schools.

“People think I’m wearing my rose-colored glasses, but I’m optimistic about this year,” she said in an interview. “I feel that we are doing the right work to make a difference for our schools.”

The 2013-14 school year was marred by tensions ignited by racist, threatening notes aimed at black Amherst Regional High math teacher Carolyn Gardner and racially fueled fights among students that included a gun threat by a high school student and the beating of a middle school student. A suspect was never identified in the Gardner case.

Gardner left her job in May because the threats against her would not stop and Geryk said she does not know yet whether the teacher will return next week. “Ms. Gardner’s status is uncertain at this time,” she said in an email Tuesday. “We expect clarity within the coming days.”

Geryk said she knows more difficult times are ahead. “Do I expect that problems are solved and we’re not going to have issues in our schools, where we are dealing with thousands of kids and hundreds of adults? No,” she said.

“But incidents don’t define the whole and we have to make sure we continue to improve on how we address problems that arise. It does not need to be as destabilizing as it was last year.”

A main feature of the changes this school year is the hiring of a media and climate communications specialist, Carol Ross, whose salary for the one-year, $48,000 position is being shared by the schools and the town in an initiative called Amherst Together.

In her 30-hours-a-week position, Ross’s job is identifying causes of disharmony among groups in Amherst and finding ways to ease it.

In addition to Ross, former Fort River School principal Monica Hall is working on related issues as director of diversity and equity. Her focus is on achievement gaps among different student demographic groups and other civil rights matters as they surface in the schools, Geryk said.

The superintendent also has prepared a report of her “equity progress and planning” that maps out action taken to address disparities in the schools since she took the helm in 2010 and the measures planned for this year and beyond. It includes strategies for recruiting more diverse staff, training for teachers on equity issues, surveys of students, teachers and staff to gauge attitudes and schools-wide discussion days and events on relevant themes.

Students are also being trained as mediators by Quabbin Mediation of Orange, and a mentorship program linking Amherst College and Amherst school children is being paid for by Amherst College. Calvin Terrell, a social justice educator from Phoenix who has worked in the schools here, will be back to do more training with students and staff.

Geryk has established a “Climate Advisory Group” comprising 12 members of the school district staff and 11 experts from the community in areas such as psychology, mediation, race relations and communications, which has been meeting with her monthly. She said she expects that group to assist her in implementing recommendations that come from the School Committee’s Schools Equity Task Force, a 30-member group formed in the spring to examine racial issues in the schools.

For other changes in the Amherst schools see the story on Page C3.

Key question

Geryk said Ross’s work will be a large part of the new year’s efforts. Ross, Geryk and Town Manager John Musante will describe those plans at the school department’s annual back-to-school party on the Town Common Aug. 27 in what Ross calls a “soft launch.”

Geryk said she has her own ideas about what Ross can accomplish, but she wants to let Ross dig in herself and decide how the work will take shape.

But a key question, she said, is “What do people want from their community?”

“Does everyone feel comfortable participating in community events?” she asked. “Does everyone feel comfortable walking into our businesses? Our schools? What concrete steps can we take to create a more inclusive environment?”

One example might be Musante’s proposal for a downtown community health center in the Bangs Community Center, she said. Such a clinic would provide low-income people access to basic services that others in town take for granted.

Ross will spend time with a wide range of people — business owners, police and fire personnel, Town Hall workers, individuals associated with the colleges — to frame possibilities. “She needs to hear what people see as the strengths and gaps in the community,” Geryk said. “She needs to map some of that so she can then say ‘What things can we put in place to bring people together in a way that’s meaningful?’ ”

Geryk is convinced Ross, who grew up in town, is the right person to pull it off. “She’s open and honest. She cares. She’s really accessible.”

Ross knows people have high expectations but says she is undaunted. “It’s about relationships,” Ross said in an interview in her office, a few doors down from Geryk’s in the middle school. Her desk and the walls were covered with large charts where a rough draft of her plans has been sketched out with colorful markers. “We remove the constructs and the institutional veils and we get down to basic human relationships.”

No savior

The day of the interview, she had just come from Amherst College and was heading out later to talk with a leader in the Cambodian community.

“I don’t see myself as one to solve the world’s problems,” Ross said. “I don’t think as a community we have properly identified our problems.” That, she said, is a central piece of what she’s doing.

“We have to stay flexible and fluid,” she said. “We get rigid and focused on what we think the problem is and then we shut down because we think we have all the answers.”

The meetings she has had so far have included people skeptical of the sincerity of Amherst Together and she is encouraged.

“A lot of people have already reached out to me,” she said. “They want to talk. There is mistrust. There is pain.” But there is also hope. “People are like, ‘I have ideas. I want to be part of this movement. I’m excited. I love Amherst.’ ”

Ross is videotaping many of her meetings to make visual presentations she expects will help her prepare concise, vivid accounts of what people think. She envisions showing these at community gatherings, maybe at a large event in the spring.

A member of the town’s Human Rights Commission, Ross, 48, has experience working in human resources and is a professional photographer who has used her art to promote social issues. She has done a book of photos illustrating black fathers called “Pop: Celebration of Black Fatherhood” and has done two documentaries, one on welfare to work and the other on affirmative action, that she said aired on NBC years ago.

Potential at home

Ross was born in Philadelphia but moved to Amherst as a child where her father worked as a professor at Amherst and Hampshire colleges and the University of Massachusetts. Her mother was dean of admissions at UMass. Ross graduated from Amherst Regional High School and left town for 25 years, pursuing her education and career, living in places such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Brooklyn, and Charlottesville,Virginia. She moved back to town five years ago. She has one son who is entering the middle school.

“I’ve seen communities that don’t work. When I came back to Amherst, I see potential here,” she said.

But she was wary before she sought her new job.

“I didn’t come into this blindly. I’ve have many conversations with Maria (Geryk) and John (Musante) about their goals and intentions to make sure they were genuine. It’s easy for people to stand on the outside and say they don’t believe they have the best intentions, but I’m here day-to-day now and I see the kind of people who are around Maria. I see the dedication and the kids’ reactions and that kids are engaged. It’s hard to argue with that. People are walking the talk.”

When asked how she might have helped had she been on board during last school year’s struggles, she repeats that the underlying problems have yet to be identified. “I am trying to get people together so we can figure it out together.”

Geryk says there are things she would have handled differently, though she would not be specific. “Many of the things I would have done differently are internal things that I wouldn’t talk about in the newspaper,” she said.

She did say, though, that she wished at times she had paused and said, “Let’s all take a breath. Let’s talk more to families and let’s share some basic information with the community.”

That is easier said than done, in Geryk’s view. “I have to figure out a way to do it without compromising the rights of students and staff,” she said. “It’s a struggle because I’m extremely protective of students and I’m extremely protective of staff. It’s hard sometimes when you are in the midst of a crisis situation to handle it in a way that satisfies everybody’s needs.”

School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz, who was one of harshest critics of the way Geryk and other school leaders handled last year’s tensions, said Tuesday that he is heartened by what he is seeing now.

“I think that our superintendent and our administrative team have been working diligently to put some changes in place at both our high school and middle school that will serve to give us early warning signs of problems as well as to prevent some of the things from happening as they did last year,” he said. If they work, “I’ll be one of the happiest members of our district.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@Gazettenet.com.