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The chief executive of an educational consulting company said his company does not teach critical race theory, and the acronym it uses for cultural training for teachers is an unfortunate coincidence.

Matt Kennard, CEO of BetterLesson, said he and his team will be changing the abbreviation for the company’s culturally responsive teaching and learning (CRTL) curriculum for educators, to avoid any potential confusion among the public. The “CRTL” acronym shares letters with the abbreviation for critical race theory (CRT) — a concept that has come under scrutiny by Manhattan residents in the past few weeks.

During the April 21 meeting, the USD 383 board of education voted 4-1 to approve the purchase of virtual seminars for district teachers on the topic of culturally responsive teaching and learning. District administrators later rescinded the $61,500 purchase at the May 5 meeting, citing a lack of appropriate funds. An email circulated by members of the Riley County Republican Party on May 16 — a week after USD 383 rescinded the purchase — encouraged people to voice their concern about the cultural training program at the May 19 meeting.

Many of those who oppose the training say it would impart critical race theory upon district teachers and in turn “indoctrinate” children and actually increases racial divisions.

Kennard said the cultural training is meant to help teachers have “really authentic, well-facilitated communication” in their classrooms. Informational materials provided by Kennard and district superintendent Marvin Wade state the cultural training seminars offered to teachers are not the same as critical race theory.

“I would say in recent months there has been a greater need for clarification around what the goals of our culturally responsive teaching and learning trainings are,” Kennard said.

Critical race theory is an educational concept developed in the 1970s and ‘80s by legal scholars and civil rights activists to help people recognize racism embedded in U.S. laws and how those laws affect people of color.

Kennard said the cultural training curriculum, along with other programs available from New York-based BetterLesson, are simply tools that help teachers teach better.

“You aren’t just innately born with the skills to teach the best classroom,” Kennard said. “Like any professional, teachers deserve access to the best possible tools for the best outcome.”

‘Red flags’

Administrators for the Manhattan-Ogden school district say the need for such training stems from a message from the Kansas Department of Education to improve the experience of students in marginalized populations.

In a recent interview with The Mercury, Wade said the purchase of the BetterLesson programming was part of the district’s larger strategic plan to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. USD 383 director of teaching and learning Paula Hough said in the fall of 2019, an “entity” within the state Department of Education informed district officials of “red flags” in some specific areas of student success.

“That helped us focus our attention,” Hough said. “We know, based off of board meetings in the past month, the student experience is not what we want it to be.”

Hough, along with director of special services Andrea Tiede, began working on ways to close gaps in data quantifying the student experience. They found a significant number of non-white students falling behind. For example, the combined average graduation rate for white students in the district from 2017 to 2020 was 86%, while the graduation rate for the same timeframe for Black students was just shy of 61%. For Hispanic students, that rate is 76%.

Enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses also was lower among students of color. For the 2020-21 school year, nearly 70% of the students in AP classes at Manhattan High School were white. In those same classes, 8.3% of students were Hispanic, and only 3.3% were African American. Asian students made up 12.5% of AP class enrollment.

For career and technical education courses, white students made up the majority of those enrolled for the most recent school year at 65%. Hispanic students accounted for 16%, with Black students at 8%.

During the 2020-21 school year, 64% of the district’s students were white, 15% were Hispanic, 8% were Black, 4% were Asian and 9% were two or more races. American Indian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander didn’t register as a full percentage.

Tiede said focusing on improving these sub-groups will be good for the entire district.

“When we’re working on students who are struggling the most, or need the most support, we’re going to be supporting our system as a whole,” Tiede said.

Tiede said the “red flags” highlighted by Kansas education officials included the graduation rates and AP course enrollment, as well as students who self-identified as homeless or “housing insecure.” Fifty-one percent of students who labeled themselves as homeless this past school year are white, while 24% are Hispanic, 13.7% are African American and about 10% classified themselves as two or more races.

“These are just the students we know about,” Tiede said. “We have seen an increase in unaccompanied students (in the past year).”

‘The right tools’

Kennard said there are many uncomfortable conversations happening throughout the country right now, including in USD 383, about how to best engage and prepare every student. BetterLesson works with seven other school districts in Kansas, although Kennard did not specify which ones. He said the culturally responsive teaching and learning programming does not “take away from the basics of teaching.”

“I can certainly empathize with the idea that we want to provide a quality core education for students,” Kennard said. “This is a key piece.”

Kennard said at the center of what BetterLesson provides, is the goal to give teachers the “right tools to improve the outcomes of all kids” in the classroom.

“It’s not about critical race theory, it’s not about making people feel guilty or rewriting history,” Kennard said. “It’s about asking, ‘How do we help empower administrators and teachers to do their best?’”