For Indy high school teacher, racial disparities spurred inquiry, prosecution

How has your life changed since we’ve been writing about charter schools? My one student is pushing me to focus on improving my resume for the future. My alma mater added my curriculum to its warehouse. I’m getting tons of messages on my personal Facebook page. Is your life OK?

Wandering around the spacious office hallway in his office at Colts Ridge High School in Indianapolis, principal Cecil Powell snatches up a framed photo of a young black man who is seen sitting straight with his arms folded in a school classroom.

A Department of Education investigator once flagged Powell’s school for racial disparities in its CRT pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, in which he was a high-level teacher.

In the note of complaint, the investigator wrote that CRT teaching at the school was “rife with racial disparities, and therefore it is difficult to accept” such high concentrations of minority students.

The audit was conducted in 2009, before the Obama administration started promoting targeted recruiting of teachers of color by differentiating federal student aid.

Now, Powell, who is white, is effectively out of the classroom. He was placed on paid administrative leave, which is in accordance with Indiana law.

As the head of the school, his only recourse is to appeal to the State Board of Education to overturn the decision.

Colts Ridge, a “K-8” charter school, is among the most racially diverse of the charter network of Cradle to Career schools, which rely on parents to choose the schools they want for their children. The students come from low-income families and many speak English as a second language. This racially diverse mix has largely insulated the school from criticisms that some other Cradle to Career schools face.

In December 2009, Powell confronted his superiors in admissions about the disparities.

“I was just in tears,” Powell told The Washington Post. “I would be coaching kids in different situations and I felt like, ‘Why can’t these kids look at me like I look at them?’ ”

The auditor, who is not publicly identified, issued a report called “Willful Omissions and Discrimination in the Children’s Central Pre-Kindergarten Through Kindergarten Preschool Program.”

The report also noted that Powell, principal at the time, minimized the problem when it was reported to him. The audit reported that Powell’s response “defines ‘willful’ as simply stating the issue is ‘not my business.’”

The auditor also said Powell “has a serious problem with the common racial stereotypes in regard to his ability as a teacher.”

The auditor included questions from a parent that identified Powell’s “inability as a teacher” as one of the reasons why the mother of a 3-year-old student didn’t choose to enroll the child at Colts Ridge.

The previous year, Powell faced the administrator of the school, Linda Jacobson, for whom he still works today, according to interviews with The Post and the Indiana Office of Public Schools.

After complaints were made about the teaching of racial stereotypes, Powell replaced most students in the preschool classes with children of single mothers, who typically don’t speak English, reported the Morning Journal.

Jacobson defended the decisions as “having no racial component at all,” adding, “We had to change the demographics.”

Her statement to the Indiana Office of Public Schools suggests that Powell, himself, did not challenge the admissions decision despite its racial implications.

The Marion County Police are conducting a criminal investigation into whether Powell violated an Indiana law that requires educators who touch student records to undergo authorization to review them. The investigation began after The Post requested that Indiana Department of Education officials turn over copies of the email.

The state denied the freedom of information request, citing student confidentiality. A spokesperson for Indiana Department of Education said the school violated Indiana laws with the email because the emails reveal confidential information about students.

According to those in the local community, Powell is an unassuming teacher who has “been at the school for quite a while.” “If he’s the problem, he knows about it,” one parent who supports Powell said.

Colts Ridge offers its students six grades in addition to the K-8 alternative schooling. Powell currently is teaching an advanced class in which students are supposed to learn not only through a teacher’s instruction but from every level of education, including that of tech-forward high schoolers.

“All the kids that work with him love him,” said the parent, referring to the teacher. “Cecil’s the best principal I’ve ever seen.”

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