Friday, September 21, 2018
Education

Campbell Park principal's email to staff: 'White students should be in same class'

ST. PETERSBURG — Principal Christine Hoffman emailed her staff at Campbell Park Elementary a detailed set of instructions on what classroom rosters should look like in the coming school year.

Among her requirements: students with a mix of reading levels, an equal number of boys and girls, no more than two students who frequently misbehave per class and this: "white students should be in the same class."

That email, sent Tuesday, was forwarded to the NAACP Florida State Conference. It soon wound up in the inbox of Maria Scruggs, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

"I'm not usually at a loss for words, but I can tell you when I saw that email for the first time, I thought it was a joke," Scruggs said on Friday.

Hoffman, who was promoted this year from assistant principal to principal of Campbell Park — a predominantly black school with a history of poor performance in south St. Petersburg — faces disciplinary action from the Pinellas County School District. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits schools from segregating students "on the basis of race, color, or national origin in making classroom assignments."

Of Campbell Park's 606 students, 49 are white. White students make up 10 percent or less of every grade level.

Hoffman's email did not explain why she wanted white students in the same class. She did not mention other racial groups at the school, either. Campbell Park has 20 Hispanic students, 18 multiracial students and three Asian students.

Hoffman wrote another email to her staff Thursday apologizing for her "poor judgment." On Friday, she sent another letter home to Campbell Park's families.

"As a white woman leading a predominantly black school," Hoffman wrote to parents, "I am approaching this as an opportunity to learn."

Before coming to Campbell Park in 2012, she worked as an assistant principal at Maximo Elementary, another predominantly black school in south St. Petersburg.

She added in her letter that, although she participated in training on diversity and implicit bias, "this recent incident makes it clear that I need to seek additional opportunities to apply racial sensitivity and cultural competence in my work."

She also sought to explain the controversial passage in her original email, writing: "The guidelines included a statement on assigning white students together, and I explained in the meeting that I was asking that there not be a class with only one white student. I was not asking that all white students in each grade be clustered, as that is not our practice in creating class lists. I understand how racially insensitive the guideline was."

School District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said Hoffman's supervisor, Patricia Wright, is developing a corrective action plan.

Wolf said it is not the district's practice to assign classes by race.

The district is in mediation with the plaintiffs of separate federal and state lawsuits, both alleging the district discriminates against black students.

The district also is under at least two investigations by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is looking into allegations that Pinellas disproportionately disciplines black students and doesn't give them equal access to teachers, curriculum and other resources.

Hoffman's original email "rings that it was a very comfortable thing for her to do," said Scruggs, the NAACP president.

"It appeared she was doing it for some kind of protective measure is what it came across," Scruggs said. "That's a bigger issue if that was the case."

Gloria Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Distinguished Professor in Urban Education and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, called Hoffman's email "baffling."

If the principal wanted to ensure white students were not isolated, "she made an assumption that students' racial identities were the only affiliations important to them," Ladson-Billings said.

"A better way of assigning students might include asking the students which of their friends would they like to be in their classroom next year or . . . a hypothetical question such as, 'If you could only invite one person from your class to a party at your home who, would you invite?' " she said. "Analysis of these responses will tell you a lot about who students admire and/or affiliate with."

Ladson-Billings added, "The principal might be surprised at how many cross-racial friendships have developed at her school."

Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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