This week, we feature our latest collaboration with the Delaware State News. Building Bridges offers conversations with Delawareans working in the community on social justice and furthering racial equality.
This conversation is with Red Clay School District Superintendent Dorrell Green.
Red Clay has ramped up its work around equity in recent years, hiring the state’s first district equity officer and offering trainings by the ACLU on fair school discipline practices. And this summer its board considered, but ultimately tossed out, the idea of removing School Resource Officers from its buildings.
In this Building Bridges’ conversation, Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talks with Green about his journey in the field of education, and the role K-12 schools play in racial justice.
Dorrell Green started to picture himself as an educator when he was in high school. It was all because of one teacher—Mrs. Caldwell.
“She was an advocate and someone who stood up for me and demonstrated just a love, or a care and concern, for my wellbeing as a sophomore in high school, in a way that no other educator had to that point,” he said.
Mrs. Caldwell told Green there was something about him that would make him a good fit for a career in education. The seed she had planted solidified as an option for Green while he was applying to colleges and talking with athletic programs. He ended up with a scholarship to the University of Delaware, where he became a star football player while pursuing a concentration in elementary education and teaching.
“Knowing that there was a void of Black male educators—even at that time, which is something that's still present day—I chose education as a career path,” said Green. “[I] realized that it was part of my destiny, I guess, to get into education.”
Green is now superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the largest school district in Delaware. He started out teaching sixth grade in the Christina School District, served as principal of Bayard and Harlan Elementary schools, and later spent time at the Delaware Department of Education as Director Of Innovation and Improvement before being selected to lead Red Clay.
Green says Black students and other students of color were underrepresented at the University of Delaware when he attended.
“I think my experience was one that was unique in that I moved through a lot of spaces being an athlete, but I was also always conscious of my blackness,” he said. “I found myself to be one of a few within my areas of study … My classmates were predominantly white female. So that was always a conscious way that you had to move and go about the campus.”
Green notes this is a dynamic that still plays out in society.
“You know, what does it mean to be Black in America— primarily a Black male?” he said. “Even to this day, being probably the only African American, Black superintendent in Delaware, I find myself being the only one represented in a room often.”
The nationwide protest movement, sparked by the police killings of several unarmed Black people, has shone a spotlight on racial inequity throughout every aspect of American life.
The Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which Green used to lead, was recently renamed the Office of Equity and Innovation, with state officials pledging an increased focus on educational equity. Protesters in Wilmington and throughout the state have demanded change beyond just policing reform— raising issues of healthcare, jobs and education. Students have taken to social media to share stories of bias and racism in Delaware schools, and have delivered demands to district administrations.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit claiming inequities in Delaware’s education funding system harm disadvantaged students has worked its way through the state’s Chancery Court for two years. A judge recently ruled the counties’ property tax assessment systems unconstitutional, but the part of the suit challenging the way the state distributes education funding is still pending.
Green says this moment “feels different.”
“But I can't speak to a generation ago, because I didn't live it,” he said. “Maybe they did feel the same. Maybe they see this as progress, and maybe they don't.”
Green says Red Clay, where one in four students receive special education or 504 combinations and 16 percent of students are English Language Learners, has “leaned into” the work of increasing equity
“We have diversity champions,” he said. “We've partnered with groups such as the ACLU this past year to really look at disproportionality in school discipline. … We know some families are born into systems that put them at a disadvantage from birth.”
Green points to Red Clay’s Office of Equity, recently expanded as the Office of Equity and Strategic Partnerships.
“It goes beyond what a school or educational system can do,” he said. “It takes a collective impact, framework and effort as we look at our nonprofit partners, our philanthropic community, for profit organizations and businesses— and then our families and representative communities as a whole— to come together to share in a space of empathy.”
He says Red Clay also aims to elevate the voices of students.
“Emotions have been pricked by the blatant visual of the unfortunate eight minutes and 46 seconds that we all continue to relive,” he said. “I mean, it's right here—young people who are energized and motivated. … What better time now then to actually lean into it and engage our young people as they continue to advocate and seek for better today—and not simply waiting for, you know, tomorrow.”
But Green notes that there are multiple perspectives on the issue, and that in his role he must balance them.
“How do we listen to those perspectives and kind of create a path so that we do see substantive change and not just rhetoric?” he asked. “And it's just not a statement that we're putting out to say that we believe, but how do we actually turn this into action, so that our students and our families and our community as a whole transition beyond the hurt that many within our community are feeling?”
Green says one of the biggest challenges for educators is bringing together students from various zip codes and socio-economic backgrounds.
“So many of our families come from so many different perspectives and viewpoints and life experiences,” he said. “We have children come into our schools where we have to try to engineer community, knowing that when that school day ends, they go back to a world that could be polar opposites. Unless there's a shared experience, whether that would be through the arts, athletics, classroom-based instruction— how much interaction beyond the school experience does our community generally have?”
Green sees understanding of history as important to bridging some of those divides. He remembers realizing as a fourth grade teacher how little people know about Delaware and U.S. history. He lists implementing a more accurate and complete history curriculum as one of his priorities for change.
“An educational institution and the system really teaching not just Black history, but true American history,” he said. “Some of that is painful, especially as we remove monuments and understand what many of those monuments and statues and things, what they signify what they represent. But it's also a means of educating all of us, as a society, on the inherent system and structures that our country and our systems are built on. So that we can as best we can come from an equal understanding as to why there is a need for change.”
Green says the education system must be attuned to the needs of various students, then proactively put resources and supports in place so that schools can actually live out their mission statements.
“This is difficult work,” he said. “It's uncomfortable work. But it's necessary work nonetheless, if we really truly believe that every child can learn, should learn and more importantly, we're here to teach them and help them learn.”
About This series
Building Bridges is a collaboration between Delaware Public Media and the Delaware State News. The series that profiles Delawareans who are working to build bridges in the community by advocating for social justice, furthering racial equality, working toward reform policies and educating the public on the Black Lives Matter movement and other critical issues.
More Building Bridges conversations are available at the Delaware State News website.