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Education

'I’m feeling really hopeful': Ex-principal Whitfield speaks out after losing his job in Colleyville

James Whitfield, a Black man in a blue suit, speaks at a podium in a packed school board meeting room. He gestures with a hand and looks pointedly at the school board members.
Miranda Suarez
/
KERA
James Whitfield speaks at a school board meeting about his employment on Sept. 20, 2021. In November, Whitfield and the district reached a settlement agreeing to part ways.

While the district maintains that his separation from the district is tied to job performance, many see his case as a warning about what can happen to educators during the current backlash over teaching about race in schools.

James Whitfield is out as principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, ending an employment dispute that gained national attention in the fight over critical race theory.

Whitfield, who is Black, was placed on leave this summer after complaints about the way he talks about race and racism — specifically, his calls for district families to resist racism.

The school board settled with Whitfield during a public meeting on Monday night. The initial proposal was to fire Whitfield, though the district describes it as a "non-renewal of a contract." Instead, Whitfield will remain on leave with full pay until August 2023. His payments would end if he gets a job in another Texas public school district, according to his settlement agreement.

Superintendent Robin Ryan read a joint statement, saying that both sides believe that they're right and the conflict needs to end.

"The time, expense and disruption for both Dr. Whitfield and the district would continue for some time, and would further harm the education of district students," Ryan said.

Whitfield looks to the future

In an interview Tuesday, Whitfield said he can’t talk about the specifics of the settlement. However, he did address some of the criticism against him, including the accusation that he brought division and unwanted attention to the district.

Whitfield said he spoke to the press because he saw educators around the country facing backlash for teaching about race, and he wanted to say something about it.

“I know how lonely that can feel, and so I wanted to be vulnerable and share my story,” he said.

For many, Whitfield’s case has become a warning of what can happen to educators, as the fight over teaching about race in schools continues.

Grapevine-Colleyville ISD has insisted the action taken against Whitfield isn't about his approach to teaching race, but his job performance. The district also accused him of insubordination.

The controversy started at a July school board meeting, where former school board candidate Stetson Clark called on the district to fire Whitfield.

Clark took issue with a message Whitfield sent to students and parents after the murder of George Floyd, calling on district families to resist racism. Clark said the message promoted “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism” and encouraged people “to destroy our businesses, our school district, our city, even our state.”

Clark also accused Whitfield of promoting critical race theory, a decades-old intellectual movement born out of law schools. CRT teaches that racism is embedded in systems and structures in the U.S., rather than just being the product of individual prejudice. The idea has become a point of contention in Texas and other Republican-led states, even though educators say it’s not taught in the state’s public schools.

Clark took the podium again at Monday’s meeting. When he asked, “How did we get here?” the crowd interrupted him with laughter.

“We got here through critical race theory, social-emotional learning and equity, whatever you want to label it,” Clark said, after the board silenced the audience. “It is my sincere hope that this board will continue to remove this divisive ideology from our district.”

Whitfield said opposition to critical race theory is just code for opposing diversity and equity in schools. He pointed to the argument that white children should be shielded from learning about issues that will make them “feel like they’re oppressors.”

“As they’re saying that, they’re directly minimizing the experience of marginalized communities, that have to exist within these greater communities that feel that every single day,” he said.

Whitfield doesn’t yet know what he’ll do next, but despite the past few months, he said he feels hopeful. He saw his students stand up and support him with walkouts and speeches before the school board.

Even though those students didn’t get the result they wanted, progress doesn’t always come quickly, Whitfield said. He wants them to continue pushing for what they think is right.

“Realize that there is power in your voice and continue to fight when you see things that don’t align with your values and your purpose,” he said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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