As the nation has struggled with racial injustice and civil unrest in recent weeks, Larry Linthacum knew he could play some part in eliminating social injustices in his own community.
The Jefferson City School District superintendent said he realized there are opportunities for his staff and administration to better connect families and students with the school district, and a goal for the district and for himself is to create these opportunities through professional development.
"We want to be part of the solution as a school district and just connect with them going forward of how we want to work stronger together," he said.
His method of connecting with the district was to send a letter sharing his feelings in hopes of listening and touching base.
"I feel committed that we're going to meet with folks and connect with them and try to have empathy and listen more than speak," he said.
In a letter sent to all staff and families last week, Linthacum wrote: "Our community and countless others across the nation have been dramatically impacted by the senseless killing of African Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in recent months. We grieve these losses, and we are all searching for answers."
Linthacum wrote, "The Jefferson City School District is not immune to the systemic racism that has led to such events in cities and town like our own. The types of oppression and disparities that are being highlighted across the country have no place in our society or our community. While we have made efforts to address diversity and inclusion issues in our district in recent years, there is still so much more work to be done."
He said he thinks most people believe there are unintended, implicit biases in the district, and he wants to speak with more people of color, including parents, students, staff and community members, about these issues and their experiences to find out how the district can improve.
"That's something we'll look forward to as we meet with our students and our staff and our families of opportunities there to better connect with our students and families going forward," Linthacum said.
If someone is intentionally racist, Linthacum said, the district will address it accordingly and hold that person accountable.
"We all want a safe environment for all of our students," he said.
Linthacum is meeting with groups of about six or fewer people to better connect with them and listen to their experiences.
In 2017, people expressed concerns about diversity in JC Schools staff and curriculum at town hall meetings. At these meetings, many people didn't get a chance to be heard, Communications Director Ryan Burns said.
"We thought it would be more meaningful to be intentional and kind of have one-on-one, more personal conversations that give Larry an opportunity to hear directly from more people in an intimate setting where they're maybe not afraid to be completely honest," Burns said.
District leaders plan to use the information they learn from these conversations to determine goals and discuss them at larger listening sessions in the future.
Right now, they are focusing on further improving hiring practices, professional development, and curriculum and instruction and will bring up these issues for discussion with the JC Schools Equity Council, Linthacum said.
"It is critically important that we actively assess opportunities for the district to enhance our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts," Linthacum wrote in the letter. "The Jefferson City School District will remain committed to improving the learning environment for our students, and to eliminating social injustice within our schools."
About 15 years ago, prior to Linthacum's arrival, there was a diversity committee within the school district that stopped meeting for unknown reasons, Linthacum said. District leaders brought back the committee in 2017, changing the name to Equity Council. The council meets about once a quarter and consists of volunteers, including parents, staff, board members and other community members.
One comment that was shared with district leaders is that they should hire more people of color, Linthacum said.
In recent years, the main diversity and inclusion effort the district has made is through its hiring practices, he said. One of the Equity Council's top priorities is to hire more people of color and give everyone the same opportunities so the staff better reflects the student population.
In the past few years, the percentage of minority staff members grew from 4 percent to 9 percent due to the council's efforts, Linthacum said.
"We're not at all where we need to be, but we're excited about the progress, and we've got to continue that," he said.
People also expressed concern about a lack of diversity in school curriculum during the 2017 the town hall meetings.
"We want to make sure that it's not contributing toward any divide," Linthacum said. "We want it contributing to where we're stronger together and valuing all different backgrounds."
Linthacum said he plans to determine how the curriculum can be improved by asking families and staff about it.
"I don't have the answer on that, but that's something that will be a goal when we engage with our stakeholders to try to determine ways that we can improve that," he said.
Examples of improvements could be adding more black history curriculum and more books written by people of color.
There are some teachers who intentionally purchase materials and books written by people of color, Burns said, but she thinks district leaders will look at ways to "bring some of those practices in from a district approach and make sure that it's not just a handful of teachers in every building."
Linthacum said he feels good about the progress the district has made — but not great.
"We're not where we need to be, but we feel like we're headed in the right direction," he said. "It's not something we can change overnight, but we have to be intentional about it going forward — and I feel we have — but I know we have a long ways to go."
If you would like to schedule a time to meet with Linthacum, call the administrative office at 573-659-3000.
"I'd be more than happy to sit down and have a cup of coffee with any of our stakeholders in our community, and so I want folks to feel comfortable reaching out," Linthacum said.