Superintendent Harrison Details Difficult Decision to Leave ER9 Schools

When Dr. Rydell Harrison steps down as Easton Redding and Region 9 superintendent on Sept. 23, he will leave with the knowledge that the work he helped put in place to improve education for all students will go on.

At 45, Dr. Harrison has a long career ahead of him and a rewarding new job lined up. But this was not what he had in mind when he accepted the position to lead the ER9 schools last summer. Although multiple factors converged to create a perfect storm of opposition to diversity education, the communities of Easton and Redding had welcomed and supported him and his work.

The 21 members of the Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards of education unanimously selected Dr. Harrison last August out of a pool of 30 qualified candidates. Dr. Thomas McMorran, the previous superintendent, had announced his pending retirement at the end of the 2020 school year.

In appointing Dr. Harrison, the board chairs praised his vision, warmth and commitment to building relationships with teachers, students, parents, and the community. “He has experience in all the areas our districts are facing: re-opening planning, distance learning, diversity/equity/inclusion, special education insourcing, declining enrollment, and budgeting,” Region 9 board Chair Todd Johnston said. 

“What they signaled to me during the interviewing and onboarding was that ‘we really want you to look at ways to mitigate some of our structural challenges and to utilize your expertise and background with diversity, equity, and inclusion,’” Dr. Harrision said. “Those were the things I was really excited about. I’m very proud of the steps we took this year that will have a lasting impact.”

He took the helm as ER9 superintendent on Aug. 27, 2020. The past school year was grueling for educators everywhere because of Covid. But Dr. Harrison faced unique barriers as an African American superintendent in a predominantly white school district charged with carrying out a diversity plan he didn’t initiate. It began during the summer before he was hired. 

ER9 Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison.–Rick Falco Photo

Three Boards

Dr. Harrison visited the schools, met administrators and jumped right into contract negotiations as soon as he arrived last August. Within the first month and a half as superintendent, he had negotiated all three teacher contracts.

“That was the first time I thought, ‘whoa, this is challenging,’” he said. “It was an intense process and signals that things in a typical district that you do once, here you do them three times. Contract negotiations is a really good example because it’s the same thing three times, but from very different approaches. “I came in the middle of a pandemic. I knew that our time was going to be heavily focused on student safety and staff safety. I’ve often joked that I’m a doctor, but not that kind.”

He knew the job was going to be demanding for those reasons. At the same time, he was enthusiastic about working with veteran leaders and dedicated teachers, and thinking about ways to connect with students and families in the middle of the pandemic, where social interactions looked really different. He wanted to support them in the most meaningful way possible. 

“Throughout my career, I have worked hard to approach my work as a student-centered educator first and an administrator second,” he said. The pandemic prevented him from getting out and about and meeting people in person as he would have done  in a typical year. That said, the majority of people he met warmly welcomed him. They recognized him as “the superintendent with a signature bowtie,” he said. 

Dr. Harrision praised the Easton, Redding and Region 9 school board members. “They are 21 of the most hard-working people I have ever met and are committed to doing what’s right, even though what’s right isn’t always what’s easy. It’s a winning combination that will be right for the new round of leadership.”

He cited the establishment of the DEI Task Force with representative staff from each of the schools, parents and students as work that will continue after he has gone. The task force laid out a framework that focuses on reviewing the assets and challenges of the three districts with respect to DEI, developing a plan of action to guide the work, and implementing the plan.  “The role of the task force as advisory to the administration lays out a nice accountability structure,” he said. “There is clear support and oversight to make sure the work is moving forward.”

The boards voted June 14 to extend his contract through June 30, 2024 with a salary of $230,800 in year one. However, Dr. Harrison said he did not sign it and carefully considered the timing before he submitted his 90-day notice. Had he not waited until his annual contract renewal was signed, he was concerned that his successor might encounter resistance to future diversity initiatives he had championed. “I thought it was important for the boards to unanimously vote to extend my contract for another year,“ he said. “I wasn’t pushed out by the boards.”

He also waited until after graduation and the moving up ceremonies at the lower schools to announce his resignation to the public. “It was hard enough to leave,” he said. “Doing it at a time that would have taken attention away from the graduates wasn’t an option.”

Opposition to DEI

As Redding school board member Heather Whaley confirmed at a Tri-Board meeting about a recently released DEI survey in June, the schools — not Dr. Harrison — started the diversity initiative before he was hired. “It was not about me showing up with my own agenda,” he said. “I was taking my cues from the Board of Education.” His goal was to build on what was already underway.

In his March article The Why of DEI, Dr. Harrison outlined the district’s enduring goals and aspirations surrounding DEI. “Recognizing and celebrating the individual characteristics of all students (diversity), providing all students with the support they need to reach their full potential (equity) and creating space for the voices of all stakeholders to be included regardless of their background (inclusion) are hallmarks of a quality education program,” he wrote. 

Dr. Harrison has been doing DEI work for many years, in districts of all sizes, demographics and socioeconomic levels. He has found that the best way to gain community support is through finding common ground. During his tenure in Easton and Redding, the focus of the discussion shifted from finding common ground to opinions about Dr. Harrison and his beliefs and motives, he said. “And that was really disheartening. Outside of a snow day video, I have no interest in being the center of attention. I want our students to be the center of attention.”

Backlash to DEI was growing nationwide, amplified by a coordinated conservative strategy targeting critical race theory, a college and law school subject that is not taught in the ER9 public schools. Critical conservative theories are based on the foundational assumption that systemic racism, sexism and other forms of institutionalized marginalization do not exist in the United States, and that acknowledging these and other social inequities in the classroom is unnecessary.

Dr. Harrison feels that he was unfairly caught up in the national critical race debate. “It is disappointing, it is draining, and it is very distracting to the meaningful work that has to be done for our students and their well being,” he said.

Overtones of racism “absolutely” played a role in his decision to leave, he said. Dr. Harrison said he was accused by a small group of critics of trying to “indoctrinate” the students. Several conservative political groups sent four mailers to every household in Easton. Two of them were also sent to Redding, criticizing DEI initiatives in the schools. One of the mailers directly targeted Dr. Harrison, including his personal Facebook post about the Capitol attack. 

“I wasn’t personally offended by the one targeted at me right away,” Dr. Harrison said. But he worried that students of color would see the mailer and feel rejected by the community and “that was what hurt my heart,” he said. “It was a long time before I thought about how it hurt me. I think that the characterization of me in the mailer was tough, and that was hard to deal with. That wasn’t a critique of DEI or what we should be focusing on; that was the person.”

Especially upsetting was the characterization of him as threatening, aggressive and dangerous, which contradicted the words of community members in the countless emails of support they sent to Dr. Harrison in response to the mailer. They described him as “good,” “kind” and “caring,” which is how he wants to be remembered after he leaves.

He thinks some of the push back for the DEI work might have been due to its focus on equity, which he says is wrongly understood by some to be a zero-sum proposition. “It’s not just about giving every kid the same, it’s really about meeting their unique needs,” he said.

He used special education to illustrate the point. Special education addresses the unique academic, mobility, and accessibility needs of students with disabilities. “We don’t say to every student, ‘just take the stairs.’  We provide ramps and other devices to help the students to get around and be successful. We’ve been doing it for decades because we know it’s the right thing to do.”

He sent a message to ER9 families in response to the violent protests in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and asked the teachers to help students navigate the turbulent events. “These events are a reminder that our democracy is fragile… Last night, I asked our teachers to help students navigate the events in responsible, developmentally appropriate ways as our young people process and unpack what’s happening around them.”

His efforts on the part of all students were overshadowed by a post he wrote in the heat of the moment to his personal Facebook friends. He condemned the confederate-flag-carrying mob that entered the U.S. Capitol, and the post was widely circulated among conservative groups outside his network of friends. Some Easton and Redding community members let him know they felt targeted and criticized. Others said they appreciated his courage in calling out racism and offered their support. 

“Trump is not the only person who should take responsibility for today’s events,” he wrote in his post. “Please search your soul and ask if your words, your silence, your actions or your inaction helped to pave the way for confederate flags to be waved in our nation’s Capitol.” 

What he most regretted about the post was not its content, but the fact that it deflected attention away from what matters most to him. “Every moment that we’re talking about Rydell the person we’re not talking about the students,” he said.

He made a call for decent discourse. “As adults we have to be good people because our children are watching,” he said. “They’re watching me, too. I want to make sure I’m not modeling ways that are polarizing people. Those aren’t things I want to be a part of.

“In periods in my adult life of doing social justice or mission work with my church, I’ve looked for ways that we can find decency and goodness. These are not political approaches. I think that regardless of anyone’s political affiliation that decency is what we can expect and should expect in any ways we engage.”

CRT Debate

Easton and Redding schools were “absolutely” caught up in the critical race theory debate, according to Dr. Harrison. “One thing that’s been a theme for me is we’re a community together. I had some incredible discussions with people in my personal life and in the community. Some of the discussions were with people who disagreed with me and ended up saying, ‘thank you.'”

Investing and engaging with people is where he thinks real growth can happen. The national conservative critical theory has become a machine. It obliterates what’s at the core of DEI work, which is bringing all ways of thinking together and valuing that, he said.

There’s a lot of educational research that says school districts that have an intentional focus on equity and structures in place to benefit students who might be marginalized also benefit all students, he said. “That’s the missing piece in the national debate around CRT and weaponizing it.”

He doesn’t think the opposition represents the entirety of the Easton and Redding communities. Rather, he believes there is broad support for the work he has been a part of. He expressed his appreciation for the outpouring of support he received at school board meetings and in personal messages. After the mailer targeting him was delivered to their mailboxes, he received countless emails from people who were appalled by it, he said.

Moving Forward

Deciding to leave was a heart-wrenching decision, he said. “I’m a husband and father first. There were days I would come home and say to my wife, ‘I’m going to stay; other days I would come home and say ‘I’m going to go.’”

In the end, Dr. Harrision decided that to stay was untenable. When he leaves ER9, he will be working with the Connecticut Center for School Change, a nonprofit that does collaboration and provides support for school improvement, from strategic planning to leadership development to support for districts’ efforts toward DEI. It will be the first time he has worked outside the K-12 structure in a long time.

He said the Connecticut Center realized it is tough to close out one chapter and start the next. The flexibility the center afforded him allowed him to take his time and finish the school year. “It is a fantastic opportunity for me that will allow me to apply the lessons learned throughout my career across four different states,” he said. 

“Do we want to teach white students that they’re the oppressors, no,” he said. “Do we want white students to feel guilty? No, in fact from our work in social and emotional health we know that having students walking around laden with guilt doesn’t help them learn.

“Do we want all students to be included? Yes. Celebrating students’ unique identities helps them to see themselves in our resources and books and doesn’t take away anything. If we’re really focused on DEI in a meaningful way, everyone really does win.”

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