BOE D2: Former principal/grandpa runs for his grandkids
Raleigh Turnage Jr. has watched with alarm as racism, bigotry and violence have escalated in Anne Arundel public schools, even as he sent two African-American grandchildren through the education system. Hate-bias incidents in county schools have spiked since 2018. Since then, nooses were hung at middle schools, racist insults were flung on the field at an Arundel High football game, and a group of Northeast students published a video using a racial epithet. Turnage, 71, saw all this from the sidelines. It quickly overwhelmed him, because he knew his grandchildren were in the schools. ”It’s been very disturbing for me as it’s increased over the last couple of years,” he said, and he’s been powerless to do anything about it. So Turnage launched a campaign to run for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in District 2 (Severn, Glen Burnie, Gambrills), in an election where voters will, for the first time, directly elect a candidate. As an experienced former teacher and principal in Baltimore City public schools, and a former employee of the Maryland State Department of Education, Turnage is banking on his ability to create an inclusive atmosphere for all students. The candidate wants to make structural changes in the system and address the achievement gap, where black students increasingly seem further and further behind in their education than white students. “It’s something that has been on my mind for quite some time. These other students who are still struggling in schools who need additional support,” he explained. “That’s why I decided to run.” Turnage didn’t always think this way. He grew up in Baltimore, and for a time he lived on Cherry Hill. “I struggled like other youth and had to decide whether to join a gang or not,” he said. Instead, Turnage joined the Boy Scouts of America, and his entire world changed. “After being exposed to all kids of races and nationalities, I realized I could learn and do the same thing as any other kid. My attitude about life changed.” Turnage went on to graduate from the University of Baltimore in 1972, and worked every job from sales to management afterward. But he found his way back to education in the late ‘80s. He wanted to help children become aware of their world just as the Boy Scouts lifted him out of Cherry Hills’ narrow world view. “Growing up in a community like that, your exposure outside the community is very limited,” he said. “Everything is as close to us as a computer, but first-hand experience is the best teacher.” As a candidate, Turnage has promised to address the brewing racism in county public schools by tackling the issue at its heart: exposing children to each other and their own, unique cultures, and then creating a cohesive community. His task won’t be easy. A Maryland Department of Police report in 2018 found that Anne Arundel County had the most incidents of hate-bias in the state, with 78 reported that year. Still, Turnage believes providing additional support to elevate all students to success could reduce hate and bias. This includes tackling the achievement gap, something Turnage said has only gotten worse since he retired. County Executive Steuart Pittman formed The Joint Initiative to Eliminate the Achievement Gap in 2019, finding efforts so far have failed. “Closing the achievement gap, particularly between white and African-American students, is a longstanding goal that we have failed to achieve,” he said at the time. Turnage said the issue is not a quick fix, but poor nutrition and parental involvement are missing components. He said talking directly to uninvolved parents and getting them engaged and ready to challenge their students is vital, but so is increasing affordable dietary options for children. “There are many ways to close that gap, and you have to be mindful of it all,” he explained. Additionally, getting teachers engaged in working with students of all levels is important. “Some teachers are retired on the job and don’t want to work anymore. How does that bode for the student?” Turnage said he’s ready to take on these wider issues, but first there needs to be structural changes. “There’s a big difference in attitude that needs to take place in these schools,” he said.