From the Marlboro College Board of Trustees, to the greater Marlboro community, concerning the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders
Dear Marlboro Community:
The news of the sale of our beloved campus to Democracy Builders has engendered a great deal of controversy and considerable discussion among the Marlboro trustees.
Democracy Builders (DB) is an educational incubator, which intends to use the campus to create “Degrees of Freedom,” a hybrid late-high school, early-college experience for students who are low income and the first in their families to attend college. The Marlboro College Board was eager to sell the campus to an educational entity that would be innovative and attract and enhance diversity in Vermont. DB was recommended to the trustees by a Campus Working Group comprised of faculty, staff, representatives from the community, college alumni and members of the Board of Trustees. The working group had the opportunity to consider a number of proposals, and felt Democracy Builders provided the best opportunity to utilize the campus and at the same time prove beneficial to the community.
As an incubator, DB is responsible for the creation of Democracy Prep (DP), a network of urban charter schools aimed primarily at low-income children of color. After we signed a binding legal agreement to sell the campus to DB, we received a disturbing letter from a group called BlackNBrown at DP, comprised of anonymous alumni and former employees of DP. The group describes many instances of racist, abusive behavior at the schools and requested that we not sell the campus to DB. This information came to our attention well after the binding agreement was signed. We began to learn more about Democracy Prep’s educational model and hear concerns from many in the Marlboro community. A number of trustees are deeply uncomfortable with the “no excuses” charter school Democracy Prep represents, and believe it is in many ways antithetical to the educational pedagogy of Marlboro College.
Even though the purchase and sale agreement was in place, the events and issues elaborated in the BlackNBrown at DP petition were of great concern to the Board, so we undertook an inquiry to better understand the totality of the situation. This was a difficult endeavor because many of the contributing voices to BlackNBrown at DP are promised anonymity. However, we were able to speak directly with J. LeShaé, a spokesperson of BlackNBrown at DP, and listen to testimonies given during multiple Marlboro Town Hall meetings. Given the troubling nature of the complaints, we are doing everything in our power to encourage a positive and constructive learning environment for all students who come to Degrees of Freedom.
The same working group of trustees and Board Chair who spoke with BlackNBrown at DP also engaged in a discussion with Seth Andrew and three leaders of DB’s team: Chandell Stone, Jamie McCoy and Marcellina Blow-Cummings, all of whom are black women with direct experience with DP as a parent, a student, and as a member of the faculty. Seth also provided extensive reports and documentation of DP’s performance over the years.
To better understand this material we used a volunteer consultant with expertise in educational evaluation, who helped us discern ratings and outcomes. This included reviewing a number of reports written by independent, highly regarded evaluators, including people at Mathematica and Harvard, on the educational outcomes of DP students and impacts on other issues such as voting rates. We also reviewed survey results conducted annually by the NYC Department of Education with students, teachers and parents, which included questions related to satisfaction with the school environment. The reports and surveys told a largely positive story, and DP schools annually conduct lotteries because many more families apply than the schools can accommodate.
We have also recently learned that Seth Andrew will not be solely in charge of the Degrees of Freedom program; the leadership team will include the three women with whom we met. They will hire a President.
We are aware that many people in the Town of Marlboro and the greater Marlboro community have concerns not only about the accusations from BlackNBrown at DP and DP’s pedagogical practices, but also about how Degrees of Freedom will relate to the local community. For as long as Marlboro College operated on Potash Hill, there existed a symbiotic relationship with the local community, including access to resources like the extensive network of trails, lectures, the arts, WIFI, the library, and more. One key goal of the Campus Working Group was to identify a buyer that would provide “significant benefit to the Marlboro community.” This includes not only jobs, tax revenue and the like, but also continuance of the benefits of being a good neighbor. We appreciate DB’s commitment to keeping the campus accessible for use by the community, especially the trails and ecological preserve.
The DB team is now on campus, working on program design. We hope that they will be successful in creating a program on Potash Hill that treats all students, staff and faculty with dignity and respect in keeping with antiracist principles and practices.
We have arranged for a meeting between representatives of Democracy Builders’ team and residents of Marlboro, as well as present and past College personnel and alumni, to start an ongoing working relationship. We believe this will provide opportunity for fruitful dialogue about engaging in antiracist work as a community, use of the campus by its neighbors, and what is needed to produce a successful program on Potash Hill that will serve future first generation college students. We hope that the Democracy Builders’ team and the residents of Marlboro and Brattleboro will come to those conversations with an open mind and a willingness to engage in authentic and respectful dialogue with the intention of finding a way to work together so that it will be beneficial to everyone, including the future students of Degrees of Freedom.
We acknowledge and regret the anguish that the campus sale to Democracy Builders has caused to so many of Marlboro’s community, including many of our trustees. Our campus is loved not only for its quiet beauty but because for generations it has been a place where students’ learning and growth have been nurtured through their active contribution to the academic and campus life of the College, based on a fundamental belief that learning is best fostered through unleashing the inherent curiosity that lives within each of us. While we fully expect that a school focused on first generation college students will be different, we hope that Potash Hill will remain a place of servant leadership where all community members–students, faculty, staff, and neighbors–respect and honor each others’ full humanity and worth.
The Marlboro College Trustees