It was left to Rod Dooley, a young black student enrolled in North Carolina schools still wrestling with integration, to learn how to navigate an education system not built for him.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, his childhood was split between integrated schools, where he was one of few black pupils, and his predominantly black neighborhood and church in Taylorsville, N.C.
“It’s almost like you are living in two different worlds,” Dooley said. “When you went to school, it was this whole different community that you had to learn to navigate — and you did.
“You had to learn that because you had to be careful that you didn’t step on anyone’s toes, that you didn’t cause any problems. You found yourself being stared at and being called names, the N-word even.”
Decades later, as the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s director of equity, his work is focused on addressing equity issues within Iowa’s second-largest school system.
He sees progress, he said, though obvious gaps remain as the district of 16,000 students tries to adequately educate each of them.
“We start with just the achievement of our students, and we can see the results of that are not equitable,” he said. “Various parts of our population do not achieve at the rates the majority do.”
Black students in Cedar Rapids schools are, on average, 2.7 grade levels behind their white peers, according to ProPublica’s Miseducation project. They are more than four times as likely to be suspended, and are less likely to be enrolled in AP classes.
These inequities exist in school districts across the country.
A trusted teacher can be the key to addressing some of those inequities, Dooley said, such as qualified black students not enrolling in advanced classes.
Diversifying the teacher workforce — which, in Iowa, is 98 percent white and predominantly women — can provide students with role models they can see themselves in, Dooley said. But culturally competent white teachers also can fill that role for students.
For a young Dooley, his seventh-grade math teacher, who was white, was the first person to see in him the aptitude that eventually would lead him to study math education at North Carolina State. A high school math teacher believed in him as well.
“These were ladies who saw raw talent or skills or aptitude in me,” he said of Robbie Horn and Ruth Rufty of Alexander County School District. “And they weren’t afraid to help pull it out of me.”
Dooley’s first teaching job was at Athens Drive High School in inner-city Raleigh, where he worked for a black principal. He estimates about 40 percent of the student body was black, and he thrived in an environment where the achievement gap between white and black students felt like it could be bridged.
After three years, he left only because he was hired as Alexander County School District’s first black administrator — as assistant principal of his own junior high, where the student body and staff still were majority white.
It was progress, he recalled, but it wasn’t without challenges.
“It took me back to my days when I walked those halls as a student and being called the N-word as I walked the halls. There were some students then, when I was assistant principal, who had that same experience,” he said. “I was now having to deal with it, and some of the white families were not happy with us calling this stuff out.”
After he suspended a white student for fighting, rumors spread that the boy had returned to West Alexander Junior High with a gun and intentions to fire it at him.
“We heard that kid had a weapon in the school and I was the target, and we found out that was true,” Dooley said. “So I said, I think I need to get out.”
The experience convinced Dooley to leave education for decades. He earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Tennessee and, in 1997, relocated to Cedar Rapids for a human resources position at Rockwell Collins (now Collins Aerospace).
In 2016, he joined the Cedar Rapids Community School District as interim executive director of talent management. Later that year, he accepted his current role.
In some ways, he said, he sees Cedar Rapids only now having the kinds of conversations about race that shaped his own experience as a student.
“Today — and this is too broad of a brush to use — but in some ways I think about Cedar Rapids as being behind,” he said. “Down south, you had to deal to with these issues much earlier on.”
The Cedar Rapids school district only in the last decade or so has become diverse in a comparable way to his own schools, Dooley said. And while most district staff want all students to be successful, genuine improvements for students of color remain a structural challenge.
“I’m not saying we’re going to create an easy system. We need to educate people,” Dooley said. “But we need to help.
“Just like for me when I was sitting in the seventh-grade, we need to have teachers who realize the gift that’s in you, the abilities in you, and who work really hard on not only pulling those out of you, but helping you recognize it and helping support you.
“Every student has that right.”
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• Title: Director of equity, Cedar Rapids Community School District; Pastor, New City Church
• Past titles: Vice president of Diversity and Integrated Talent Management, Rockwell Collins
• Age: 55
• Hometown: Taylorsville, N.C.
• Role models: His uncle and pastor Gaither Dooley; church youth director Bonnie Sue Boston, who first gave him the opportunity to be a leader; Athens Drive High School Principal James Farmer; cousin Everette Dooley; and his parents, Alfred and Geneva
• One piece of advice: “Follow your passion — don’t settle into doing something that does not drive or motivate you and learn to serve those you lead.”