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How two Black parents in Plano took action after feeling ignored in the critical race theory fight

Often missing in the ongoing culture wars in Texas schools are the voices of Black parents who want children to learn America’s honest history.

Jenelle Berry-Cook and husband Michael Cook
Dallas residents Jenelle Berry-Cook and husband Michael Cook send their children to Plano ISD schools. The district, like many across the country, has witnessed the controversy over critical race theory. The uproar launched Jenelle and Michael on a path toward advocacy in their school system. / Photo Credit: (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

By Talia Richman

Jenelle Berry-Cook sat silently near the back of the room, hyperaware that she was one of only a few Black people in a crowded church assembly space. Up in front was a white Plano school board member, leading a group of parents through a training session on how to spot and fight critical race theory.

For more than an hour on that July night, trustee Cody Weaver lectured on the subject that has thrust public schools into the center of a culture war. He offered tips for challenging lessons and instructed parents to look for keywords in their children’s schoolwork. “Equity” and “narrative,” he told them, should pique their interest.

“They make the word whatever they want it to be,” Weaver said.

Berry-Cook had to push back.

“Who is ‘they?’” she shouted toward the stage.

Immediately, the crowd turned on her.

“We’re not here to listen to you,” a man a few rows ahead yelled. “Shut the f— up.”

Berry-Cook stayed silent the rest of the meeting. But what she and her husband, Michael Cook, experienced that night launched them on an ongoing journey to push for more representation in their children’s schools.

In the nationwide uproar over critical race theory, the concerns of white conservatives have often been at the forefront, helping to influence a spate of restrictive legislation on this issue across the country, including in Texas.

Missing from many of the conversations are the voices of Black parents such as Cook and Berry-Cook who want children to learn about America’s honest history and understand how it lingers, influencing where people buy homes, which schools get resources and who makes laws.

Academics who study critical race theory argue the current controversy misinterprets what it is: A decades-old framework that probes the way policies uphold systemic racism. Conservative politicians and pundits now deploy it as a catchall to decry schools’ various diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, often saying it makes white children feel bad.

Berry-Cook interprets this anger as backlash against increasing awareness of racial injustices following the murder of George Floyd and recent moves by school leaders to confront longstanding inequities.

Suburban schools, which are quickly diversifying, have become the front lines in the fight. Plano mostly serves the families of southwestern Collin County, an area more conservative than nearby Dallas. In the 50,000-student district, 31% of students are white, 27% are Hispanic, 24% are Asian and 13% are African American.

Last spring, school board candidates running on anti-critical race theory platforms swept into power in another North Texas district that has since dismantled its diversity council and rejected a cultural competency plan.

During the summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law aimed at banning critical race theory in schools, ignoring educators who warned it could have a chilling effect on the way they talk about America’s past and present.

Plano ISD’s own meetings brought out speakers condemning the concept. During a heated May board meeting — in which several people linked CRT to an elective course that helps students develop study skills — a trustee spoke out.

“How we got from renewing a contract on AVID to critical race theory — dozens and dozens of emails about critical race theory … is beyond me,” now-board president David Stolle said. “I don’t understand it.”

Critical race theory is not taught in Plano schools, Stolle has insisted.

So when Cook learned from a post on a Black Parents of Plano ISD Facebook page that Weaver would be speaking at an event billed as a way to train people to identify and fight critical race theory, he decided he had to be there.

When Cook and his wife arrived, they first noticed the white men walking around in what appeared to be bulletproof vests. Berry-Cook said it didn’t feel like they were expected as one of only a handful of Black people in the audience of more than 100 people.

“In the skin I’m in,” she thought, “should I be here?”

By the time the man cursed at her, it was like she’d received confirmation: This conversation — a snapshot in the vicious national debate over how race and racism is discussed in schools — was “never supposed to have my input.”

“This can’t happen this way,” she decided.

Sparking change

As the couple drove the 20 miles home after that summer meeting, they thought of their first-grade daughter and their 5-year-old twins.

Together, they came to the conclusion: If we’re going to be here, we have to do more.

They moved to Texas for Cook’s job in 2018 after spending the early years of their marriage in New York. They figured their new community would be more conservative, but they didn’t really think about how the politics of the state might influence their kids’ education.

Instead, they focused on all the things that made North Texas an attractive place to raise a family.

They bought a house with a big yard in the southern part of the district. They signed the children up for soccer, swimming and classes at the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, where their two girls would wear ballet shoes that matched their skin tone.

The Cook family
The Cook family (from left): Miles Cook, 5; Michael Cook, 41; Jenelle Berry-Cook, 39; Sloane Cook, 7; and Stokely Cook, 5. / Photo Credit: Ben Torres / Special Contributor

And they searched for a school that would be a good fit, including for their oldest daughter, who has special needs. They grappled with the kind of learning environment they wanted for their energetic son, worried he might be singled out for disproportionate discipline, as studies repeatedly show that many Black boys are.

They considered both private school and their zoned school, which is predominantly white and Asian. They ultimately choose Huffman Elementary, which is about 70% Black and Hispanic. It’s a Title I campus — more than half of children come from poor families — and is an International Baccalaureate World School.

“They’re accepting of cultures and celebrate cultures,” Berry-Cook said.

After the summer meeting, Berry-Cook posted on Collin County social media forums about education. Huffman’s PTA president noticed and broached the idea of Berry-Cook joining the group as its first diversity and inclusion officer.

Berry-Cook was conflicted. She didn’t want to be tasked just with planning “cutesy” events or have everything to do with “culture” funnel through her. Plus, she and Cook had recently founded a real estate firm and were busy running their own company.

Ultimately, she decided to make a difference by molding the position into the advocacy role she’d been searching for since that summer meeting.

“I think we have yet to come together in the same, one-voice way that the opposite side of this all has,” she said of those who share her beliefs.

She assembled some goals: Push for greater diversity within the staff at her kids’ school. Increase parent participation by reaching out to families from all backgrounds.

Berry-Cook spent a long time thinking about how the PTA should approach Black History Month. When she was growing up, she recalled, the way her school celebrated made her feel like “we were the chocolate chips on top of the mountain of vanilla ice cream.”

It was as if Black people’s history was an add-on rather than something inextricably swirled into the country’s story.

What if, she thought, the Huffman PTA’s monthlong celebration of Black Excellence looked through the lens of African Americans’ mark on the nation’s cuisine? Students could learn about Black food innovators — like the inventor of the ice cream scoop — and families could be encouraged to support Black-owned restaurants.

“Oftentimes, when it comes to celebrations, we kind of focus and, rightfully, on Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” PTA President Cassie Clair said. But in the DEI role, Clair watched Berry-Cook emphasize “highlighting people that are current, people that our families haven’t heard about but should.”

On the first Sunday in February, Berry-Cook recorded a video of her kids sampling cookies from a bakery the PTA spotlighted. “Do we remember why we’re trying out this restaurant?” Berry-Cook asked.

Her son Miles, ready for more sweets, gave an honest, “No.”

But his twin, Stokely, eagerly told her mom: “Oh, I know! A Black woman made these cookies.”

Jenelle Berry-Cook
Jenelle Berry-Cook (top left) uses her phone to record her children as her husband Michael Cook asks his children, Sloane, Stokely, and Miles, to taste cookies from a Black-owned bakery spotlighted by the Huffman Elementary PTA. / Photo Credit: Ben Torres / Special Contributor

As part of her DEI role, Berry-Cook also put together a recommended list of books — such as Mommy’s Khimar, about a Muslim girl and her mother’s headscarf — celebrating diverse characters.

Texas politicians are simultaneously targeting books that delve into issues of race, gender and sexuality. Some districts are now banning titles, many written by Black or LGBTQ authors, from their school libraries after Abbott labeled certain books obscene.

Books written by some of those same authors under scrutiny sit on shelves around the Cook family’s home.

In the kids’ rooms are books such as Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and the picture book version of The 1619 Project, titled Born on the Water. In the living room is the grown-up version of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning work, alongside stacks of novels about Black characters.

“If my kids grow up and they see art from Black people and they see books that were written by Black people and, when they start getting old enough to just pick up a book off the shelf, it’s written from a Black author’s perspective,” Berry-Cook said, “that, to me, is a way for them to naturally feel like they are centered in the conversation.”

A collection of children books
A collection of children books, predominantly with Black characters on the covers, are on display in one of the children’s rooms inside the home of the Cook family. / Photo Credit: Ben Torres / Special Contributor

She was energized by a recent news story about a Black Parents Association fighting to keep a book about anti-racism in Round Rock, an Austin-area school district with demographics similar to Plano’s.

“I would love to talk to them about how they organized,” Berry-Cook thought.

Opponents of critical race theory have, meanwhile, been incredibly organized, including in Southlake’s Carroll ISD, about 30 miles from Plano.

During a Conservative Political Action Conference last summer, a Carroll trustee elected on an anti-CRT platform urged parents to follow a calculated playbook to “take back your school boards from the left and the progressives.”

That board member also tapped into a frequent Republican talking point by asking the CPAC audience to imagine “the psychological trauma that we’re inflicting on our school-aged kids by telling them they’re inherently bad if they’re born white, or if they’re born a person of color, they’re inherently a victim.”

That’s not how Cook interprets what he knows about history.

“I learned Black people were slaves and I learned a lot of horrific things that happened to Black people, but that has not made me any less proud of being Black and who I am,” he said.

Berry-Cook can’t remember her kids coming home from school to tell her about a Black person they’ve learned about. But around the house, the parents talk about race and history often.

So when George Washington came up in their son’s kindergarten class, the little boy told his mom he decided to inform his classmates that the country’s first leader “owned people who look like me and took their teeth.”

Berry-Cook has had several conversations with her children about the Founding Fathers. She wants to impress upon the kids that the founders were people, flawed like everyone else. More complex truths will unfurl when they’re older.

When their daughter talked, for example, about how Abraham Lincoln was a great man, Berry-Cook told her: He was a man. Yes, he helped end slavery but he did other things to Black people that were not so good.

“Kids are very good at understanding context,” Cook said. “And I don’t think we’ve given them nearly enough credit.”

Some Black parents, upset over the critical race theory backlash, have also been left thinking: How is my child old enough to experience racism and your child not old enough to learn what it is about?

Cook was in third grade — barely older than his kids are now — when a classmate called him the N-word for the first time.

Just last year, a Black middle school boy in Plano was forced by his white classmates to drink urine at a sleepover after a night in which he was beaten and called slurs.

In response, the district announced it would develop a comprehensive diversity and inclusion plan.

Spokeswoman Lesley Range-Stanton said in a statement that Plano’s longstanding Diversity Board Advisory Committee used community feedback to identify key priorities, such as ensuring a welcoming and safe environment, for the district to consider as it works on strategies. Goals include working to increase enrollment of underrepresented groups in advanced courses as well as ways to “celebrate unity.”

A push for representation

Cook now has a usual spot at the district administration building, where he comes each month to watch as the district’s seven elected trustees debate and vote on the issues that define Plano kids’ education.

During one recent meeting, tightened COVID-19 protocols meant seating in the actual board room was limited. So Cook sat in the lobby, watching it unfold via floor-to-ceiling windows. Standing nearby was a small group there to tell trustees not to reinstate a mask mandate.

Cook couldn’t hear much, so he pulled out his laptop and headphones and tuned into the livestream. The short presentation was about state test scores and graduation rates in the high-performing district. A PowerPoint outlined how kids across Plano were doing and little time was spent on the disparities among student groups.

None of the people up on the dais looked like Cook or his children.

Michael Cook
Michael Cook looked at his computer before the Plano Independent School District’s board meeting resumed after an executive session on Feb. 8, 2022. / Photo Credit: Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer

The next school board election isn’t until 2023, but Cook is clear about his intentions: He plans to run for a trustee seat.

Cook said he’s normally happy to sit on the sidelines and let someone else fight. But that summer meeting about critical race theory sparked something.

“That scared me enough to say that I need to take a much more active interest,” he said.

It’s not that he wants to join the school board to push for critical race theory, which he knows isn’t what young kids are learning. Instead, he’s researched the gaps between Black and white students’ reading scores. He’s dived into the dearth of African American teachers and thought about how to get at its root problem.

“It has clearly been shown that representation matters,” Cook said.

A 2018 study from the National School Boards Association found more than three-quarters of members are white, while roughly 1 in 10 are Black. Another recent survey from the EdWeek Research Center found 86% of trustee respondents said they served with no Latino trustees and 81% said they had no Black colleagues.

In Texas, where children of color make up the majority of public school enrollment, districts have long struggled with school board representation, prompting several similar lawsuits, though not in Plano.

Three board seats are up for election next year, and Cook is strategizing on which to pursue. One of the seats belongs to Weaver.

Weaver, who often notes in public speaking that he is Jewish, told The Dallas Morning News recently that he questioned the idea that Black voices are missing from the national conversation, noting that the current debate draws on the writings of Black authors and academics, like civil rights attorney Derrick Bell.

In hindsight, Weaver said he could’ve tweaked elements of the July presentation that the family attended, specifically around the keywords, like narrative, that he noted could be used by others to mean different things.

“The point I was trying to get to with those examples is the ambiguity in language that is part of critical race theory,” he said. Weaver and PISD’s Range-Stanton noted that the summer talk wasn’t a district event.

Weaver stressed that Berry-Cook should never have been spoken to so harshly, but the trustee added that he’s glad the meeting led to the family’s increased involvement in Plano schools. Though other board members disagree with him on the idea that CRT is within the K-12 curriculum, Weaver believes they have a common motivation.

“I do believe all of us have the same goal of improving the district and improving student outcomes,” he said.

As part of their strategy for taking action, the couple joined the inaugural class of the Collin County NAACP’s leadership program and Berry-Cook took on education advocacy within the group. Though it’s nonpolitical, the initiative’s goal is to build a bench of Black residents who can step into local government.

Mark Payne, who runs the program, said he wasn’t surprised after he heard about what happened at that meeting over the summer.

“The way they were treated, they had a choice,” he said. The couple could have decided “we never want to do that again or no, this is important and we need to stick with it no matter what the cost is.”

They haven’t fully grappled with what it might mean for Cook to seek a school board seat in this political climate. Races can get personal. In Highland Park, for example, a political action committee sent out fliers across the predominantly white and wealthy district blasting a candidate for briefly displaying a “Black Lives Matter” sign in his yard.

The Texas GOP has also set its eyes on school board seats, launching in December a Local Government Committee devoted to electing conservatives to these kinds of nonpartisan positions.

Cook sees that kind of mobilization and doesn’t feel hopeful about winning. He suspects he’ll run against a more well-funded person focused on red-meat issues, like railing against critical race theory.

But, he said, it’s worth it to run if he can draw more attention to the fact that Black children in Plano are less likely than their white peers to read on grade level or have a teacher who looks like them.

Part of it, too, is about mirroring a lesson Cook tries to teach his children.

“I tell my kids all the time,” he said, “if you don’t like something, change it.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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