Schoolhouse Rocked

Angry parents, scared teachers, a flurry of resignations—what, exactly, has been going on at the esteemed Kinkaid School?

March 2011By Comments

CLASS WAR: An angry e-mail turned one of Houston’s most prestigious private schools into a political battleground.
Illustration by Jason Raish

Though it’s not clear when Hugh E. “Skip” McGee III’s beef with the Kinkaid School began, by the time he started writing his November 11, 2009, letter to its board of trustees, he was plainly livid. The immediate cause for his anger, as he pointed out, was an aborted pep rally five days earlier. The private school’s football team had unexpectedly qualified for the division championship game against crosstown rivals Houston Episcopal, and team moms had organized a spirited send-off. Among the activities planned was a skit in which Kinkaid gridders, including McGee’s son, the senior quarterback, would impersonate Episcopal cheerleaders, complete with wigs, makeup, and big balloon breasts. But shortly before the rally, longtime school principal Mickey Saltman rethought his earlier approval of the skit. Worried it would reinforce negative gender stereotypes, he dispatched a teacher and a student to tell the players to cut it, robbing them of what McGee called “the punchline to the pep rally.” When they showed up onstage to cheer in wigs anyhow, Saltman stopped the proceedings. According to McGee, the boys were humiliated, and the moms were furious at what they considered an overly sensitive reaction to a harmless bit of fun. The next night, Episcopal beat Kinkaid 52–7.

But McGee’s five-page letter was titled “The Tipping Point,” and he was upset about more than a pep rally. He wrote at length about the two people Saltman had sent to stop the skit. He started with the student, identifying him by name. Andrew Edison, the school’s governing council president and emcee of the pep rally, had “previous issues with football players,” wrote McGee, and though he didn’t give specifics, many at Kinkaid knew that McGee’s son had lost the presidential race to Edison the previous spring. Then McGee turned to the teacher, Leslie Lovett. He said that the previous year, as his son’s eleventh-grade history instructor, Lovett had referred to investment bankers as “sleazeballs”—McGee is an investment banker at Barclays Capital—and had suggested, among other things, that homecoming could be celebrated at a girls’ field hockey game instead of a football game.

That bled into his larger concern. Lovett was the head of the upper school’s diversity committee, a group that, to McGee’s mind, had too much sway over Kinkaid. “In our rush to be ‘politically correct,’” he wrote, “we have become obsessed about pacifying even the most extreme of views—even if they are far from representative of the core values and character of Kinkaid families and alumni. By standing for everything, we actually stand for nothing.” Then, in a paragraph of rhetorical questions illustrating how far the school had strayed, he asked this: “Why is a married, heterosexual coach considered an oddity at Kinkaid?” He closed by suggesting that Lovett be fired, Saltman be encouraged to retire, and the school’s headmaster, Don North, consider moving on. (McGee declined to be interviewed for this article through a spokesperson at Barclays Capital, who said McGee considered the matter private.)

Other parents had also been incensed by the cancellation of the skit, and a number had contacted the school to complain, many of them echoing McGee’s vow to “take back control of the Kinkaid School.” But McGee is no ordinary parent, nor just any i-banker. He’s the head of Barclays’ global investments banking division; two years ago, the Daily Beast website suggested he was the highest-paid banker on Wall Street (Barclays has consistently denied the $25 million salary figure cited in the article). And he didn’t send his letter to just the school. He copied other parents, who forwarded it on, and it quickly left the confines of the Kinkaid community. By month’s end it had shown up on snarky Wall Street gossip blog DealBreaker, followed by Gawker and New York magazine’s Daily Intel, all of which roundly harangued McGee and the school (sample headline: “Barclays Executive Attacks Hateful Feminist Teacher for Making His Practically Adult Son Cry”). But the letter also showed up in friendlier venues, like the UK’s Daily Telegraph and the New York Post, which titled its December 2, 2009, story “Banker Strikes Back Against Liberal School.” None of the coverage was welcomed by Kinkaid. Elite private schools prefer stories about National Merit finalists and sports victories. Conflict within the family is best kept in-house.

The school was essentially on lockdown when I went to visit one Sunday a few weeks later. That morning the Houston Chronicle had run a front-page story under the headline “Kinkaid Controversy: Prep School Pyrotechnics.” And in the afternoon, Kinkaid’s acclaimed drama department was putting on The Laramie Project, an award-winning play about how the Wyoming town dealt with the gay-bashing murder of college student Matthew Shepard. Headmaster North, in the wake of the uproar, had hired extra security, and an audience discussion scheduled afterward had been canceled. But the performance remained open to the public; Kinkaid’s theater company actually sells season tickets.

I’d left a message with North’s secretary on Friday afternoon asking if I could attend but hadn’t heard back. When I arrived at the school in a steady rain, a guard waved me past the security kiosk and into the parking lot. I bought a ticket and roamed the lobby looking for North. He found me first. “I’m sorry,” he said as we shook hands. “No press is allowed. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

McGee’s letter had exposed a rift that the school didn’t want outsiders to see. Over the next fifteen months Kinkaid would do a good job of tamping down press interest but have a harder time getting the dust to settle on campus. The school’s board of trustees promised a period of reflection and undertook an extensive survey to gauge the community’s take on the concerns raised by McGee and like-minded parents. But the dialogue was marked by resignations and recriminations. What began as an angry letter from a disgruntled parent turned into a struggle over the most basic ways in which the school defines itself.

The New York Post’s use of the dreaded L-word, “liberal,” was likely a surprise to much of Houston, which knows Kinkaid as one of the city’s old-money institutions. It was opened in 1906 by Margaret Kinkaid, a strong-willed educator who, according to legend, had been forced into early retirement by a Houston public school prohibition against married teachers. The school didn’t affiliate with any church—still a rarity in the private school world—but soon became the favorite of the founders of the Houston oil industry. They were drawn to her promise of a well-rounded education, based on what the school now calls the three A’s—academics, athletics, and arts—and as their wealth grew, so did Kinkaid’s. In 1957 it moved to forty lush acres nestled amid the pines of the upper-crust Memorial area. The modernist flat roofs of the campus’s original buildings hark back to Houston’s second, postwar oil boom, and the names of powerful families like Cullen, Blaffer, and Brown are carved into donor plaques scattered throughout the grounds. Among its tight-knit network of alums and onetime attendees are former Secretary of State James Baker and George W. and Jeb Bush. Kinkaid kids go on to do impressive things; “liberal” is not a term that is usually applied to them.

But the parents I talked to—all on the condition of anonymity—described a school that had struggled with its identity in recent years as the city around it rapidly evolved. Some cited a 2010 Rice University survey, which found that although 67 percent of Houstonians over sixty are white, 76 percent between the ages of eighteen and thirty are not. Kinkaid, which reserves roughly 80 percent of its enrollment spots for legacies and the children of faculty and staff, necessarily looks more like old Houston than new. The alums whose kids now attend Kinkaid have watched with interest as the school has tried to keep up with the world. In 2000 Kinkaid hired a director of character education to guide its ethical and moral training. Five years later, as part of its long-range plan and its reaccreditation with the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, it created an official policy on diversity, which stated that every member of the Kinkaid community should feel welcomed, valued, and respected.

None of that was particularly controversial on paper, but as it started to play out in classrooms, competing ideals emerged. Some parents were thrilled when the drama department staged the musical version of Studs Terkel’s Working and an English class assigned Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. But others criticized teachers who used books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells the American story from the standpoints of the disenfranchised. They worried that North and Saltman were radicalizing Kinkaid. A complaint making the rounds was that people had gotten so open-minded that their brains had fallen out. One parent told me, “I’m not saying I want the school to be some hyper–tea party, superconservative place. I just want a little more balance. And I don’t want a bunch of gay, lesbian, liberal, communistic crap shoved down my kid’s throat.” That same parent, apparently also a disgruntled Longhorns fan, compared North and Saltman to Mack Brown and his beleaguered offensive coordinator, Greg Davis.

But Saltman was the primary target, and, like Davis, who resigned soon after the University of Texas’s disastrous 2010 season, he would not survive the upheaval, unexpectedly announcing his retirement this past January. A New Yorker from a family of educators, Saltman became, in 1958, the first Jewish teacher at Bronxville High, a public school in New York’s affluent Westchester County. Originally a science teacher, he started pulling double duty in Bronxville’s administration in 1988 and was its assistant principal when the first president Bush named it one of the nation’s best schools. He was named Kinkaid’s upper-school principal in 1998, rejoining his old friend North, with whom he’d worked closely during a mid-nineties stint at North Carolina’s Durham Academy.

I met Saltman at his Houston home on a Tuesday morning this past October. No longer employed by Kinkaid, he was the only administrator or faculty member, current or former, willing to speak about the school on the record. (North sent an e-mail to staff and teachers instructing them to defer all media queries to him. He in turn deferred to the school’s board of trustees, which responded to written questions by e-mail.) Saltman answered the door in jeans and a “Kinkaid vs. St. John’s” T-shirt. A short, bald man, he wore wire-rimmed glasses on a sober face. It was his first autumn in 51 years that wasn’t filled with back-to-school activities, and he looked like a retired baseball manager who didn’t know what to do with his March when spring training rolled around. On his left arm he wore a fat stack of what former students would later tell me were his signature American Indian bracelets.

Saltman is still protective of those kids, and he instinctively bristles at the perception of Kinkaid students as entitled. But he described the school’s diversity efforts as a tough push-pull for administrators and faculty trying to be sensitive to differing constituencies. In 2002 a controversy erupted over a Bible study group that met on campus during the school day. Saltman and North agreed that the group was inappropriate and stopped it. “I had no problem with organized Bible study before school or after, and if two kids wanted to read the Bible together and talk about it, I had no problem with that,” Saltman said. “But during the day, it seemed to be school recognition of a particular religion. My argument has always been that anything that divides this community is inappropriate and insensitive, and since Bible study, by its very nature, only attracts Christian students, it automatically separates them from another group. I don’t know that anyone can get majority-culture members to understand what minority cultures feel, how it feels to be left out.”

When parents complained, North went to the board, which created a policy on religious expression. The group could meet outside by the football field during school hours, but its members couldn’t proselytize. Though further problems occasionally cropped up—some Jewish and Muslim students complained when fliers advertising meetings were left in their lockers—the school seemed to have found a passable arrangement.

There was more give-and-take. When students wanted to start a gay-straight alliance, Saltman told them to find another name. “We were going to call this something that no one could object to, because we were going to fight hate and discrimination,” he said. “And that’s what we called it, Kinkaidians Against Hate and Discrimination.” When faculty members wanted to put Safe Space stickers in their classrooms—rainbow-colored triangles that are part of an anti-bullying campaign started by the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network—Saltman told them to cut off the GLSEN tag at the bottom of the stickers.

Some steps were widely welcomed, like the upper school’s Culture Fest, a celebratory night of multiethnic food, music, and art. Still, there were quiet grumblings. Noting that religious leaders from various faiths were invited to speak at assemblies, some parents wondered why their kids had to read their Bibles in the bleachers.

Those were the kinds of concerns that had inflamed McGee. But there was one more event that would drive the controversy that engulfed Kinkaid this past spring. The day after McGee sent his letter (but before virtually anyone knew of its existence), the upper-school faculty held its regular monthly meeting. Inspired by North—one of the headmaster’s stated goals for the school year was ensuring that gay and lesbian students felt welcome and safe at Kinkaid—the meeting explored what it was like to be gay at Kinkaid.

Attendees describe a powerful afternoon. Two recent gay alums spoke about the difficulties in even recognizing their sexual identity in an atmosphere where “gay” was a casual pejorative. A coach talked about choosing not to list her partner’s name in her mother’s obituary for fear of negative reaction. A gay alum’s mom said, “I don’t think any of this is unique to Kinkaid. The school’s just following the norm of society. The fact is, I have two sons who went to school here. Y’all taught them both. And one of them has more rights than the other.” Then, in a concluding statement, one of the organizers asked gay faculty members who were willing to be identified to stand. In a room of roughly seventy faculty and staff, seven stood up. One gay teacher who attended called it their “Spartacus moment.”

“People stood, and it was amazing,” the teacher said. “People were clapping and crying. It was really intense. At the same time, we had all put targets on our backs.”

The same week that Saltman announced his retirement, Kinkaid’s athletic director announced that she would be stepping down as well. A week later, two college counselors resigned, one for another job but the other, like the AD, with no next step planned. More resignations followed, including that of the director of character education, who left for Rice University. Though no one cited the controversy, at least three were openly gay. By the semester’s end, more than a dozen upper-school faculty and staff members were gone. The board, in its written responses to TEXAS MONTHLY, called that figure “slightly elevated from the prior years.” A current Kinkaid employee said it was three times the usual number.

Many people characterized the faculty’s mood through the spring as mostly one of fear and anger. A number of teachers felt that McGee had slandered a respected colleague, bullied the administration, and invaded the privacy of a student. From the moment McGee’s letter went public, some faculty and staff demanded an official statement from the school, condemning, at the very least, McGee’s tone. Though North did discuss the matter with his employees, no such statement came. Instead, when North tried to clear the air at an assembly, according to one attendee, “One student stood and asked, ‘Do you want us to give you names of teachers who bring too much of their political philosophy into the classroom?’ Mr. North said, ‘Yes, I want names.’” (Asked to comment on this version of events, the board wrote that North never asked for names, adding that he “shared that he knew that a number of students felt strongly about the issues, but was unaware of any specifics as to why they felt the way they did. The ‘why’ was central to his understanding and being able to address the concerns—but not the ‘who.’”)

Teachers had to wait until summer for a conclusive reaction, when the board produced a report titled “Moving Forward.” Crafted after an extensive, anonymous survey of parents, employees, students, and recent alums, the report spoke largely in generalities, resolving to improve things like “performance” and “communication.” But it also got specific. The board emphasized that the school was nonsectarian rather than secular. Though Christianity wasn’t mentioned, the plain message was that Bible study was back on. It also stressed “a trust that teachers will not use their classrooms as a vehicle to promote their own political views.”

And then the report turned to diversity and sexual orientation. It established “global competency” and “cultural fluency” as the new rationales for the school’s diversity policy, shifting the reasoning from ethics to economics. As such, sexual orientation was specifically excluded as “incompatible” with the policy’s intent. Though the board restated its explicit protection of gays and lesbians in Kinkaid’s non-harassment policy, it also said that “student exposure to issues relating to sexual orientation will occur only when necessary for teaching the grade-appropriate curriculum.” Teachers wondering just what that meant got a clear indication when they returned in the fall: The Safe Space stickers had been removed from classrooms and offices.

With gay suicides and bullying in national headlines, that move struck many as beyond tone-deaf. For them, the school’s reasoning—that the stickers implied that one group was more protected than others—showed greater concern for some people’s political views than for the welfare of vulnerable students. The same objection was raised when the board clarified its edict on “student exposure to issues relating to sexual orientation.” Faculty had pointed out that kids trying to understand their sexual identity often reach out to them; a gay Kinkaid alum I talked to credited one such teacher with saving his life. Could that conversation now get a teacher fired? The board stressed that the proper place for these sorts of conversations was at home or in a counselor’s office, adding that teachers were not to initiate those discussions. As one current faculty member put it, “We’re allowed to have those conversations; we’re just not allowed to tell the kids we’re allowed to have those conversations. That’s the thing that’s confusing.”

Confusing, yes, but not surprising. Nationally the culture war has been fought on similar ground, over gay marriage and the military’s recently repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many at Kinkaid see their conflict as part of that same fight, one that, in this case, conservative voices appear to have won. Parents and teachers on the losing end attribute the local battle to an elite group of people unsure of their place in a world that doesn’t look like the one they inherited. When the school’s diversity struggles started, ten years ago, one of Kinkaid’s own was in the White House. Today the president of the United States is a black Democrat, and the mayor of Houston is openly gay. Kinkaid has changed too, as the ethnic minority students who fight for the highly competitive non-legacy spots are filling up the honor roll. “Kids whose names I can’t pronounce,” said one alum whose children graduated from Kinkaid.

Many parents and faculty worry about the message being sent to gay students. But they also worry about the long-term health of the school. If Kinkaid develops a reputation for intolerance, they reason, it will stop luring the best teachers, and its graduates will no longer be accepted by the best colleges. But a national private school consultant who has worked with Kinkaid disagreed: “If Kinkaid continues to educate kids who are bright and well prepared for college, and to have parents with the means to afford those schools, kids will still get in.”

The board, for its part, doesn’t seem worried. “Most of all,” it wrote at the end of its responses to TEXAS MONTHLY, “this period of self-reflection has unified an already close-knit family around the very ideals and values that have defined the school for the past century.”

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