Students in an Asheville High School literature class work on a Shakespeare project together. Courtesy of Asheville City Schools.

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Two North Carolina school districts rank as having some of the largest achievement gaps between black and white students in the nation.

Asheville City Schools had the fifth-largest achievement gap in the nation, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools had the second-largest, according to “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gap: CEPA Working Paper No. 16-10” from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. Only Berkeley Unified in California had a larger gap.

Although published last year, the study relies on data from standardized math and reading tests that public school students took from 2009-13.

Both districts, however, acknowledge that this is a statistic they are working to change.

Bountiful resources

The resources for both districts appear to be bountiful, according to data from the N.C. School Report Cards for 2016-17.

Both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools and the Asheville City Schools have slightly more fully licensed teachers than the state average.

Both have a higher-than-average number of teachers with advanced degrees and teachers who are National Board Certified. In some cases, the difference is significant; both districts have an average of 14 National Board Certified teachers per high school, while the state average is only seven.

Funding per pupil in each district comes from three primary sources — local, state and federal. The statewide average per pupil in local funding is $2,231.65, but in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, the average is $6,150.80, while in Asheville it’s $4,880.11.

But districts fall just shy of the average for per-pupil funding from the state and federal governments, due in part to the large amount of local funding they enjoy.

One measurable resource issue for Asheville City Schools is a higher-than-average one-year turnover rate for both teachers and principals.

For example, the local rate for middle school teachers was 25.9 percent, while the state average is 14.7 percent. The one-year principal turnover rate is 25 percent locally, while the state average is 8.6 percent.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools district has taken action to try and close the academic achievement gap between white and black, according to Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for the school system.

Part of the school system’s strategic plan for 2018-21 includes an equity plan.

Nash said the school started the strategic plan this year with a high priority of closing the gap.

The district performed 44 focus groups, collected more than 1,000 community survey results and identified key concerns.

Information on the plan is available on the district’s website. The four targeted areas are “student success,” “employee experience,” “family and community engagement,” and “organizational effectiveness.”

Nash said the district wants to ensure that it hires good teachers and gives them the training to meet student needs. The school district also wants more community involvement.

“Those words that we found from the data are ’empower, inspire and engage,’” Nash told Carolina Public Press.

“Our children deserve an excellent education — all of our children,” Superintendent Pam Baldwin wrote in the letter to the community, uploaded to the district’s website along with the plan details.

“That is where we missed the mark. Our success, however defined, varies greatly from child to child. Some leave our district entirely unprepared for life after high school.”

School board member Rani Dasi said she believes the school board, superintendent and staff are making equality a priority.

“If you look everywhere, a lot of the structure that supports American societies weren’t intended to support people of color,” she said. She hopes the new plan will offer more support.

“I think, for me, it’s personal,” she said. “I have four children and I’m a black parent who understands what education means.”

Dasi said Campaign for Racial Equity, a community advocacy organization, helped bring focus to the issue. The NAACP and teachers and staff of color also helped.

Nash noted that the plan is in the early stages. The district had an equity director who left the position, but a new director is working with an equity task force on the plan.

“We’re one of the first districts, one of the only ones to have a full-time equity director,” Nash said.

The task force updates the district a few times a year, Nash said. The district is also working on a “data dashboard” to increase knowledge and transparency on school data on the website.

Asheville City Schools

While the Asheville City Schools are also working to close the district’s racial gap in academic achievement, the effort has not been in the public eye.

The Board of Education conducted a special called meeting in November to discuss its gap, followed by a joint meeting in January with the City Council, which appoints the unelected school board but otherwise has limited oversight.

The November meeting was intended to let the community know about the problem and to have an “open conversation,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

Yet in pre-meeting announcements of the session and its agenda, the topic — one of the worst racial achievement gaps in the United States — was never mentioned, with the meeting agenda described instead as “to discuss academic achievement.”

Asked about this by CPP, school district spokesperson Ashley Thublin emphasized that the district met its legal requirement for public notice of a special called meeting by issuing an announcement 48 hours prior to the start of the meeting.

However, Thublin also acknowledged that she was unaware of any members of the news media who attended.

She also described separate invitations directed at community organizations, rather than the general public.

“Additionally, representatives from the State of Black Asheville, Asheville Housing Authority, the Asheville City Council, Buncombe County commissioners, A-B Tech, each school’s PTO president, ACS support staff, past ACS board members, the Asheville City Schools Foundation, the United Way of Asheville-Buncombe County and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce were just a few of the organizations invited to collaborate on this important topic for discussion,” Thublin told CPP on Monday.

However, CPP obtained a copy this week of the invitation those community organizations were issued in November, which did not mention a racial achievement gap.

“Asheville City School Board of Education will meet on Tuesday, November 6, 2018,” the invitation said.

“We will be discussing academic achievement. We hope that you can join us at 2:00-6:00 p.m. in the Board Room at the Central Office building located at 85 Mountain Street.”

According to the minutes, during the November session the school system asked Dwight Mullen, a retired UNC Asheville professor, and Gene Bell, a representative with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, to address the board. Mullen created State of Black Asheville more than a decade ago, according to its website.

“(Mullen) wanted to begin with the legacy of Jim Crow segregation,” the minutes state. “Dr. Mullen spoke about dropout rates, graduation, academics and discipline. He said to the audience that students are not making relationships with teachers, and intern teachers are not becoming role models. In the national trend, every major area has disparity outcomes, and private sectors cannot be a part of the process. Lastly, he said that goals need to be around the reality of ACS.”

Mullen did not respond to CPP requests for comment.

During Bell’s comments, he talked about the effects of public housing, according to the meeting minutes.

“The average annual income for low-income families is $8,100,” the minutes state. “The vouchers that are given to those families are 49 percent to whites and 51 percent to blacks.”

According to the minutes, Bell briefed the board on the history of public housing, adding that public housing used to be segregated.

“When Pisgah View Apartments was built in 1952, 235 units went to whites and 91 units went to blacks,” the minutes state. “Blacks could not get VA (Veterans Affair) loans and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loans. Today, there are five generations of students who attend ACS who live in public housing.”

According to the meeting minutes’ account of Bell’s talk, he said Asheville has the highest rent prices in North Carolina.

Melissa Hedt, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Asheville City Schools, told attendees at the November session that 156 students left the system in the 2017-18 school year in favor of a private or charter school or to enroll out of state, according to the minutes. An additional student took virtual classes that same school year, she said, adding that a school enrollment committee is looking into the reasons for the withdrawals.

“Free and reduced-lunch students have decreased over the last 10 years because low-income families are leaving the district,” the minutes note Hedt as saying.

According to the minutes, the school board also heard from Dana Ayers, chief academic officer, regarding school performance. Ayers said the schools now use NC Star to “target subgroups,” and that part of the district’s three-year equity plan “is to not pull students out of classes.”

Eric Howard, director of student services, provided information about student behavior, saying that the staff needs resources. He also suggested adding a “safe space for all students.”

“It would be great if schools would help to link students with peers and students with staff,” the minutes state. “He also spoke on trauma enforced services.”

The minutes note that audience members were allowed to speak during the meeting but do not provide names or comments.

Asked about whether anyone in attendance actually spoke, Thublin did not directly address the question, but said, “It was a roundtable discussion, allowing any person present to share their thoughts/strategies for increasing student success.”

CPP asked whether there was a substantial presence at the November session of people who did not work for the city or the city schools. Thublin said there was no sign-in sheet to track whether anyone actually attended. She also reiterated the long list of organizations that received invitations but did not address which of them actually were present.

Minutes from the Asheville City school board and City Council joint meeting in January have not been released.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer told CPP that she requested the joint meeting, telling the superintendent her plan. They also met ahead of the meeting.

“I thought we ought to meet as it had been quite a while,” Manheimer said via email. “And, as I look at cities that are more successful tackling the achievement gap, they use a cross-community collaborative approach. I was hopeful the City Council could reach out to the School Board and offer to begin that collaboration.”

That partnership is still early in development, Manheimer said, indicating the United Way will be involved.

She confirmed that it was the city and school board’s first joint meeting since 2012. During previous joint meetings, the groups often provided each other with an update on their projects, but this meeting was meant to mark the start of a more collaborative approach, she said.

Currently, two positions on the school board are set to expire and another member moved away for professional reasons. The mayor said current advertisements to fill those vacancies are not related to the achievement gap.

Asheville Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, liaison between the city and school board, did not respond to CPP’s request for comment. Hedt also did not respond to requests for school data.

Editor’s note: Carolina Public Press Managing Editor Frank Taylor also contributed to this article.


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Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com

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