The challenges facing Smithfield-Selma High School and Johnston County Schools reflect an unnecessary reality. While we would not second a recent suggestion from Smithfields mayor that residents throw tomatoes at school board members, the frustration he and other parents feel is understandable.
But the idea that looking at the demographics of the student body at Smithfield-Selma High is to blame the victims is short-sighted. Engaging the school board about the direct educational effects of racial isolation and high-poverty schools puts the proper focus on school district policies and practices that disadvantage certain students and erect easily remedied obstacles to providing those students with a constitutionally guaranteed sound basic education.
A significant but by no means singular part of the solution is readily within the school boards reach: the authority to redraw attendance zones so that all district schools enjoy a more balanced, diverse student body. As the Johnston County citizens commission has noted, Smithfield area schools have the highest percentages of low-wealth students in the district, with 66 percent of Smithfield-Selma High students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Unlike any other high school in the district, SSH also has a disproportionately low percentage of white students just 29 percent of the student body. The demographics of SSHs feeder elementary and middle schools are similarly skewed.
Meanwhile, Cleveland High School, less than 10 miles away, is around 65 percent white, has only 27 percent FRL-eligible students and enjoys much higher test scores and, it seems, much higher morale among students, teachers and administrators. Why not tweak these attendence zones to create more balance, more opportunity, more diversity and more equity? As the school board looks at a variety of means to improve educational outcomes, why deliberately ignore a tool that has proven effective, fulfills our constitutional and historic obligations to equality and likely allows more efficient use of the reported $5 million now being used to address the inequities that the current student assignment policies have created?
Research shows that high-poverty, racially isolated schools (whose racial demographics or percentage of FRL students are skewed compared with the demographics of the district) are more likely to have higher percentages of low-performing students, despite the extra dollars that might be allocated to pull test scores up or provide hiring bonuses to teachers. Racially isolated, high-poverty schools are less able to recruit and retain the talented teachers and administrative leadership that those schools need most. They are also frequently plagued by limited curricular and other educational resources and, most damagingly, by the pervasive stigma of the label failing school.
A socioeconomically diverse student body benefits both those kids with fewer means as well as those families with higher incomes and levels of parental education. Why? Because students are resources to each other, equipping one another to grow and prosper in a diverse, global economy. An adequate base of middle class families that can afford the time and resources to participate in PTA or School Improvement Teams or otherwise engage in supporting the school staff, teachers and programs is critical to a schools success. That engagement increases school morale, the high-quality teachers stay, resources are more effectively allocated, student performance increases and parental engagement and confidence in the school and the school system grow.
There is no mystery here. All parents want the best for their children; some are just more able to provide it than others. But school boards have a vital role in this reality, defined by their obligation to ensure that all the districts students have access to an equitable sound, basic education. This reality makes school boards a crucial link in undoing the cycle of poverty, improving an entire regions economy and accessing the promise of success in every child.
Elizabeth Haddix is a staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.