The only item on the agenda for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board Thursday was a presentation from the Campaign for Racial Equity, a coalition of community members who say there’s a disconnect between the stated mission of the school district and the reality that minority students experience in the classroom.
“We know that the district has been doing many things to try to achieve that mission, but we all recognize we’ve been falling short,” said Greg McElveen, former school board member and chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP’s education committee.
The campaign presented an 80-page report to the school board last fall detailing racial disparities in school discipline and longstanding achievement gaps among students of color. For example, the report notes only 42 percent of African-American and 47 percent of Latino students were doing grade-level work at the end of the 2014-15 school year, compared to 90 percent proficiency among white students.
Thursday’s presentation to the school board focused on the process used to draft the report and recommendations for immediate and long-term action.
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McElveen urged administrators to create an online “dashboard” to start measuring progress right away.
“To help make these issues real to staff, and teachers, and leadership, it’s always helpful to figure out what’s important and then you start measuring it,” he said. “If people know it’s being measured, they’ll pay more attention to it. We’re not suggesting what those metrics should be, but the idea is to show that, yes, we’re taking this seriously, this has become part of the way we manage the schools, part of the way we reward people and promote people.”
More broadly, advocates say the ultimate goal of the administration should be to change the fundamental culture of the school system.
Campaign members argue the district’s racial inequity has its roots in the wider American culture, stemming from a history of white supremacy and racial hierarchies that dates back centuries.
Stephanie Perry, a community activist and one of the report’s authors, told the board the first step to changing the culture is to examine it through the lens of racial equity.
“It is imperative that we begin to stop and examine the current culture that our school district is operating from,” she said. “We have inherited a culture and we have been managing and sustaining policies, processes and structures in a default racial culture because there has been no compulsion to examine the origin of the culture we inherited and its impact. This is naive at best, and negligence at its worst.”
School board member Andrew Davidson said he’d like to see data on the effectiveness of racial-equity training before investing district resources in the process.
“That’s my first question, does it work?” he said. “Just because you send a teacher or administrator to a professional development course, doesn’t mean you see results in the classroom. That’s worth examining.”
“It works if you work it,” Perry replied, “Change in a culture is not a check-off in a box that you’ve attended.”
“You can know something and not be something,” she continued. “We have to understand how powerful the socialization around racism and implicit bias acts every single day in our lives.”
Members of the campaign asked the school board and administration to commit to a collaborative process to draft a new equity plan by the end of May.
You prioritize what’s important.
Stephanie Perry, coalition mamber
Though several on the board gave a nod to the idea of collaboration, Chair James Barrett told the crowd the board was not in a position to make any formal promises, as no votes are taken during work sessions. Instead, he said the issue of racial equity would be discussed along with other long-range plans at the school board’s annual retreat in early February.
Davidson warned members of the campaign that meeting the May deadline was unlikely, as drafting an equity plan could be a long, slow process.
“You prioritize what’s important,” Perry responded. “If we’re having this conversation now and in six months we haven’t heard anything, that silence is dialogue. That silence is informing us that this has become less of a priority.
“The dialogue can be nice, or it could be contentious,” she said. “We want it to be nice. We do. But we’re not going anywhere.”
The school board’s leadership retreat is scheduled for Feb. 8-9 at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro.