How can Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools improve racial equity? Some say they could listen.

Mother of two boys, one, black, one white, speaks at Campaign for Racial Equity

Mary Carey, founder Bootstraps literacy organization and Chapel Hill mother of two boys, one, black, one white, speaks at Campaign for Racial Equity.
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Mary Carey, founder Bootstraps literacy organization and Chapel Hill mother of two boys, one, black, one white, speaks at Campaign for Racial Equity.

The local NAACP says the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is losing ground on racial equity and not including the community enough in recent decision making.

“Right now, our school district feels a little bit like it’s in crisis,” said Wanda Hunter, co-chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP’s education committee.

“There’s controversy swirling; our chair of our school board just resigned,” she said. “And when we look at all of this, our feeling is that it could have all been avoided if the district were working in a more systematic way to engage key stakeholders the community, especially communities of color, in conversations about program changes before they happen.”

According to the most recent Racial Equity Report Card from the Youth Justice Project, white students in grades 3 through 8 in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district were 2.9 times more likely to be “college and career ready,” meaning on track based on standardized testing, than black students in the 2017-18 school year.

“Our goal is that your race is not what determines your educational outcome in Chapel Hill schools, and right now race determines everything in Chapel Hill schools,” Hunter said.

Racial equity is not a new conversation for the district. The NAACP presented an equity report to the school board in 2015, and the board took some of its recommendations, including adopting a tool to evaluate district decisions through a racial equity lens. The tool the district chose, a questionnaire created by Race Forward, begins by asking who will be affected by a decision and if those parties are involved in the conversation.

“It seems that the way it’s being used by the district is that the people who are doing the programs ask and answer the question. There hasn’t been a lot of broad-based community engagement,” said NAACP President Anna Richards.

Town hall meeting

The NAACP sponsored a town hall meeting at the Chapel Hill Public Library on Thursday night to share concerns and hear from local residents.

Around 60 participants, including four school board members, showed up to learn about the district’s racial equity tool and practice applying it. After a short explanation of the questionnaire, the audience, which included black, white and Asian-American residents, broke out into smaller groups to discuss racial equity in the district’s recent decisions.

A few people were concerned the chapter was speaking out against the dual-language program, but the conversation stayed focused on the district’s decision-making process rather than the merits of the individual programs.

Several people called for more transparency and outreach.

“If they use the tool as it was intended, we can certainly bridge the gap,” parent Helen Suitt said. “But if it’s just another one of those tools that’s going to be used barely, then we’re going to remain where we are.”

“As a white parent to children of color in the district, I’m especially concerned,” said Caity McArthur. “I feel like Chapel Hill has a historic and pervasive racial achievement gap that needs to be addressed. We refuse to address it.”

College and career ready

In 2017, 62 percent of white students and 30 percent of black students and in grades 3-8 scored college and career ready across the state of North Carolina.

In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, nearly 84 percent of white students in the same grades scored career and college ready, compared to only 29 percent of black students.

According to district data, the student body is 51 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian and 11 percent black.

“We have one of the highest achievement gaps, not just in the state, but in the whole country,” Hunter said. “And you put that on top of the fact that Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools are considered to be the best in the state. People move here so that they can go to our schools, yet we have more than a fifty-point achievement gap.”

Richards said the district’s decisions have practical effects on students.

“We have limited resources, and we’re making choices on how we spend our money,” Richards said. “How are you mitigating the impact to the achievement gap. That’s really the question.”

Richards said at the meeting that the chapter had met with the district’s equity director and would return to the district with the conversations from the town hall meeting.

“At this point, every school board member that’s sitting there ran on equity,” Hunter said. “If that’s true, then they should be looking at equity in every decision.”

Mandarin, mentoring

Last year’s school board vote to create a Mandarin dual-language magnet school at Glenwood Elementary raised questions about board communication and transparency.

“We’ve been out there kind of in the wilderness trying to say this decision was not a good decision because it’s an inequitable decision,” Hunter said. “It just continues to structure opportunity where we already have a lot of opportunity.”

The conversation would have been different “if the toolkit had really been used correctly” and black and brown parents and students been at the table, she said.

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Hongbin Gu believes in the power of dual language programs to reduce achievement gaps and pointed to the NAACP’s own endorsement of similar programs. But Gu said the district has not done a good job of presenting the dual-language program to some sectors of the community.

Hunter also pointed to the recent conversation around the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program, which she called “the only program we’ve ever had in our district that is really designed to give black and brown students greater opportunity.”

Last month, state Rep. Graig R. Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, wrote an open letter calling for the district to invest in the successful program. The program is funded through several different sources, and district officials say their investment has remained constant for the last three years and that they are actually hoping to expand the program.

“The staff, parents and students, for some reason, did not feel like they were being supported,” Hunter said. “In fact, they felt like the program was being dismantled. So we have to be concerned about that, right?”

The issue for Hunter is the lack of communication between the district stakeholders in the program.

“To examine this program and see if it is serving the interest of equity, we would have no problem with that,” Hunter said. “But there has to be some kind of systematic examination where the people who have been most involved, the people who have the most to gain or lose from the program, are at the table. That’s really our point.”

A third concern is the proposed expansion of the Academically and Intellectually Gifted program. The district’s website says a draft of the plan will not be submitted until May. Comments can be made to Camille House, at chouse@chccs.k12.nc.us, and an informational meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, at Smith Middle School.

Richards said the district is focusing on specialized programs when many students’ basic needs are not being met.

“The representation of black and Latinx students is much lower, and this goes back to our contention that these classes further segregate and give additional privilege to a small group of students, as opposed to closing the opportunity gaps for more students,” she said.