Orange County Schools has few black teachers. Will leadership changes slow progress?

A group that has pushed Orange County Schools to hire more black and bilingual teachers is cautiously recognizing progress, despite Superintendent Todd Wirt’s recent resignation and a surprising school board shakeup..

Earlier this year, the community-organizing group Justice United, gave the district an “incomplete” grade on a report card.

“At that point we didn’t have a tangible plan from the board in front of us,” lead organizer Devin Ross said.

Recent leadership changes renewed some members’ concerns the district might not follow through on planned equity initiatives.

“Superintendent Wirt has announced his resignation just as Orange County Schools is about to enter a new hiring season,” said the Rev. Patty Hanneman, chair of the strategy team. “Will they have the resources necessary to hire more diverse teachers and bilingual staff?”

But the district’s latest budget recommends hiring someone to lead diverse recruiting and providing tuition aid for non-teaching staff who want to pursue a teaching certification. The district also plans to hire an equity director next year.

“We see this as a positive step toward meeting our concerns with diversity in hiring,” said the Rev. George Crews III, of Lattisville Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

Last week, Justice United gathered 176 people to celebrate the progress OCS has made and encourage school board members to continue pursuing these initiatives as the budget is finalized for the 2019-20 school year.

At the meeting, Justice United members gave Board of Education members Brenda Stephens, Sarah Smylie and Hillary MacKenzie a new report card reading “Keep up the Good Work.”

Justice United leaders invited new board Chair Will Atherton and Vice Chair Tony McKnight, but Atherton was out of town and McKnight wanted to wait to meet until Atherton could be there, according to Ross. The group is scheduling a meeting with them.

Justice United’s focus on diversity grew out of meetings with over 600 community members in 2017. In 2018, leaders met with school board candidates, including Atherton, MacKenzie, Smylie and Stephens.

“Change is difficult,” Crews said. “They’ve been doing things a certain way for so long. I feel like they fail to realize the actual fabric of Orange County is changing.”

Fifty-one Justice United members have pledged to attend the public hearing on the proposed Orange County budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough.

“My hope for the district is that the relationship between the community and Orange County Schools would be more united, that we’ll see more diversity in the hiring practices and teachers that are on board,” Crews said. “We want to see a place that’s conducive for all children to not just survive but become successful.”

The numbers

Zarria Morgan, a sophomore at Orange High School, doesn’t see herself reflected in her teachers.

“It’s important for me to have role models that look like me to give me something to strive for,” Morgan said at last week’s meeting.

In 2017, Orange County Schools’ students were 14% black, almost 24% Latino, and 56% white, while 90% of their teachers were white.

In the district’s elementary schools this year, nearly 88% of the teachers are white. There are 225 white teachers, 25 African-American teachers and six listed as “other” in N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s statistics.

In secondary schools, almost 91% of the teachers are white. There are 98 white secondary school teachers, four African-American teachers and six teachers of any other race.

According to Justice United, this is the lowest number of black teachers the district has had in a decade.

The district does employ a diverse staff when it comes to principals (seven white and six African American), assistant principals (nine white, seven black and one “other”) and teacher assistants (59 white, 49 black and five “other”).

Student outcomes

Research shows representation directly impacts the educational attainment gap.

Black students consistently do better in school when they see themselves reflected in their teachers. One 2017 study, led by Seth Gershenson of American University, found that even having one African-American teacher in third through fifth grades increases the chances that black students graduate high school and aspire to a four-year degree, especially for lower-income black male students.

The Youth Justice Project, an advocacy group connected to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, use public data to build Racial Equity Report Cards for each school district. OCS’s report card points out that white students in Orange County are more than two times more likely to score “college and career ready” on their end of grade tests in grades three through eight than black students.

“In my last two years at Orange County High School, will things change?” Morgan asked the advocates assembled at Lattisville Grove Baptist Church.

The school system is also one of the largest employers in the area, and Crews said diversity in hiring is a community-wide issue. He has seen several parishioners leave the area to teach in other districts over his 17 years as a pastor in Orange County.

“They don’t want to come back and teach,” Crews said in an interview. “There’s no space for them.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.