Joyce Powell moved to Chapel Hill from Rocky Mount 13 years ago in search of better public schools for her three children.
But she says: “If I’d have known what it would be like, I’d have turned around and gone back home. It’s been hard here. The students don’t have the support of the leadership.”
Lack of institutional support for black families and students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system was the overarching theme of Saturday’s Excellence with Equity forum, held by a coalition of community groups including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, Organizing Against Racism, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council.
More than 175 attendees filled the meeting room at United Church of Chapel Hill to review the results of a study published last fall by the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools, and to brainstorm solutions to make the school system more equitable.
The 87-page report details gaps in academic achievement and school discipline that inordinately affect black and Latino students.
Test results from the 2014-15 school year show 90 percent of white students are achieving grade-level proficiency in reading, while only 47 percent of Latino students and 42 percent of black students meet the same goal.
When it comes to tests to measure college readiness, the gap is even bigger: 85 percent of white students are on track to graduate ready for higher education, compared to 38 percent of Latino students and 32 percent of black students.
Campaign members say there are also disparities in who gets access to more rigorous classes, such as Advanced Placement and Honors courses. According to their data, 95 percent of students in most higher-level classes are white.
At the same time, black students are 10 times more likely to get suspended from school than their white peers, often for hard to define infractions such as “defiance.”
On top of the numbers, there are stories. Parents say teachers and administrators have low expectations for minority students, and too often, they say these become self-fulfilling prophecies as student internalize the attitudes of their educators.
Several shared examples of talented black students who had to beg to be allowed into A.P. or Honors courses. One mother said she almost didn’t accept a slot in the district’s coveted Learning Environment for Advanced Programming, or LEAP program, because she knew her daughter would be the sole black child in the group of exceptionally gifted students.
“I can’t believe there’s only one in the entire district,” she told a group of parents. “Does that seem right to you?”
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system has been struggling to close achievement gaps for decades, starting in 1992 with the launch of the Blue Ribbon Task Force to address racial inequities.
That effort kicked off a host of programs designed to help minority students, but former school board member Greg McElveen, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP’s Education Committee, noted that 24 years later, those gaps remain.
“The results have been woefully lacking,” he said. “We’re not saying that people don’t care, just that all these activities have been insufficient.”
Members of the campaign, and many at Saturday’s forum, say prior efforts failed to address the root of the problem, namely a public school system founded on an antiquated model focused solely on the success of white students.
They say the culture of the school district needs to be overhauled so that students, teachers, and staff are taught to consider race in a historical context and to examine how implicit biases impact individuals and institutions.
But some, including Stephanie Perry of Organizing Against Racism, say top officials are dragging their feet.
“We need real commitment from our superintendent and our assistant superintendent that they are committed to equity, and we haven’t gotten that commitment from them,” said Perry. “We’re really excited about our school board. They’ve been meeting with us and interested in our report.
Perry says the effort to improve racial equity also has “buy-in from teachers and principals working inside the school system that are experiencing what we’re talking about who just can’t come out and say it for themselves.”
Several attendees expressed hope that the current school board, with a majority of new members, would bring fresh energy and focus to the issue.
James Barrett is the chair of the Board of Education. He and five of his fellow board members were on hand for Saturday’s discussion.
“I think we all acknowledge that results are not what we want them to be,” said Barrett. “I have a lot of confidence in the work that we’ve started, but we’re not there yet. We have to keep down the path.”
Administrators are working to develop new strategies to improve racial equity, and closing achievement gaps is one of the main goals in the the district’s five-year long-range plan. Barrett says school officials are still figuring out exactly what that plan will look like and how it will be implemented.
“It’s something I believe that the entire board is committed to doing, and I think that the administration is committed to doing as well,” he said.
When asked what true equity in schools might look like, Phillips Middle School Principal Tomeka Ward-Satterfield said, “We get there by genuinely wanting everybody’s child to do as well as ours.” She said too often parents press for funding or programs that are “what’s good for my child, to the exclusion of someone else’s.”
Community activist and school system employee Braxton Foushee agreed: “If poor districts can do better with less money for their kids, we can do the same.”
Organizers of Saturday’s forum say they will study the feedback from participants as they plan the next steps in the campaign, but their key takeaway is that the community needs to lobby district leaders to take action on an equity plan more broadly focused on culture change.
“What you said is that you want the leadership in the district to be accountable,” NAACP Education Committee member Anna Richards told the audience. “I turn that back to all of us in the room and say, that’s our job. If we’re not satisfied, we need to make sure they understand that it’s not O.K.”
At East on Thursday
About 100 students at East Chapel Hill High School will gather Thursday to celebrate the school’s diversity and to engage in activities and conversation about how to make East a more welcoming and inclusive place for all of our students. In the morning, students will attend breakout sessions presented by guest speakers on topics including the effects of institutionalized racism, LGBT issues, immigrant and refugee experiences, disability awareness, religious plurality and the impact of poverty and wealth disparities. At lunch, students will share what they learned at their respective breakout sessions and then spend the rest of the afternoon formulating a mission statement and action plan to carry the work of the summit into the next school year and beyond.