A group of advocates for Smithfield-Selma High School is threatening legal action if school leaders do not address its concerns.
The group, which recently changed its name to Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools, says Johnston County has allowed its school system to become divided along lines of race and wealth.
“We’ve seen a re-segregation in our Smithfield and Selma schools, and this has been going on for too long,” said Susan Lassiter, the group’s chairwoman. “The future of our communities rests on change, and our students can’t afford to wait.”
Lassiter outlined her group’s research and recommendations in a presentation last week to the Selma Town Council. The group’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears, Lassiter said, and the next step will have CCSS working with the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights to find legal remedies.
The group formed three years ago as the Citizens Study Commission, Lassiter said, and it brought together parents, educators, elected officials, civic leaders and businesspeople.
Looking at SSS, which had once been Johnston’s flagship high school, Lassiter said the group set out to answer a few tough questions: Why are test scores so low? Why has student performance declined so badly? Where has the school spirit gone?
CCSS has held monthly meetings since 2012, and it has worked with Johnston County Schools and the school board along the way. While school leaders have supported CCSS’s research, Lassiter said they have proven less interested in the conclusions the group has drawn.
The answer to the group’s questions about SSS was poverty.
SSS has a high level of poverty compared to other county high schools, Lassiter said, and the trend continues to move in the wrong direction. In the 2011-12 school year, 55 percent of SSS students received free or reduced-priced lunch. Two years later, that number had jumped to 67 percent. That’s 18 percentage points above South Johnston High School, which had the second-highest rate at 49 percent.
Citing research from the UNC Civil Rights Center, Lassiter said high-poverty schools depress the academic achievement of the students who attend them. That’s partly because poor schools have difficulty attracting quality teachers, struggle to retain the good instructors and see high levels of turnover, she said.
The solution is to balance the poverty levels among the county’s schools, but Lassiter said that idea has gotten CCSS nowhere.
“On several occasions, we’ve been warned not to advocate for revised attendance boundaries,” Lassiter said. “We were told this wouldn’t be done.”
Instead of spreading students out, Lassiter said the county simply builds new schools in richer areas, such as the Cleveland, Flowers Plantation, Corinth-Holders and McGee’s Crossroads communities. And the county builds new schools instead of busing, she said, despite the fact many of the poorer schools have plenty of extra room.
“Achieving socioeconomic balance hasn’t been considered, and that’s why we’re so lopsided and out of step with the other schools,” she said.
Mayor Cheryl Oliver thanked Lassiter for her clear and concise message, and she advised civic groups and other organizations to invite Lassiter to speak at one of their meetings.
“We’d like to bring people along with us in that discussion about our schools,” Oliver said. “It’s an important discussion, and it is critical to our present and our future.”