Education

Report: Johnston schools divided along race, income

In this photo from 2013, Smithfield-Selma High School students head to their buses.
In this photo from 2013, Smithfield-Selma High School students head to their buses. FILE PHOTO

Compared to their Johnston County counterparts, Smithfield-Selma schools struggle academically, have fewer experienced teachers and more low-income students. Also, more students transfer out of Smithfield-Selma schools, leaving behind a student body that has more minorities and more student suspensions than other Johnston schools.

That’s the takeaway from a report Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools compiled using data that it sued to obtain. The Johnston County schools eventually turned over the data to avoid a civil trial.

The report “provides further insight into the unequal educational opportunities afforded to students across Johnston County Schools,” the group said in an email to media outlets.

“We have socioeconomic and racial segregation in our schools,” said Susan Lassiter, the group’s chairwoman. “I would hope our leaders would want to support efforts to increase diversity in our schools. The students would certainly benefit.”

Lassiter’s group broke its report into sections: student demographics, testing data, teacher quality, student discipline, school-building construction and utilization, and student-transfer practices.

Demographics

In the 2015-16 school year, 56 percent of all Johnston County students were white, 22 were Hispanic and 16 were black. That same year, Smithfield-Selma schools looked nothing like Johnston County as a whole. Instead, just 21.93 percent of Smithfield-Selma students were white, while 45.04 percent were Hispanic and 29.19 percent were black.

Among the school system’s eight attendance areas, only Smithfield-Selma serves more minority students than white students. And Smithfield-Selma has seven of the 12 county schools were minorities outnumber whites. (Johnston has 40 schools in all.)

Across Johnston County, 47.27 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in the last two school years, according to the data.

But in Smithfield and Selma, no school had fewer than 65 percent of students eligible for free or-reduced prices lunches, and at three schools, more than 90 percent of students were eligible. The highest were Selma Elementary and West Smithfield Elementary, at more than 97 percent each.

Countywide, only five other schools saw more than 65 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. They were Benson Elementary, Benson Middle, Four Oaks Elementary, Corinth-Holders Elementary and Micro-Pine Level Elementary. Most of those schools are along the Interstate 95 corridor.

On the other end of the income spectrum, just 15.8 percent of students at Powhatan Elementary School in Clayton were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in the same school years.

Testing

In the 2014-15 school years, Johnston students in elementary and middle school performed slightly better than their peers statewide on year-end tests mandated by the state. That year, 58 percent of all Johnston students scored at or above grade level on those tests, compared to 56 percent of all North Carolina students.

The story in Smithfield-Selma schools was much different. Only Wilson’s Mills Elementary bested the state and county numbers, with 66 percent of students at or above grade level. Other Smithfield-Selma numbers: Selma Elementary, 39 percent at or above grade level; Selma Middle, 30 percent; Smithfield Middle, 45 percent; South Smithfield Elementary, 49 percent; and West Smithfield Elementary, 35 percent.

Elsewhere in Johnston, only three schools saw fewer than half of their students perform at or above grade level: Cooper Elementary, 48 percent; North Johnston Middle, 45 percent; and Benson Elementary, 45 percent.

The county’s best schools were Cleveland Middle, 78 percent at or above grade level, and Cleveland Elementary, 76 percent.

Johnston’s high schools told a similar tale. Countywide, 61 percent of high school students passed their end-of-course tests. But only 38 percent of Smithfield-Selma High School students did so. Compare that to Cleveland High School, 72 percent, or Corinth Holders High, 69 percent.

In all Johnston schools, test scores pretty much tracked income, with students in wealthier schools faring better than their low-income counterparts.

Johnston has long seen an achievement gap between white and minority students. But white students in low-income schools tend to perform worse than white students in wealthier schools. The pattern holds among minority students too.

Teachers

Teachers in Smithfield-Selma are generally less experienced than their Johnston County counterparts and are more likely to leave their schools, according to the data.

In the 2014-15 school year, seven Johnston County schools saw teacher turnover of 20 or more percent; four of those schools were in the Smithfield-Selma attendance area. Turnover was higher at Smithfield-Selma High, Selma Elementary and South Smithfield Elementary than at any other schools in the county.

Smithfield-Selma was also home to four of the seven schools where at least 30 percent of all teachers had three or fewer years of experience. At 48 percent, Polenta Elementary in the Cleveland High attendance area had the highest percentage of teachers with three or fewer years of experience.

At Smithfield-Selma High, 76 percent of teachers were state certified in the subjects they taught. Countywide, 90 percent of teachers were certified.

Discipline

In the 2011-12 school year, Smithfield-Selma had the second largest student enrollment among the county’s attendance areas. But it led the county in student suspensions, according to the data.

That school year, Corinth-Holders was the most populous attendance area, serving nearly 800 more students than Smithfield-Selma schools. But Corinth-Holders schools had 302 fewer in-school suspensions and 157 fewer out-of-school suspensions than Smithfield-Selma.

But geography had less to do with suspensions than race, according to the data.

“Student discipline is not simply more frequent in the Smithfield-Selma area; it is also disproportionately used to punish African American students,” said the report from Lassiter’s group.

Black students are disproportionately punished at every Smithfield-Selma school and at all but five schools countywide, according to the data, which came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The 2011-12 school year was the most recent for which numbers were available.

While black students made up just 26.8 percent of all students at Wilson’s Mills Elementary, for example, they accounted for 75 percent of all out-of-school suspensions that school year.

Building use

Many Johnston County schools have more classrooms than students. Among them are South Smithfield Elementary, which was at 68.6 percent of capacity in the 2015-16 school year; Powhatan Elementary, 65.4 percent of capacity; and Benson Middle, 70.4 percent.

But other Johnston schools are crowded. In 2015-16, schools in the Corinth-Holders attendance area were at 146 percent of capacity. Schools in the Cleveland community were at 128 percent.

But in Smithfield-Selma, only one school, Selma Elementary, had more students than capacity in 2015-16. It had an extra 72 students. The rest of Smithfield-Selma schools had room to grow by as many as 235 students.

Student transfers

Lassiter’s group says the county’s student-transfer policy has contributed to the high concentration of minority students in Smithfield-Selma schools.

More students transfer out of Smithfield-Selma High School than out of any other school in Johnston County, according to the data.

The school system says it stopped tracking the race of student transfers in 2005, but the demographics of Smithfield-Selma High School suggest that more transfers are white than minority.

Since 2005, according to CCSS report data from the school system, Smithfield-Selma schools have accounted for one of every five student transfers in Johnston. Before 2010, the data showed that whites made up “the vast majority” of students leaving Smithfield-Selma schools, according to Lassiter’s group.

In 2007-08, white students accounted for 82.8 percent of all transfers out of Smithfield-Selma schools, though whites made up just 33.7 percent of Smithfield-Selma students. In other years from 2004 to 2010, whites made up anywhere from 77 to 85 percent of transfers.

Even without tracking race, Smithfield-Selma schools still are losing more students than any other attendance area. Since 2004, schools in the attendance area have granted no fewer than 431 transfers in a school year, and they have granted as many as 592.

Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett

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