Wake County school forum to address academic, discipline gaps

Facing criticism from some community groups, Wake County school leaders will hold a forum in Southeast Raleigh Monday to discuss how black students are, on average, lagging behind white students in academic performance.

In addition, the forum will address the higher likelihood that black students will be suspended and arrested.

During the forum, school administrators will talk about their efforts to eliminate gaps in academic achievement, the dropout rate, student suspensions and court cases referred by school resource officers. The forum is at 6:30 p.m. at Southeast Raleigh High School, 2600 Rock Quarry Road.

The school system hopes to get feedback and support for addressing the challenges that are leaving some black students behind. The Rev. Marion Robinson, a founder of the Flood Group, which is helping to co-sponsor the forum, said the school system can’t close the gaps by itself.

Facing racial barriers

“Unless you have structure and discipline you can’t accomplish anything,” Robinson said. “The homes are going to have a play a part. The church is going to have to play a part.”

But some community groups say the Wake school system hasn’t been doing enough to reduce the disparities impacting black students.

“For several years we have anticipated that the Wake County Public School System and the Board of Education would eliminate the ongoing disparities and racial barriers that black children face,” said Calla Wright, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens For African American Children. “This has not been the case.

“The steps that the Board of Education have taken to eliminate racial disparities and barriers regarding the suspension and student arrest have proven to be highly ineffective.”

Wright, a mother of a student at Enloe High School in Raleigh and a former Wake teacher, has been lobbying the school district since July for a range of data. Some of the data will be presented Monday. But Wright is still waiting for information on areas such as in-school suspensions and the number of students who are not promoted.

Robinson and Marvin Connelly, Wake’s chief of staff and strategic planning, denied that the forum was being held because of Wright’s public-information request. They said they wanted to hold the meeting to get as many community groups together as possible to share the information about gaps and disparities.

Connelly said the forum will be split into two portions. One section will talk about academic achievement and dropout rates and the other on suspensions and court referrals. After each presentation, the public will sit in small groups to discuss what they’ve heard.

The academic portion will include statistics such as the 42.7 percent of Wake’s black students who passed state exams this past school year. That compares to 66.8 percent passing for all students and 81.8 percent for white students.

Efforts to change

A new state report shows that black students accounted for 38 percent of Wake’s high school dropouts during the 2014-15 school year, the most of any group.

School officials can point to programs to address the gaps such as the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, which lists the services that schools will provide to students to meet their needs.

Wake also has in recent years created a program called the Elementary Support Model to provide additional services to 12 elementary schools that have low test scores. Many of those schools have a high number of black students.

But school board member Keith Sutton, whose district includes a large number of African-American families, said Wake should do more to close the racial achievement gap.

“We continue to see African-American boys and African-American girls being disproportionately impacted by many of the measures we’re looking at,” Sutton said. “It will take direct and intentional work by the board to provide staff direction and guidance.”

Sutton said Wake should look at programs used around the country that have had success with African-American students. He also suggested boosting mentoring and literacy programs that target African-American students.

One area that has also drawn scrutiny is that black students are suspended and arrested at a higher rate than their share of the enrollment.

A recently released report showed that black students accounted for 63 percent of Wake’s suspensions last school year while making up 24 percent of the enrollment.

Another new report shows that Wake’s black students received 69 percent of the referrals that school resource officers made to the court system. The report also showed that black students were 1.7 times more likely than white students to be arrested in Wake for fighting and theft.

Wake has changed discipline policies in the last six years to encourage more alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, such as restorative justice programs and the addition of seats at alternative schools. There’s been a 34 percent reduction in total out-of-school suspensions in the past five years.

‘It’s very difficult’

Wake is also about to start a new program in which students who are between 16 and 18 years old who are accused of committing nonviolent misdemeanors at school would be diverted from adult criminal court to alternatives such as Teen Court and mediation.

But Sutton said the number of alternative school seats hasn’t kept pace with Wake’s student growth.

Sutton and Wright of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens For African American Children have clashed over the past few years. But both agree that Wake should be more careful about involving law enforcement in school matters.

“Obviously you’ve got some issues such as firearms and drugs that will require law enforcement,” Sutton said. “But there may be other issues that don’t require involvement with law enforcement.

“Once they are involved, it’s very difficult to have that reduced or remove them from the situation.”

Wright acknowledges there’s been some progress made in areas such as reducing the number of suspensions. But she is skeptical of the school system’s timing for the meeting. All nine school board seats are up for election in November.

“We’re now at the end of the board’s election cycle and now they’re trying to address it,” Wright said. “By now they should have been able to reduce the suspension and retention rate by at least 50 percent.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui