Josh Shaffer

Novelist Clyde Edgerton banned from New Hanover County schools

Tar Heel author Clyde Edgerton read from several of his works at the Harnett County Library.
Tar Heel author Clyde Edgerton read from several of his works at the Harnett County Library. Candice Cusic

As a novelist, Clyde Edgerton is best-known for his loving and satirical take on the North Carolina backwoods, novels that get celebrated from Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books to the pages of The New York Times. He teaches creative writing at UNC-Wilmington, a star professor with an armful of awards.

But Edgerton, 72, is also a parent in real life. Two of his three children attend Forest Hills Elementary in Wilmington, and if matters go unchanged, he will not be allowed on campus to watch graduation next week without permission from the principal. As it stands, Edgerton is banned from all public schools in New Hanover County.

“I’m going to go to my son’s graduation,” he said Thursday. “I’m not going to bend on my knees to beg for something that’s rightfully mine.”

At issue here is the Spanish immersion program in Wilmington, a popular set of classes available only at Forest Hills. For a year, Edgerton has questioned the racial imbalance among students in the program, which to his eye so heavily favor white families that he filed a complaint in January with Assistant Superintendent Rick Holliday.

In it, he spelled out numbers for students in the kindergarten class: 37 white, two black and six Hispanic. He also included details of his May 2015 conversation with Principal Deborah Greenwood, who told him that kids in the Spanish program were selected according to an unwritten, first-come, first-served basis.

The principal, Edgerton wrote, “told me that minority students and parents who might not know about the Spanish Immersion programs should not be visited, in certain neighborhoods, with information about the program because of ‘safety issues.’ Additionally she told me that there was a rumor that some black parents did not want their children in Spanish Immersion because of Spanish gangs in Wilmington.”

Neither Greenwood nor schools spokeswoman Valita Quattlebaum returned calls Thursday.

The Star-News of Wilmington reported Sunday that white students make up 44 percent of the overall school population but account for 73 percent of students enrolled in the Spanish program. In its report, the newspaper detailed Edgerton and other parents’ frustration over lack of outreach to Wilmington’s minority community. Midway through the school year, Greenwood announced she would resign as principal effective the end of the school year, and the Spanish program has moved to another school. But Edgerton said the school system has never offered an explanation or publicly owned up to discrimination.

“It was never even acknowledged,” he said. A more suitable way to resolve the issue, he said, would be to put out a notice informing parents who never got information about the Spanish program.

Last month, Edgerton got a letter from Superintendent Tim Markley, giving him notice of his school ban. In it, he noted a parent’s concern that Edgerton may have illegally gotten hold of data about children enrolled in the Spanish program. Edgerton says that’s untrue.

“I’ve never seen a student record that was not my own child’s,” he said. “There was a list (the school system) knew I had that had a phone number on it. I called a parent, and she got upset about how I would see her child’s record. But I didn’t. I saw a phone number.”

To go to Forest Hills for graduation next week, he said, he would need permission from the principal. “The principal is not communicating,” he said.

Edgerton, a 2016 inductee into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame, is a native of Bethesda in Durham County. His novels include “Raney,” “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller.” He said he tried for months to resolve the situation with the Spanish program internally without the problems being aired in public.

North Carolina writers Clyde Edgerton, left, and Bland Simpson sing a song about cuts to public education funding at a gathering of writers Saturday at the state Capitol in Raleigh, NC to protest Republican policies.