Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is the best school district in the state and ranks in the top 2 percent in the country in terms of students who graduate ready for college and careers, according to the data-analysis website Niche.
On the other hand, CHCCS also has the second-largest achievement gap between black and white students in the U.S., according to a study by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. If you isolate black students, CHCCS ranks forty-eighth in achievement in North Carolina.
“You cannot say that you are one of the best districts in the state when so many of your students are faring so poorly compared to even other districts,” says Peggy Nicholson, director of the Youth Social Justice Project with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
According to the Youth Social Justice Project’s 2019 racial equity report card, white CHCCS students were 2.9 times more likely to be considered college- and career-ready than black students. Black students, however, were 13.9 times more likely to receive a short-term suspension and 5.6 times more likely to be referred to a juvenile delinquency court than white students.
“Black and brown children are just as capable of learning, are just as intelligent as white children,” says Nicholson. “They don’t misbehave more frequently or more seriously. It’s not about the individual children. It’s about the way the system is responding to those children, and it is perpetuating the long history of racism.”
Racial inequity will be a key issue next week as voters select candidates for the four open seats on the Board of Education. Seven names will appear on Tuesday’s ballot—though one candidate, Louis Tortora, has dropped out—including incumbent Rani Dasi and former school board member Andrew Davidson.
Three current board members will step down when their terms expire this year.
Often, racial achievement gaps are chalked up to funding gaps. But CCHCS schools are well-funded across the board. The district per-pupil expenditure is nearly $3,000 above the state average.
“What we are dealing with is a structure that’s doing exactly what it was designed to do, to promote a white-male-dominated society,” says CHCCS executive director of equity and inclusion Lee Williams.
Wanda Hunter, who co-chairs the Chapel Hill NAACP Education Committee, says the racial inequities present in the schools reflect a deeper culture.
She compares the school system to a lake with hundreds of fish floating belly-up. By talking about the achievement gap and instituting programs for black students, schools are trying to fix the fish, not the poisoned water.
Instead, she says, the school board needs to look at how structural racism is affecting systems.
“I hope that the new board and administration will take this problem as seriously as it is because we are wasting huge human potential by not giving our children the opportunities they need,” Hunter says.
She also blames the culture of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which she says feeds the school system’s inequities. Both towns are largely affluent, politically progressive, and highly educated.
But when a community prioritizes its own needs, equity can get thrown to the side. And a majority of CHCCS’s 12,269 students in the 2017–18 school year—51.3 percent—were white, while 16 percent were Hispanic American, 14 percent Asian American, and 11 percent black.
To address the achievement gap, the school board has considered changing the discipline process to be more restorative in nature and recognize implicit bias, shifting the curriculum to do away with what Williams calls “whitewashed history,” and boosting minority teacher representation. (In 2017–18, 74 percent of the district’s teachers were white.)
“When students don’t feel or see themselves being represented, they become disinterested in education, and then you look at that as, ‘Well, you don’t care, they aren’t engaged,’” Williams says.
Each of the five candidates who responded to the INDY’s candidate questionnaire called racial inequity a focus of their campaign.
Dasi says that adding and retaining teachers of color, fostering a more welcoming atmosphere for students of color, and garnering community support for addressing issues of race are integral parts of her campaign. She also agrees that the curriculum needs to be more culturally inclusive.
Davidson focuses on the punishment system, saying that out-of-school suspensions should be eliminated under all circumstances except for bringing a gun to campus.
Ashton Powell says he wants to create structures for diverse communities to be a part of decision-making processes as well as for the district to teach culturally relevant classes.
Saying he’s running to “ensure representation for those most adversely impacted by our achievement gap,” Deon Temme wants to focus on the recognition of implicit bias, which leads teachers to have different expectations of some children.
Jillian La Serna says that building strong, transparent relationships with the community is also crucial.
It’s not just schools that need to be educated about the achievement gap, Williams says. So, too, do parents and the community as a whole.
“The strongest voices we have are those of our students,” he says. “We don’t empower students’ voices, they have them, but as adults, we need to make sure we listen.”
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