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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5 replies on “Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Is North Carolina’s Best School District—But Not So Much If You’re Black”

  1. Unfortunately, average achievement gaps among groups appear to be here to stay! And racial gaps persist at all family income levels For example, see https://lesacreduprintemps1……

    The resistance of average performance on tests of reading writing and arithmetic to change has been well documented. For example, data for a recent 30-year period indicate the stability of average performance–for all students as well as students classified by race/ethnicity– on an internationally recognized test (the SAT). The table below, shows SAT Critical Reading averages for selected years.
    Note. Data for Asian-Americans indicate that they’re the only exception to that rule. Their average has improved steadily, and they’re now “leaders of the pack”.

    Table 1. SAT Critical Reading average, selected years
    1987 ’97 2001 ’06 ’11 ’15 ’16
    507 505 506 503 497 495 494 All students
    524 526 529 527 528 529 528 White
    479 496 501 510 517 525 529 Asian
    …………………………… . ……436 Hispanic
    457 451 451 454 451 448 Mex-Am
    436 454 457 459 452 448 Puerto R
    464 466 460 458 451 449 Oth Hisp
    471 475 481 487 484 481 447 Amer Ind
    428 434 433 434 428 431 430 Black
    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
    Statistics.(2012).Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001), Chapter 2.
    SAT averages for college-bound seniors,by race/ethnicity: Selected years,
    1986-87 through 2010–11 Data for 2015&2016
    2016 data were not provided for Hispanic subgroups.

    If SAT averages haven’t changed materially over at least three decades, despite the effort, time and money expended to improve educational programs for all students, it seems reasonable to assume that we shouldn’t expect any meaningful change in average performance in the foreseeable future. There are some things that more funding can’t buy–an unpleasant truth that can’t be openly acknowledged. But we can stop emphasizing “going to college” and offer school programs that emphasize being all you can be.

  2. Does this same gap appear in 3rd grade testing? Do the schools help close gaps or exacerbate them? E.g., how does gap in 3rd compare to 12th?

  3. “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. Interesting comment. Would like to hear more and get some context. Right now the students excelling in the structure are not white males. In the district and across the nation, a lot are Asian and female. Also, would like more context for discipline numbers. Are students who are repeat offenders counted in the number for each offense? Would love to the article to have interviewed AA students and get their take on things. They are living the experience.

  4. To
    Are AA students also over represented in special needs categories ? Can you provide data on that and the representation of students and performance by SES category?

  5. I know how difficult it can be keeping kids focused and on track as a parent. That is, as I’ve experienced it, the most important element in ensuring academic success. Much of the achievement at school is a result of focus at home. If some kids aren’t measuring up, regardless of race or color I would look at that dimension. Maybe the answer is as simple as a little after-school help, and not all of this racialist mumbo-jumbo – none of which sounds convincing.

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