Educating Asheville

In a rare joint session, Asheville City Council and the Asheville City Board of Education met Feb. 10 to consider the achievement gap, mutual priorities and the thornier social issues that complicate both agencies’ jobs.

They gathered in the school system’s boardroom, the snow outside having closed the schools earlier that day. Members of both governing bodies said they want to start working together more closely.

After hearing presentations on the disparity in test scores between students of different economic classes and races, new school construction and the search for a new superintendent (the system has already received 100 applications), the officials present had an open discussion about some of the challenges they face.

According to the school system's analysis, the achievement gap, which varies widely by individual school and area, remains a major concern. In the 2011-12 school year, for example, 94.3 percent of white third-graders were considered “proficient” (based on reading and math tests), versus just 33.8 percent of black students. Administrators are pushing for more early learning programs and teachers assistants at that grade level to help close the gap.

But board member Leah Ferguson pointed out that although administrators generally take responsibility for the gap and look for ways to address it, many key factors are beyond their control. Systemic racism, the lack of economic opportunity in Asheville, and varying levels of community support for students all play major roles in the achievement gap, she asserted.

Mayor Esther Manheimer agreed, saying that in Asheville, 18 percent of the African-American population is in public housing, compared to a 3 percent average statewide. Manheimer added that she hopes to work with the Asheville Housing Authority to “disband pockets of poverty.”

Assistant Superintendent Kelvin Cyrus, however, noted that his son, a minority student, is excelling nonetheless. The gap, he said, is often “about deeper issues than race,” including poverty and the perspectives of teachers dealing with diverse populations.

Board Chair Jacquelyn Hallum said Cyrus’ son is fortunate to have two highly educated parents, whereas many students at the wrong end of the achievement gap live in the city's “poverty reservations”: hard-hit areas where a lack of literacy and even basic nutrition can affect students’ progress. Hallum said she's seen homes where parents didn't even have a pen to sign a field trip permission slip.

“Sometimes race matters; sometimes place matters,” Hallum told Council and her fellow board members.

Interim Superintendent Bobbie Short said Asheville's teachers are doing “an amazing job” despite very difficult situations, such as the student who came to class bandaged due to injuries from a knife attack.

“Teachers and staff have been so beat up over the past few years,” observed Peggy Dalman, the school board’s vice chair, suggesting that more Council recognition of outstanding teachers and other educators could help with morale.

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who said during City Council's recent retreat that concentrated poverty and the achievement gap are two of the biggest challenges facing Asheville, reiterated that belief. And though he didn't give specifics, Hunt urged the school board to take “courageous steps” despite potential opposition from parents, administrators and other staff.

Board member Precious Folston said that in her experience, programs encouraging parents to work closely with their children on completing schoolwork are particularly effective.

Cyrus, meanwhile, said affordable housing and more job opportunities are essential for attracting and retaining talented teachers. Asheville’s cost of living and difficult job market can make it hard to make ends meet on a teacher's salary and for their spouses to find work.

“We'll try to make the quality of life the best we can,” replied Council member Jan Davis, after which the meeting adjourned and the assembled luminaries made their way home through the snow.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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