Asheville City Council, School Board confer on achievement gap, poverty, future plans

At a rare joint meeting yesterday evening Asheville City Council and the Asheville City School Board conferred on the achievement gap, mutual priorities, and the thornier social issues that complicate both their jobs.

The two governing bodies gathered in the board room of Asheville City Schools’ offices, with snow outside shutting down schools earlier that day. While a joint meeting like this isn’t typical, both school board and Council members said they want to start working together more closely.

After presentations on the achievement gap in test scores (and possible ways to address it), new school construction and the search for a new superintendent (the system’s already received 100 applications) the two governing bodies had an open discussion about some of their challenges.

According to the school system’s analysis, while the achievement gap between students of different economic classes and races vary widely by individual school and area, they remain a major concern. The 2011-12 gap, for example, between third grade white and black students considered basically “proficient,” (as judged by reading and math tests) was 60.5 percent. School system administrators are pushing for more early learning programs and teachers’ assistants in third grade to help close that gap.

But board member Leah Ferguson noted that while school administrators generally take responsibility for the gap and look for ways to improve educational practices, there are many larger factors beyond their control. She asserted that systemic racism, the lack of economic opportunity in Asheville and the level of support for students from the larger community all play a major role in the achievement gap.

Mayor Esther Manheimer sounded a similar note, observing that in Asheville 18 percent of the African-American population is in public housing, compared to a three percent average statewide. “We’ve been dealt a more skewed situation,” she said, than many other cities in the state, and she hopes to work with the Asheville Housing Authority to “disband pockets of poverty.”

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

Board Chair Jacquelyn Hallum responded that Cyrus’ son is fortunate to have two highly-educated parents, but many students at the wrong end of the achievement gap are in the city’s “poverty reservations;” hard-hit areas where a lack of literacy and even basic nutrition could affect a student’s progress. She 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 praised Asheville’s teachers as doing “an amazing job” facing very difficult situations, giving the example of a student who came into class bandaged due to injuries from a knife attack.

Vice Chair Peggy Dalman said that “teachers and staff have been so beat up over the past few years,” and suggested that more recognition from Council of outstanding teachers and the efforts of the city’s educators as a whole could help with morale.

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who said at Council’s recent retreat that he views concentrated poverty and the achievement gap as two of the biggest challenges facing the city, reiterated this and encouraged the school board to take “courageous steps.” Though he didn’t note specifics at the meeting, he added that they should not be afraid to change things in spite of possible opposition from parents, administration and staff.

Board member Precious Folston said that in her experience, programs that encourage parents to work closely with children on completing their schoolwork were vital to improving their education.

Cyrus also noted that affordable housing and more jobs were essential to attracting and retaining talented teachers to Asheville, as the cost of living can make it challenging to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary or for their spouses to find employment.

“We’ll try to make the quality of life the best we can,” Council member Jan Davis replied, before the meeting adjourned and Council members, the school board and educators made their way back home in the snow.

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