Step into any Asheville City Schools classroom, and chances are you can guess students’ academic proficiency simply by looking at the color of their skin.
The achievement gap between black and white students isn’t unique to Asheville, but the painful truth is that it’s worse here than in any of the state’s 114 other school districts. According to the Youth Justice Project, an arm of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Asheville City Schools have the biggest disparity between white and black students’ academic proficiency of any district in the state. Regardless of economic status, about 80 percent of the system’s white students achieve grade-level proficiency; less than 30 percent of black students meet the same benchmark. The Durham-based organization reached that conclusion by analyzing data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“This is not a new problem,” notes outgoing Board of Education Chair Peggy Dalman. “We’ve known about it and tried to make progress on it for years. But the truth is, it hasn’t worked.”
Frustration over the district’s failure to budge the needle in reducing the disparity sent Superintendent Pamela Baldwin on a hunt for new approaches. After what she says was an exhaustive search, Baldwin found a program called Integrated Comprehensive Strategies for Equity, headed by professors Elise Frattura and Colleen Capper of the University of Wisconsin. The two women are working with over 200 school systems across the country in an effort to eliminate systemic inequities that perpetuate societal patterns of oppression and disadvantage.
“ICS, right now, is the only system we can find in this nation that actually addresses the specific components of an educational system to address the gaps and needs of children and teachers in our community,” Baldwin told school board members during a Jan. 19 planning retreat. The University of Wisconsin, she continued, “is right now the hub of racial equity work.”
“This is not a new initiative,” stresses Baldwin. “The addition of ICS is the next step in our strategies to address the needs of all students.”
The program is relatively new, raising questions about its long-term effectiveness. But the short-term results have been impressive, with significant gains in both achievement and graduation rates.
And at the school board retreat, Baldwin emphatically supported the initiative. “What I have heard the whole time is ‘Is this just the flavor of the month?’ I say, racial equity is not ‘another thing’: It is the only thing. … Good teaching strategies, relationships, caring about children, giving them what they need for support is … about being a great school district. In our district, it happens to be an issue based on race.”
Searching for solutions
Last November, a group of leaders from the Asheville City Schools met with Frattura and Capper for a half-day session. Out of that first contact emerged plans for the three-day training and planning session the system hosted March 1-3. About 150 teachers, principals, district staff, parents and other community members convened at the Mission Health Conference Center on the A-B Tech campus to kick off a districtwide initiative.
The effort comes at an awkward time for the city schools, however. Baldwin is leaving this month to become superintendent of the 12,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. In addition, three new school board members — a voting majority — will be sworn in April 3 and will help choose Baldwin’s replacement. The new superintendent will oversee a process that’s expected to play out over a number of years and could ultimately lead to a major retooling of the system’s academic structure.
Baldwin, however, stresses that despite the change of leadership, “The teachers, staff, students, community, district and school leaders, and Board of Education believe in this work and understand that it takes everyone to move it forward.”
Launched in 2012 based on a model first proposed in 2004, Integrated Comprehensive Strategies for Equity aims to ferret out and eliminate institutional racism that Frattura and Capper say disproportionately places students of color in remedial or special education programs, creating lower expectations and reduced academic achievement.
The program’s website for client school districts provides some eye-opening statistics, though the names of the districts cited are changed to preserve confidentiality and keep them from getting inundated with phone calls.
A school that was one of the first in the nation to adopt the institute’s recommendations, in 2004, saw graduation rates for students with disabilities jump from 69 percent to 97 percent between 2004 and 2009, the website notes, while the rates for students without disabilities climbed from 85 percent to 97 percent. During the same period, average student American College Test scores increased from 21.7 to 23.4; scores on the test range from 1-36, and the national average score in 2014 was 20.
Another district, which began working with Frattura and Capper in 2011, also had dramatic results. By 2015, it had reduced the number of students identified as having a disability from 15 percent to 11 percent and cut the number of students bused out of the district for special behavioral services from 43 to 6. At the same time, the district made gains in reading proficiency that exceeded expectations across all student groups.
And a high school began implementing these practices in 2012 by “making more higher-level courses available to all students, increasing the number of students enrolling in at least one AP or honors course, and reducing the number of lower-level courses,” the website reports. And even as the courses were “leveled up” to higher academic standards, more students took the more challenging classes, and fewer students failed.
A broken system
The problem, Frattura argued at the conference, is rooted in the history of public education. “In any school district in this country, we’ve all done things that perpetuate discrimination,” she said on the first day. “The question is, why and how?”
Modeled on private schools for middle- and upper-class white boys, she explained, the U.S. public school system defined academic achievement using standards developed for those elite male students. And even as the country attempted to desegregate its schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ideas about what constitutes success remained fixed.
When some groups of students failed to meet those standards, Frattura continued, separate tracks were created. Over time, they’ve proliferated, producing a dizzying array of educational jargon: exceptional children, English language learners, tier two, tier three, alcohol and drug supports, alternative education, Title 1. This, in turn, has created educational environments in which a large percentage of the students may be categorized as needing some kind of specialized intervention. What’s more, those programs disproportionately target children of color and those experiencing poverty.
It isn’t clear what percentage of students in the city schools receive at least one intervention. About 18 percent of kids in the elementary grades receive tier two or three interventions, but that doesn’t include special education, gifted and many other pullout programs. Right now, the district can’t report those numbers accurately because of overlap among categories, says Melissa Hedt, the district’s K-12 teaching and learning coordinator. But that kind of analysis will be part of the equity audits planned for next year.
Institutional racism also shows up in other ways. “Black males are 70 percent more likely to get a referral [for discipline] than others,” April Dockery, Asheville Middle School’s principal, pointed out at the conference.
Frattura, meanwhile, noted, “We have a lot of programs to fix the kid. Our underlying assumption is that the child, not the system, is broken.” And specifically addressing the students in the audience, she added, “I want you to know: You are not broken. You never were, and you never will be.”
The push for racial balance
Asheville was slow to respond to Brown v. Board of Education. The city didn’t even attempt full integration until 1969, and shortly after classes began that August, a riot broke out, forcing the schools to close for a week.
By the late 1980s, some neighborhood elementary schools were enrolling a mix of black and white students, but others were still largely segregated. A federal court finally imposed a desegregation order that led the district to adopt a magnet-themed school choice framework in 1990.
The magnet system aims to create proportional representation among the city’s schools while giving families a say in which schools their children will attend, Hedt explains. But sometimes, those two goals can conflict. Until recently, she continues, enrollment policies “weren’t as clear as they should have been” and, in some instances, “weren’t implemented with fidelity.” Changes made since Baldwin was hired four years ago, says Hedt, have enhanced the district’s ability to use school assignments to help achieve racial balance.
Meanwhile, the federal court order is still in effect, and while parents can request specific schools, there’s no guarantee that those preferences will be honored.
Today, Frattura told conference participants, most schools focus on identifying student deficits — which simply doesn’t work. “It’s very clear to us that the more kids are removed from general ed, the further behind they get. If it was working, it would go the opposite way,” she pointed out.
An extensive body of research supports her contention. More than 100 studies conducted by various researchers over the last several decades have found that students labeled as having special needs do better academically in integrated settings, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. And a 2005 National Education Association resolution states, “The use of discriminatory academic tracking based on economic status, ethnicity, race or gender must be eliminated in all public school settings.”
Such labeling, Frattura maintained, creates a stigma, and figuring out which ability level they’ve been placed in takes kids “about 15 minutes in kindergarten.” Once a child has been placed in a remedial track, she continued, “They do not see themselves as successful learners.” Thus, their subsequent subpar performance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dockery has seen this at Asheville Middle School. “Students are aware,” she said. “They feel marginalized and put into silos.”
But not only does the child’s self-esteem take a big hit when singled out for intervention: Students also receive less effective instruction, said Frattura. “The kids that need the most cohesive instruction are often the kids that get the most fragmented instruction throughout the day,” she explained.
In addition, veteran Principal Shannon Baggett noted, “There seems to be a mindset among teachers, when students are pulled out and put into these different groups, that they’re going to be the magic bullet that’s going to solve all the problems.” Baggett will head the Montford North Star Academy, the district’s new middle school option, which will open at the former Randolph School campus on Montford Avenue in August.
Particularly at the elementary level, students in these tracks are frequently removed from class to receive interventions by a changing cast of specialists. These include speech and language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, English language and reading instructors, and volunteer tutors. Their packed schedules, and the fact that some rotate among multiple schools, make it hard for these staffers to coordinate their efforts to achieve optimum results.
Local experience bears this out: “The children that are the most needy are pulled out the most times over the day,” noted Principal Cynthia Sellinger of Hall Fletcher Elementary.
The resulting disruption has a negative effect on all students, Frattura asserts. How the new approach will address these issues isn’t clear yet, however, and none of the local school personnel who spoke on the district’s plans gave specific examples.
Accentuate the positive
Another trap schools fall into, said Capper, is thinking that society must first solve poverty before addressing student achievement issues. She led conference attendees through an exercise that identified — and then rejected — attitudes about students and families experiencing poverty. Schools, asserted Capper, can’t afford to wait until poverty is eliminated because they’re part of the cycle that perpetuates it.
The solution, she maintained, is “having high expectations” and recognizing the strengths and skills “these kids bring to school: what they do know how to do.” That includes things like being resourceful, being committed to their family unit, overcoming a wide variety of challenges, valuing education as a path out of poverty, being hardworking and having, on average, the same intelligence as students with higher socio-economic status. Research, she noted, shows that with a proactive education that builds on assets rather than focusing on identifying deficits, all kinds of students can achieve success. When instructional resources are focused on the main classroom, eliminating the distractions that come with moving students in and out during the day, all children’s performance improves.
The Asheville City Schools, Hedt points out, have already taken some steps toward addressing the issues created by tracking. At Asheville Middle School, she says, math courses have been “leveled up” over the last couple of years, creating mixed-ability math classrooms serving all students.
During that same period, continues Hedt, “We’ve been working to increase access to our honors courses” at the high school level. At the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences Asheville, where all courses are at least honors-level, “There are 26 African-American students in the ninth-grade class; in the 12th grade, there are six. So you can see where the enrollment efforts have picked up,” Hedt told school board members during the January planning retreat. The hope is that reducing or eliminating separate tracks at the elementary level will lead to more minority representation in the honors and AP courses in high school.
Through students’ eyes
Besides students and faculty from the education department at Western Carolina University, conference participants included members of a group that’s rarely been consulted in such endeavors in the past: current pupils in the city schools. During those three days, about a dozen students drawn from the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council contributed on an equal footing with the adults. With a mix of races and genders, these students represented Asheville Middle School, Asheville High and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences.
Grant Everist, who’s white, is Asheville High’s student body president. In an interview the morning of the conference, he said that having been in the city system since preschool, “There’s no school system that I would have rather grown up in.”
Everist, however, acknowledged that some of his fellow students might not share that sentiment. “Once you get to Asheville High, there is huge inequity in terms of race in AP classes versus honors versus standard. I’ve taken a lot of [advanced placement courses]: Honestly, the majority haven’t had any minorities at all in them.”
Conversely, said Asheville High football player Andrew Leota, walk into a standard course, and you’ll see hardly any white people.
Leota, who moved to Asheville from the Pacific island nation of Samoa when he was 7, is on track to follow his older brother Pete — an Asheville High alum who’s now part of the University of South Carolina’s offensive line — to play college football.
“College is hard to get into these days,” Leota noted. “I see a lot of people trying to use sports as a platform to get into college.” But while Leota, who’s a junior this year, is juggling an impressive list of offers from Division I schools, he’s also thinking of life after football. “I’m planning on getting my pre-med and going into sports medicine,” he revealed.
Having these students at the conference, said Baldwin, was important because “When it starts to get hard, you turn and look at a child. You turn and look at a student in this room, and it starts to get easy again. It’s easy to do work for children that you love.”
No quick fix
“Three. Four. Five years,” Frattura said slowly. Undoing over 200 years of educational history and societal inequity, she stressed, takes time.
Frattura exhorted conference attendees to resist the temptation to go back to their schools and immediately start reconfiguring their classrooms. In districts that have moved too fast to implement equity initiatives, she said, schools have struggled. Unless both district staff and the community they serve have a chance to grasp the history that’s helped create the current problems that affect all students, Frattura maintained, such efforts are doomed to meet resistance and stall.
For the remainder of this school year, says Hedt, teams from the individual schools as well as one representing the district will be debriefing from the conference and figuring out ways to communicate these ideas to the community at large. In March, an additional training will be held for incoming school board members Joyce Brown, Patricia Griffin and James Lee.
During the 2017-18 school year, each city school will complete a detailed equity audit that will include test data, discipline statistics, staffing, policies and procedures. By this time next year, each school will have a plan for realigning its staff and other resources to better serve students.
Leading the way
“We know that we’ve created this culture where kids feel marginalized, and we don’t want that,” says Dockery. “So we are going to change the way we do things. We believe that every student is capable, and we are going to create a culture that recognizes that.”
Dockery hopes all members of the Asheville community, regardless of where they fall on the racial or economic spectrum, will get behind the effort so the energy can come “funneling in … to help us get these kids where they need to be. I have been working toward something like this for a very long time,” she says. “I know we have institutionalized racism; I know that most of us know that. We just don’t know how to undo it.”
Asked what the hardest part of facing up to the district’s problems has been, Dockery’s eyes fill with tears, and her voice begins to waver. “I want people to see that our kids are worth it.
“We are going to do something different, and it’s not going to be comfortable; it’s not going to be traditional. It’s going to be awkward. But we have to change the way we serve children,” Dockery maintains, “or we are not going to move in the direction we need to move. And our children — my children, your children, our city’s children — deserve better. Maybe we will be the example of what the nation should do.”