Numbers don’t lie, but sometimes they can break your heart.
Seated at long tables facing one another, Board of Education and City Council members confronted their shared heartbreak and responsibility for the Asheville City Schools’ failure to adequately serve its African-American students. At the unusual joint meeting, held on Jan. 22 at Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer’s request, the district revealed that the disparity in the academic achievement of its black students compared to white students — already the worst in the state — has only grown larger since the district launched a new equity initiative in 2017, designed to narrow the gap.
The last time City Council held a joint meeting with members of the school board was Oct. 2, 2012. Council appoints representatives to the board, who serve four-year terms, but otherwise exercises no oversight of the system.
“Our data tells us that we are doing a disservice to our black students, and you can’t say it any plainer than that,” said Shaunda Sandford, chair of the school board.
Presentations by Asheville City Schools staff were punctuated by stark statements from black leaders who’ve battled the problem for years.
“I spent eight years on the city school board. I’ve had five generations of my family coming through the school system. But what’s appalling to me when I look at these numbers, they don’t get any better,” said Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides. “At some point in time we’ve got to realize: It ain’t working.”
Statistics showing huge disparities in discipline rates and academic achievement between white and black students, Whitesides maintained, can’t be blamed on a lack of resources. “When you think that we have the second-highest funded school district in the state, and this is the results we get? As a taxpayer, I don’t like it. As an African-American man, I’m more than ticked off,” he said. An ACS spokesperson confirmed that in 2016-17, local taxpayers’ per-pupil contributions were the second-largest in the state; taking into account federal, state and local funds, the district had the 14th-highest per-pupil spending of North Carolina’s 115 school districts.
Meeting attendees and participants alike agreed on who isn’t to blame for the dismal statistics: Asheville City Schools students. “Our kids are not broken. Our kids are perfectly perfect,” said Melissa Hedt, executive director of teaching and learning. The disparities, she continued, result from a broken system. “We are going to fix the system and realign it to work for all of our students,” she said.
Disparities in discipline
While African-American students make up 25 percent of the school district’s population, 64 percent of its disciplinary referrals went to black students in the 2017-18 school year, according to data presented by Eric Howard, director of student support services.
The district is looking at policy changes and teacher training as strategies to ensure that bias is not a factor in imposing discipline, Howard said. He alluded to the larger implications of school discipline — “We all know there’s the school-to-prison pipeline language” — and suggested that a larger community effort that addresses students’ needs outside of school will be necessary to stem the flow of young black men into involvement with the criminal justice system and incarceration.
Council member Keith Young, who has a child in the city’s system, said that he frequently sees students facing criminal charges stemming from disruptive incidents in the classroom or elsewhere on school campuses in his work as a deputy clerk for the Buncombe County Superior Court. Mentioning a recent case involving a student who ran across a classroom and yelled at a teacher that was ultimately dismissed, Young remarked, “What that does is it leaves that kid with a record for the rest of their life unless they get it expunged.”
Council member Julie Mayfield expressed the hope that the school system will share more details about the disciplinary numbers. For example, she said, knowing whether the incidents “were dealing with mostly minor things or mostly major things” would shed additional light on the situation. Understanding whether a small percentage of students accounts for an unusually high number of referrals would also help, she said.
“As you can imagine, some of our students are experiencing a lot of different kinds of trauma in their lives,” responded Hedt. “I would love to see some follow-up, including a deep dive into those referrals and the [Department of Juvenile Justice], so that we can go a little more in-depth than we’re able to do today.”
It’s about race
Dana Ayres, the district’s chief academic officer, briefed Council members on a new state designation, Targeted School Improvement. Except for Asheville High School and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences, all schools in the city district were designated as TSI schools this fall, indicating that “all of these schools are having deficiencies with specific subgroups,” she said.
In addition to black students, other subgroups with significant disparities in academic achievement in the city’s elementary and middle schools include students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners.
About half of North Carolina’s public schools are on the TSI watch list for the current academic year, including many Buncombe County public schools.
Although multiple subgroups perform lower than the Asheville City Schools average, Hedt said, the gap between black and white students is the largest in the district. In the past, she said, “There was a bit of a reluctance to talk about race, as I think there is in the community overall in Asheville.”
But in 2015, when the district topped the Youth Justice Project’s list of North Carolina school systems with the largest racial disparities in academic performance and discipline, Hedt said, ACS staff undertook extensive data analysis. Even after correcting for the impact of living in poverty, she said, race is the most important contributing factor to disparities in Asheville City Schools.
City staff reviewed programs that provide support to disadvantaged students and their families, including the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy, affordable housing, recreation, after-school programs, school resource officers and crossing guards.
From gap to gulf
By the time school district staff got around to addressing recent data showing the difference between the results of academic testing for black and white students, little time remained in the two-hour meeting.
“I think you have that in your packets that you can look at at your leisure,” Hedt told the officials, who had received folders of material at their seats at the table. Other meeting attendees, however — some 40 or 50 community members, including leaders like Gene Bell, CEO of the Asheville Housing Authority — didn’t have access to the information. Xpress obtained the data, now available online here and below.
While the results vary among years, grades and schools, they generally indicate a worsening academic achievement gap between black and white students from 2014-18.
For example, at Asheville High School in 2014, 28 percent of black students received grades of “proficient” or higher on end-of-course tests in English II versus 84 percent of white students, a gap of 56 points. By 2018, 18 percent of black students were proficient versus 89 percent of white students, a gap of 71 points. Gaps in Math I and biology also increased.
Over the same period, some elementary schools made progress in reducing racial achievement gaps in English, math and biology in grades three, four and five. However, those gaps remained large overall and grew in many cases.
The conversation about black achievement shouldn’t be given short shrift, said retired UNC Asheville professor and State of Black Asheville founder Dwight Mullen. “Why do we have 70- and 80-point differences between the performances of black and white students? Those things are not to be glossed over,” he said.
Despite the dire news, Mullen suggested that the common understanding shown at the Jan. 22 meeting could mark a turning point for the school system. “We’ve never had this conversation in Asheville. This has never happened,” said Mullen. “I’ve had this conversation among black folk in Asheville, talking about the point disparity,” he added, but not in the broader community.
Mullen cautioned against putting too much faith in any single solution. Teaching all students in multi-level classes (the approach advocated by the district’s ICS Equity initiative) will not automatically lead to improved academic performance among minority students, he said. “The idea that putting folk — even consciously and discussing race — putting them in the same classroom and expecting equitable outcomes, is something that is a complicated and very serious conversation to have,” Mullen warned.
Coordinating “services for housing, for justice, health care and the various initiatives that the principals are bringing forward” will be necessary for lasting change, he said.
“The fact that we’re not coordinating can be seen in the disparity gaps at the city,” he said.
The meeting ended with an agreement to make the coordination Mullen urged a reality. According to Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, City Council’s liaison to the school board, the next step will be for members of Council, the Board of Education and Asheville City Schools staff to plan a broader communitywide discussion and effort to address the disparities.
“We have to keep telling this story and saying, ‘This is unacceptable.’ And not just have a meeting and say it and everybody walks away and pats themselves on the back,” Wisler said. “This is really a call to action to the community that the school system needs the community’s help with battling this very significant problem.”
After the meeting, Young said he isn’t sure what it would take to “beat back this monster” of the achievement gap.
“I don’t know the answer to that, and that is scary,” Young said. “And the scarier part is that we’re the worst in the state at what we’re doing. The second-highest funded district in the state, and we’re the worst in all these numbers.
“The first step is to make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing, we’re all on the same page, and that the ultimate goal is, as [City Manager Debra Campbell] said, to help the whole child,” he continued. “It’s always been beyond the school system, but we’re now approaching it that way.”
Young said he looks to “brighter minds,” including Mullen and others, “who will come to the table and add their special something to the pot to make this what it should be. I know that I’ll do everything I can policy-wise to make that happen.”